Well, here's my latest opportunity to be a big old meanie... I guess I am pretty much the one lone voice in the wilderness, the only alt-country fan in the whole wide world who finds BR5-49 to be kind of irritating and lame. Oh, I'll admit there was one album and a song or two that I've actually liked, but for the most part I think these guys lack spark, and I've always found the slavering adulation that's so often heaped upon them as some sort of alt-country saviors to be just a bit much. I mean, look -- all that twangs is not gold. I could go on and on about it up here in the introduction, but I might as well just send you down to my original album reviews, so you can see how I felt at the time...
BR5-49 "BR5-49" (Arista, 1996)
This is the major label debut of a rather tiresome band, who were touted at the time as avatars of a long-lost true country tradition, 'tho I still think of these guys primarily as a commercial country band that was slumming its way through the Americana scene. The hype on these guys was that they were the ultimate Nashville bar band, capable of playing any country song known to man, an endless repertoire spanning back to the 1940s honkytonk glory days. The trouble is, that that's exactly what they sound like: a workmanlike, uninspired bar band with little going on in the way of actual emotion or expressiveness -- and hey -- they don't sound that great on the pickin' end of things, either. I guess I should have been thankful to hear anybody covering old Webb Pierce and Ray Price songs, when the rest of Music City was fawning over Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, but they denude golden oldies such as "Crazy Arms" and "Honky Tonk Song" of all their original vitality, and just plod away in a generic neobilly way. The whole thing smacks of major label cooptation of the genuine alt-country scene that was going on at the time, an aggressive promotional campaign designed to take food out of the mouth of artists like Wayne Hancock or the Dave & Deke Combo, who were really putting their hearts and souls out on the line for audiences at the same time. Maybe I'm being too harsh on these guys, but still, listening back to this album many years later, I still find little that draws me in.
BR5-49 "Live At Robert's" (EP) (Arista, 1996)
The stereotype-laden alty companion disc to the band's traditional-ish debut album, this captures the highly touted bar-band legends in what's supposed to be their native element, a live performance at the Robert's Western World nightclub in Nashville. Frankly, every aspect of this EP turns me off -- the pandering, the posturing, the palpable phoniness of their alt-country image. It just bugs me. After clomping through novelty songs about Betty Page and Mayberry, they try to produce some true-country bona fides by singing a perfunctory version of the old country murder ballad, "Knoxville Girl," which frankly doesnŐt do much to impress an old Louvin Brothers fan like me. I dunno... I mean, I can hear that their drunken fans were hooting and howling in appreciation, but the complete lack of sincerity or genuine feeling in any of these songs simply leaves me cold. This is the least impressive (and probably most popular) of their early albums.
BR5-49 "Big Backyard Beat Show" (Arista, 1998)
A richer, more overtly roots-rock sound enlivens this disc, giving it a Nick Lowe-ish rockabilly sheen. I'd even reluctantly admit that this has some catchy material on it, although they still get on my nerves fairly quickly. Again: where's the emotional core? These guys are very professional and accomplished, but they still lack bite. Now it's Ray Condo I feel sorry for; he's kinda raspy, but when he plays similar material, at least you feel like there's somebody in there, making the music mean something. Still, of the BR albums, this is perhaps the most lively and enjoyable.
BR5-49 "Coast To Coast Live" (Arista, 2000)
(Produced by BR5-49, Jozef Nuyens & Mike Janas)
How is it possible that such a boring, lifeless band can have such a huge following? I have always loathed BR5-49, and if this new album is any indication, I'm pretty sure I always will. When their first album came out (and I hated it), people kept trying to explain to me what a great live band they are, how they can play any song ever recorded... blah blah blah. None of what anyone said could change the fact that I found these guys to be incredibly boring, incredibly phony, and incredibly willing to cash in on the inroads made by the dozens of more inspired (and inspiring) alt-country scruffies out there... BR5-49 goes through the motions of being a hard country bar band but lacks that little spark which separates struggling artists from passionless hacks... Everything about this album, from each slick lick to every "offhand" comment made on stage, contributes to an overall sense of dreariness. Take for instance their rote rendition of the Charlie Daniels chestnut, "Uneasy Rider"... why bother? And, you know what? We already have a fin de sicle, millennial bar band titan out there... it's Bill Kirchen, Commander Cody's old guitarist, who still tours nonstop, and not only knows how to play fancy, but with feeling as well. If you want to see what these BR guys are trying to be like, then check him out the next time he rolls through your town.
