January 19, 2000

What's in a name?

In BR5-49's name, it's a joke - a real knee slapper.

It was borrowed from a routine on "Hee Haw," the country comedy and variety show that was on television for more than 20 years.

Junior Samples portrayed a dim-witted used car salesman trying to sell an old junker of an automobile.

He held a hand-lettered sign and would tell viewers to call that number: "BR-549." Then he'd give the car a backward kick.

That's it.

Funny? Yes it was, if you're into corn.

Does it work as the name of this band?

The band thought it would be a "total crack-up," Chuck Mead said.

By KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

BR5-49 is coming to Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater Saturday night at 8. That's a warning as well as an invitation.


Mountain Green has brought a variety of rhythms and excitement to Hagerstown over the years: There have been Cajun, Latin, West African and Celtic tunes.

But honky-tonk? Rockabilly? Never before. And not like this.

BR5-49's country music has been called retro, roots and revivalist, and it is all of these things. The good-time country quintet is as comfortable with an old Buck Owens tune or Jerry Lee Lewis hit as it is with its own clever compositions. And the group comes with some pretty powerful references.

After the 1996 release of its first studio album, "BR5-49," the group opened concerts for country stars, including George Jones, Marty Stuart, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Rock artists, including The Black Crowes and Nick Lowe, also called on them as an opening act.

Stuart gave a copy of that CD to Bob Dylan.

"Bob asked for us," says Chuck Mead, the band's lead vocalist and guitarist, of the quintet's 1997 tour with the folk icon. "He's the road dog. He doesn't have to be out there, and he is," he says. "Bob knows so much about country music."

Mead, 39, knows a little himself. His mother and her family had a radio show in the 1940s and '50s, playing some of the songs BR5-49 plays now. In the '70s, when Mead was about12, his family started up again and made him the drummer. He played snare drum in school growing up in Lawrence, Kan., the college-town home of University of Kansas. He saw a lot of great "acts" there - Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Angela Davis, Bob Marley and R.E.M.

"I saw R.E.M. for a dollar," Mead exclaims. He also caught Jason and the Scorchers, a band a National Public Radio Web page calls the "fathers of alternative country" music.

Shortly after they both arrived In Nashville, Tenn., early in 1993, Mead met Gary Bennett, who grew up in Washington. Bennett, a guitarist and singer, started leading a band at Robert's Western World, a bar and Western clothing store in downtown Nashville's Lower Broadway, around the corner from Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. Mead filled in one night, and he and Bennett liked singing together.

"Smilin' " Jay McDowell, playing guitar in another band, became an early fan, switched to upright bass and joined up.

Bennett had played with Don Herron in Portland, Ore., and Herron brought his steel guitar, mandolin, Dobro, fiddle and acoustic guitar to the group.

Mead called drummer "Hawk" Shaw Wilson, with whom he had played back in Kansas, and Wilson also traveled to Nashville.

In their early days at Robert's, band members would play five or six hours without leaving the stage. Never took a - let's say - bathroom break. They were playing for tips, and stopping could mean losing their crowd. They had no agent. "Nobody really took it seriously," Mead says. "We just kind of set up shop and started playing."

They didn't have a name. One night a truck-driver fan gave them $50 and told them to get a poster. Because Mead and Bennett had a kind of "singing duo vibe" going on, people thought they were brothers. So they thought of calling themselves "We Ain't Brothers." Instead they remembered the old Junior Samples used-car salesman joke from television's "Hee Haw."

"That would be a total crack-up," they decided, and BR5-49 was born.

The group's repertoire includes its versions of country standards. "The old stuff is the greatest," Mead says.

But BR5-49 always has done original music, take "Goodbye, Maria." Mead takes "the blame" for this sad but true story of a spurned husband's suicide.

"That's totally country," Mead says. The BR5-49 take on the tale is a jaunty little polka accompaniment - yes, polka - provided by Santiago Jimenez Jr.'s accordion.

What's down the road for BR5-49?

"We want to expand, Mead says. "Write better songs. Get to be better pickers," he explains. That's the whole point of what we're doing, he adds.

They've worked hard at it. 1999 was the first year they didn't travel to Europe. They made 11 or 12 trips across the Atlantic in 1996. They've played the Country Gold festival in Japan, before 40,000 Japanese people dressed up in cowboy clothes, according to Mead. "It's all fun," he says.

BR5-49 travels and sleeps on a "big ole bus," Mead drawls. They get a couple of hotel rooms for showers. Life on the road can be hard, but Mead says they never complain in front of the old timers.

"We got it dead easy," he admits.

BR5-49 recorded a live album recorded last summer. It will be released in March.

These road dogs have been home since November.

"I've worked long and hard to not have to work long and hard," Mead jokes.

He appreciates the time off.

"After a while you've got to sit back and see what you've done," Mead says. The quintet recently received its third Grammy nomination, this time for "Honky Tonk Song," on the "Happy,Texas" movie soundtrack.

The BR5-49 show is on the road again, and these "way too cool" boys will stop here Saturday night.

Get ready to party.

The Herald-Mail Articles