The winning number

“Why’d you have to draw that line in the sand, why can’t you love me for what I am?”

That line, from “Tell Me Mama” — the opening track of BR5-49’s new live CD, Coast to Coast (Arista Records, 2000) — is addressed to an aloof sweetheart.

But it might as well be a message to the country music-industry.

Despite a cult following, outstanding live performances, and a standing invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, BR5-49 gets most of its airplay from college, alternative and rock stations.

Smilin’ Jay McDowell — the band’s upright-bass player and youngest member, at near-30 — takes that in stride. But it does mystify him.

“It’s the country music we grew up with,” McDowell explains. “People come up and say, ‘Well, you guys aren’t country, because I listen to the country radio station, and it’s definitely not like that.’ And we say, ‘Well, OK.'”

Though the band has influences ranging from Texas Swing to static punk, BR5-49 — named for the phone number in a popular Hee Haw skit — tends its country roots better than most. At one gig, a fellow musician reportedly challenged bands members on this point, baiting them with and offer of $25 for every Hank Williams song they knew.

By the time BR5-49 stopped — out of sheer compassion for the audience — that red-faced upstart owed them $600.

Like their country predecessors, these guys built their reputation on the bandstand, before achieving any measure of recognition — highly unusual for today’s Nashville darlings. Chuck Mead, BR5-49’s electric-and-acoustic guitar player/vocalist, moved to Nashville from Kansas, inviting his buddy “Hawk” Shaw Wilson to join him. The versatile Don Herron, who plays steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle and acoustic guitar, sought out Nashville from Portland, Ore., bringing friend Gary Bennett, an acoustic guitarist and vocalist. The band had several designated upright-bass players — including Mark Winchester (of Emmylou Harris’s band and the Brian Setzer Orchestra) and John Rowe (who played with Johnny Cash at the time) — but none was able to commit to the then fun-but-unprofitable BR5-49. So the band asked McDowell — then a guitarist, who’d met the other members while drinking at a Nashville bar — to take up the cause.

“It was insane,” recalls McDowell, who had never played the upright bass in his life. “I was practicing 10 to 12 hours a day, then we’d play five hours at night. … I knew the notes, I knew the music, I knew the songs, but … as far as playing the upright bass, that was a different animal to me — so I just jumped in with both feet. It was a magical time, because we knew something big was happening right from the first time we played, even though I wasn’t very good.”

The band became a fixture at Robert’s Western World, a Nashville bar that holds about 350 people (and eventually added “Home of BR5-49″ to its sign), which attracted Arista Records’ attention.

Despite the group’s innate self-confidence, “We never, ever thought we’d get a record deal,” McDowell insists. “Many people [in Nashville bands] start out and say, ‘We’re going to get a manager and a lawyer, and I’ve got a friend who does music videos and she’s gonna help out, and — oh, yeah — we should write some songs or get some songs to learn.”

For these wannabes, “[the music] is kind of an afterthought,” he continues, adding significantly: “That’s why I think [we] stood out. … We didn’t think about any of that [other] stuff.”

Bypassing Music City’s usual glitz and overproduction, BR5-49 was serving up spirited, hard-driving country for as many as five hours a night while its first release, Live from Robert’s (Arista Records, 1996), was in the works. That album was recorded in the bar in just two nights. Coast to Coast, on the other hand, draws from 50 live shows, recorded in large amphitheaters during a tour with the Brian Setzer Orchestra that was sponsored by Jack Daniel’s. That proof — pardon the pun — shows a more polished, seasoned BR5-49. Its shows are shorter now, so the band doesn’t kill itself — or its Deadhead-like following — during a long tour.

But, thankfully, the group’s success and maturation haven’t dulled its sonic edge. BR5-49’s shows attract hillbillies, yuppies, punks and hippies, all of whom greet Coast to Coast with hoots and hollers. The disc features four hot originals that celebrate hard times, womankind and rebelliousness (not necessarily in that order). The rest of the CD offers genuine covers featuring artists such as Gram Parsons, Don Gibson, Tommy Collins and others (an updated version of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider” is a particular gem).

This will be BR5-49’s first trip to Asheville since they became famous (a previous Be Here Now gig drew a measly people).

“I’m hoping we get at least 50 this time,” quips Smilin’ Jay McDowell, living up to his moniker. And although life on the road can be a grind, BR5-49 relishes its performances more than ever.

“It’s our time, when nobody can bug us,” McDowell points out. “It’s the time when we get to do what we do.”

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