BR549 "This Is BR549" (Lucky Dog, 2001)
As stated above, I can't say I've ever been a fan of these guys. Although I've been told (many times) that they're great live, their records seem uninspired and uninspiring to me, sorta fake and opportunistic, even. That being said, I will admit that their new album is the most interesting one I've heard... it's... arrrrghh.... I hate to say it! ...good, even!! Rather than flatly ape the classic country sounds of years gone by, the BR549 crew has stirred themselves up to try writing new material which -- amazingly enough -- isn't overly contrived, or flashily performed. The lyrics are admittedly a bit gimmicky, but nowhere near as hokey or white trashy as they might otherwise be, and there actually seems to be some sort of soul emerging in the band's sound. This disc doesn't blow me away, but it also didn't repel me, as their music often does. Have I mellowed... or have they matured? Is there nothing constant in the universe?
BR549 "Tangled In The Pines" (Dualtone, 2004)
(Produced by BR5-49, Keith Thompson)
Darn. Just when I was ready to let go of my grudge and give these guys the benefit of the doubt, they come up with this unconvincing outing, another dispirited mix of retro hillbilly boogie, rockabilly and traffic ticket (not quite "outlaw") country. It's weird - they were just gathering steam and emerging from their "gosh, heck!" world's-best-bar-band image and writing some strong country material, then they come back with this half-hearted set of novelty tunes -- the songs themselves are fine, but the band's delivery is remarkably flat, as if they knew that the retro-billy thing wasn't gonna play well in Nashville, and simply lost the courage of their convictions. The opening song, "That's What I Get," held out great promise, with a Rockpile-style blast of pop-a-billy momentum, but then the disc sort of fizzles out from there on. I liked a lot of the lyrics, but the musical end just isn't being held up. The Derailers plow a lot of the same fields -- their crop seems to have had a much better harvest.
BR549 "Dog Days" (Dualtone, 2006)
The fellers from BR549 are back, with another amiable set of alt-ish twang... Though perhaps not as focussed and sharp as their last couple of albums, this is still pretty nice... They aim at crafting anthemic, singalong choruses, and succeed on several tracks. One of the best melodies is wed to a troublesome lyric: "After The Hurricane" is presumably inspired by Hurricane Katrina, but a simplistic metaphor equating a tempestuous love affair and a catastrophe on the scale of Katrina seems ill-advised: folks living in the Gulf probably don't mind the recognition, but they might prefer some songs with a little more heft. Then again, these guys are just pop singers, they don't pretend to be, oh, I dunno, the head of the FEMA or anything, so maybe we can cut them some slack. Elsewhere on the album, "A-1 On The Jukebox" and "Leave It Alone" may get you humming along, and the rest of the record has a nice, twangy, traditional feel to it... I'm still not a diehard BR fan, but I'm learning to like 'em...
BR5-49 "The Number To Call Is... BR5-49" (Phantom-UK, 1998)
A European best-of import...
Gary Bennett "Human Condition" (Landslide, 2006)
BR-549 co-founder Gary Bennett left the group in 2001 and dropped out of the music community for a while, apparently to sort some stuff out in his real-life life and to devote himself to his family. His return to music after a five-year absence is a mellow, calmly contemplative country-soul outing that brings out a lot of the depth and personal emotion that seemed so lacking in BR-549's glib, humor-oriented repertoire. This is obviously a very heartfelt work, and a very powerful one as well, ranging stylistically between confessional pop-folk material to super-catchy twang/bounce tunes. It's a thoroughly satisfying record, with more depth and sincere feeling than most records seem to have these days. Recommended!
Gary Bennett "You Are Never Nice To Me" (EP) (Raucous, 2010)
Gary Bennett "My Ol' Guitar" (Raucous, 2010)
Chuck Mead "Journeyman's Wager" (Thirty Tigers, 2009)
Chris Scruggs "Honky Tonkin' Lifestyle"
Chris Scruggs "Anthem" (Cogent Records, 2009)
Hick Music Index