music (2006-01)

Brand New Dust

BR549 is a naked old soul in modern clothing

WE STILL ROCK: And that’s why BR549 doesn’t fit with mainstream country.

by John Sewell

You never know what to expect from musician types. Having a good sense of humor and some people skills is a definite asset for anyone planning an extended tenure in a touring band. That said, BR549’s Chuck Mead catches me a little off guard with his first comments.

“This interview is going to be perfect: I’m already drunk,” says Mead, right after I inform him that I’m recording our interview. “I’m just kidding,” Mead continues. “Actually, I’m just having coffee.”

With over a decade as a musical entity, BR549 has been run through the music industry wringer more than a few times. While the band has seen some lineup changes and shifted its record label allegiance, the focus on traditional hillbilly sounds has remained the same.

The hillbilly designation has been both a blessing and a curse. BR549 has established a fervent following among America’s burgeoning neo-rockabilly subculture, but its shot for big-league, mainstream country music success pretty much misfired. Maybe they were just too country for their own good. Or maybe they were just too good to hit it big in the commercial country market, a niche targeting the married, white, middle-class set which should be called “rock for those who rock no more” instead of country music.

“Musically, what we’re doing is still really country,” says Mead. “Maybe people have perceived us as being some kind of retro act because we never wore modern-looking cowboy hats. But we were never retro. We’re not selling antiques. It’s not like we got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s start an old-timey band.’ That’s just the way we were marketed for a while.

“We do our best to play some of the old sounds, but we put our own spin on it. The music is still vibrant because it’s honest. There’s no bullshit. And it’s not like we’re playing old material. Hey, I just wrote some of this stuff last week. So how could it be old?”

With the band’s evolution, Mead has emerged as the perhaps unwitting, de facto leader. As the longest-running songwriter and focal point of the band, Mead has quietly assumed the mantle without acquiring delusions of godhood.

“A lot of the songs start with me, but I think everybody puts in their own contribution,” says Mead. “It’s not like I dictate from on high. You can’t do that in a band. That would be ridiculous.”

Mead, who has also released solo recordings, is adamant that BR549 is a group effort. And the new members are encouraged to contribute material and help arrange the music. BR549’s newest album, Dog Days , which will be released the day before the Knoxville show, finds the band in a lean and mean quartet configuration.

“The new stuff has a lot more of an acoustic feel,” Mead enthuses. “It kind of encompasses a new style, even though it fits in well with our older material.

“We went to Athens, Ga., to make the new record with John Keane. You might have heard of him; he’s worked with Widespread Panic, REM, Uncle Tupelo...We just hit it off real well with John, and it was good to leave town and get out of that Nashville routine.”

While Dog Days certainly has traditional roots, there’s just enough contemporary edge to add a sheen of modernity to the whole affair. Many of the songs are punctuated by banjo licks, but the strong rock ‘n’ roll underpinnings keep things upbeat. There’s even a cameo by the legendary Jordanaires, the vocal group that backed up Elvis Presley on several of his classic recordings.

As BR549 enters its second decade, the pace has slackened just a bit. The band played around 280 dates a year for several years running, but now they’ve pared the road trips down to comparatively sane two-month bouts. With the new flexibility, Mead thinks the band can continue forever.

“You know, we’ve lasted for 10 years, and there’s no reason why it should end,” says Mead. “I have my own solo career, and the other guys have other projects going as well. There’s no shortage of work for anybody.

“BR549 is our little family unit,” Mead continues. “We’re on good terms with all of our original members, and we talk to them all the time. We might even play together again, you never know. We just made a new record, it came out really good, and that was a surprise. So I’m really excited about things right now. And you always come back to your family.”

Who: BR549 w/ The Avett Brothers