A little bit hillbilly, a little bit punk

BR5-49 have come to save country music's dustblown, dungaree'd soul. By Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture
Even in the conservative milieu of country music, things are moving in ever-tighter cycles. In the mid-Eighties, Dwight Yoakam was shaking up the Nashville establishment with his hillbilly honky-tonk style and outspoken views; 10 years on, and the revolution he inspired has, through the telegenic crossover efforts of such as Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus and Travis Tritt, itself grown formulaic and corporate in tone. And once again, the required shot in the arm is coming from an act invoking the genre's hillbilly past.

With their revitalised take on the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the honky-tonk blues of Hank Williams, BR5-49 have come to save country music's dustblown, dungaree'd soul. Don't just take my word for it, though: when they made their debut appearance recently at the Grand Ole Opry, country's premier showcase, the show's venerable comedian-host Grandpa Jones was moved to proclaim, "You guys are the best band I've ever seen - and I've been to three counties!" It's an apposite testimonial: back in the Seventies, Jones was a regular on Hee Haw, a country-music TV show modelled on Laugh- In, whose blend of hayseed humour and lachrymose balladry proved a big influence on the boys in BR5-49; indeed, it's where they took their name from, this being the telephone number proferred by one of the show's comedians, Junior Samples, in a series of spoof used-car salesman pitches.

"He'd speak complete gibberish for 10 seconds, a totally bizarre sales pitch, and at the end he'd hold up a little sign that said, 'The number to call is BR5-49'," explains Chuck Mead, one of the band's two singers. "There's not that many numbers, so it has to be real hillbilly!" Chuck and the band's "doghouse bass" player Smilin' Jay McDowell - a dead ringer for the young Carl Perkins - bring a welcome breath of downhome affability to the anonymous London hotel bar in which we're chatting. Polite and friendly, they carry themselves with scrupulous style, right down to the classic Forties snap-brim hats that they prefer to the oversized headgear of the "hat acts" that currently rule Nashville's roost.

"In 1989, Clint Black and Garth Brooks put out great music, and it sold," adds Jay, "but they've ended up having to repeat themselves trying to match their initial huge success. It's just a big formula now. And like any business, country music needs someone to come along and say it's all crap now."

In all probability, Chuck and Jay's hats came from Robert's, the Nashville clothing store-cum-bar at which the group has become a regular attraction, playing to packed crowds for tips. Their debut mini-album, Live From Robert's, even opens with Mead informing the customers that "Boots are half price 'til 12 o'clock", a peculiarly rustic kind of happy-hour offer. From there on, though, it's a dazzling display of Western verve with a slightly risque edge, as the band tear through their repertoire of old favourites and idiosyncratic originals. "Bettie Bettie", for instance, hymns a porno star, while "Me Un' Opie" introduces pot-smoking to the clean-cut environs of TV's Andy Griffith Show. Surely this type of thing can't go down too well with the conservative country establishment?

"Ah, they love it, man!" claims Mead. "It's the same sort of spirit as white lightnin' [illegal hooch]. As for drug references, the pair point to the long tradition of amphetamine use underlying the entire genre of trucker's songs like "Six Days on the Road", wherein eyes are kept "open wide" by taking "little white pills".

"There's another one by Red Sovine called 'Freightliner Fever'," adds Chuck, "where he talks about taking 'a little friend called the West Coast Turnaround', so he can drive all the way out to the coast, turn around and drive all the way back. Now they have Legal Speed at the truckstops, these little white cross things keep you going. Not as potent as the old Black Beauties or the West Coast Turnaround, maybe, but it's still speed."

The group's first studio album, BR5-49, fills in more of the picture, with standards like "Cherokee Boogie", "Crazy Arms" and "Hickory Wind" all but upstaged by originals like Mead's "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)", a tale of a punkette who converts to country music.

"I think a lot of people recognise that Hank Williams and The Beatles and The Ramones are all the same in spirit," says Chuck. "So that song's basically about me, really. I'd always played country with my folks' family band, but I went through my little phase there where I wanted to get into something new, The Stones and all that. But in the Seventies it got kind of tedious and boring and over-produced - much like country music now. So in effect, we're part of a little underground punk-rock movement in country music."

n 'Live from Robert's' and 'BR5-49' are out on Arista