Hillbilly deluxe

Like members of some secret society, people in the music industry speak in code. This is especially true in Nashville, which in some ways is like a charismatic cult within the already alien world of the music business at large.

The latest phrase on the lips of Nashville record companies these days is a double- if not triple-edged doozy: We're not even going to take this act to radio. It's a rather ingenuous statement, as it's usually applied to music that the tightly controlled country-radio format--the nation's most-popular music format--wouldn't touch with a 10-foot barge pole. Since Nashville has a hard time breaking anything country radio won't play anyway, it's doubly ironic.

But it's also Nashville's way of admitting--without saying so out loud--"Hey, we know that much of what we put out is diluted, mediocre, carbon-copy crap." Why the sudden honesty, if only implicitly? Perhaps it's because after nearly a decade of incredible growth, most of it fueled by a suburban shift in the country-music audience, Nashville just might be seeing the writing on the wall for its latest boom.

All of this makes BR5-49 the ideal poster child for a Nashville music industry that has grown from a specialty market into the billion-dollar mainstream, yet still craves the respect that comes from artistic--rather than commercial--success.

It's not a role this five-man neohillbilly band exactly applied for. "The thing about it is, we didn't set out to get a record deal or anything," says singer and guitarist Chuck Mead. Yet Arista, the hottest label in Music City, has signed the group even though the label knows the group's music won't get played on country radio. (Then again, the last act Arista said that about is the now-double-platinum Tractors).

The members of BR5-49 came to Nashville, as thousands of musicians do, drawn by the city's mythology. (Old-timers used to refer to such aspiring stars wandering Music Row as "squirrels.") "We're from all over the country," says bassist "Smilin'" Jay McDowell, "but we came to Nashville because of the romanticized version of Nashville. But then you get here, and it's very disheartening, because it's all business, it's all money, and it's all putting together music by the numbers."

They were drawn to Music City's then-moribund downtown, where years before the Grand Ole Opry had broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium and the greatest songwriters in the world hung out just down the street at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. Mead and singer and guitarist Gary Bennett set up shop in Robert's Western Wear, a boot store, where they played every weekend for $15 a night plus tips. In the ensuing weeks the act grew into a band and became rather the toast of a town that had forsaken its hillbilly heritage.

"There are so many people in Nashville who are ashamed of that past," McDowell says. "They want to get away from that Hee-Haw image, that hillbilly thing." It's not a shame that bothers the members of BR5-49, though: The band's very name comes from a Hee-Haw routine.

"It's kinda cool to see all these big country stars coming down to see these dipshits play on Lower Broadway," says Chuck Mead, the band's singer and guitarist. Actually, one of the real dipshits might have been country singer John Michael Montgomery, who came in one night and offered the band 20 bucks for every Hank Williams song it could play, and walked out $700 poorer.

"We just kinda set up and played down there, and had fun," Mead says. "We're just being ourselves. All those old guys realize that, because the more I talk to guys like Carl Perkins and Johnny Gimble the more they reiterate the same thing: 'We were just having fun!'"

BR5-49's debut disc, Live From Roberts, is certainly fun, perhaps even a bit more fun than locally tuned Texas ears are used to. The band's rootsy twang is certainly more Texas than Tennessee (at least these days)--"We are coming at it more from an Austin point of view than a Nashville point of view," McDowell claims--but the band also believes in the grand Nashville tradition of entertaining.

"I know it sounds like shtick, but we take it very seriously," McDowell explains.

Mead agrees: "Music is supposed to make you feel good. You can get your point across and have some kind of profound statement to make without kicking people in the head. The problem with country music is that they wanted to be competitive with pop and rock and get that respect, and in doing so, they've compromised what the whole concept of what hillbilly music was, which was homespun fun. You listen to any of the old broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, that's what the Solemn Judge says: 'This is dedicated to homespun music.' It's really gotten away from that."

"The spirit of American music is that people just played it," asserts drummer "Hawk" Shaw Wilson. "You can find people playing on their porches, and they may not be perfectly in time, but I'll be damned if they can't tell a good story and play music that'll make your head spin around. They just do it. Nobody's tellin' 'em what to do. They're not trying to be John Michael Montgomery, they're not trying to get a record deal, they're just living. That, to me, is what country music lacks, and what it always was, as far as the original American music."

Of course, Nashville seems to need to relearn that lesson every time it tastes some success. (Remember the "urban cowboy"? Wish you didn't?) Fortunately for Nashville, it's the same lesson that Texas has been trying to teach Music City since the first recorded yodel.

All of this makes BR5-49's second trip to Texas--the band played the South By Southwest festival in Austin in March--something like bringing coals to Newcastle. "We're on the same side as everyone else down there," asserts McDowell. "We had a great time during South By Southwest, and we wanted to get back there as soon as we could."

McDowell is "totally aware" of the fact that some Texans, especially in the Austin music scene, think of Nashville as the center of the evil empire. "I hope that people don't hold that against us. I hope people respect us for doing it right in the middle of all that."

As for whether the Nashville industry will co-opt BR5-49, Mead says, "That's a difficult question that remains to be seen. I dunno, but I think when it stops being fun and good and feeling right for us, that's the day that we say, 'Fuck it,' and go back to playing for tips. Nobody's going to take that away from any of us, because we've done it and know we can do it."

Despite the buzz, the tip jar will be coming with the band to Texas. "That way we feel that the people in the audience can be part of the show," says McDowell. "They can come up, and if we know the song they want to hear, we'll sure do it, as long as we get that green encouragement."

BR5-49 plays Sons of Hermann Hall May 30 and 31.