Colorado Springs has never seen anything like BR549. Thanks to this weekend's WestFest, the critically lauded Tennessee-based quintet will blow through town, and the resulting wake will knock you on your ass.
For around a decade upright bassist "Smilin" Jay McDowell, guitar and vocalists Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett, jack-of-all-strings Don Herron and percussionist Shaw Wilson have been playing with each other in one form or another, ending up in Nashville where they played now mythic gigs at Robert's Western Wear. Their hepped-up vintage honky-tonk, refined rock 'n' roll and swingin' country-and-western cowpunk lands them all over the musical map, leaving their music just about impossible to pin down.
"The United States of America," is where BR549's roots are, says drummer and Errol Flynn-lookalike Shaw Wilson. "Call me a snob, but American music is the best there is. When jazz was invented, and blues, bluegrass and R&B and gospel, it was just a mixture of people interacting with each other. We love all that. There's just something about playing different types of music, and trying to capture the feel of it."
Despite the aggressive hepcat energy that buzzes through their music and their sometimes sarcastic, often comedic original lyrics, the guys are still seeped in traditional country.
"Throughout the time we were playing at Robert's, we'd get young people that came in and said, 'I don't like country, but I like you guys,' and we always scratched our heads, because we know country. We grew up with it on AM radio. Our parents exposed us to Tommy Smith and Ernest Tubb and Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and I can't turn my back on that. ... If you think about it, what you are is what you represent to people. And for me, country was it."
But being true to your roots and playing music for the love of it doesn't always bring the radio stations and record companies calling. Of BR549's two live albums and three studio records, none have received much regular commercial airplay. The critics love them, but they find themselves in the same boat the Stray Cats found themselves in 20 years ago, where Junior Brown floats now: They're labeled too country for radio.
This combination of accolades and cold shoulders hasn't frustrated the band.
"It fuels us," says Wilson. "We know what we can do together, and success is all about the journey. We love the criticism, we love the praise, the high acclaim, and we love being ignored, because that makes us try harder. We're into it that much."
"To say, 'I want super-stardom, I want it now'... it just doesn't happen. It's a long road -- most overnight successes take 10 years. We're about at six and a half, and maybe we'll get something under ten years, maybe it will take ten years. But for now, we're completely dedicated, because, well, to be real honest, there's nothing else we can do, really."
Being "into it" is an understatement. Until recently, BR549 played more than 300 gigs a year, all over the country, just to pay the bills and have a little money left over for promotion. Early this year the band caught the attention of Jack Daniels, the whiskey distiller, and won a Jack Daniels Country Music Hall of Fame Sponsorship, essentially a brand spankin' new big black tour bus for which Jack picks up the tab. Not having to work on the road so much has allowed the band more studio time, an investment panning out with This is BR549, their latest record, released June 26.
The regular BR549 combination of new material and old favorites makes up the track list, including the Everly Brothers' "The Price of Love" and the Anne Murray hit, "A Little Good News Today".
The band's kinetic energy pops and cracks through Chuck Mead's rockabilly "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal". The raucous song tells the story of a guy who picks up a girl during a barfight, who, like many BR549 heroines, trashes his spirit and leaves him flat -- but that's all right, because she was worth it.
Wilson and McDowell's big rhythm sound propels the album, especially on the bizarre and playful "Psychic Lady", a telepsychic horror story.
Don Herron, who plays the acoustic and electric mandolin, the fiddle, dobro, banjo, cello, lap and pedal steel, not to mention the guitar, shines on Gary Bennett's "The Game", an introspective and simply beautiful original, perhaps the mellow crown jewel of the disc. "Donny is definitely the rubber cement that keeps us together, with his great vocalizing and musicianship", praises Wilson.
The true craftsmanship of the album shows in the arrangements. Each track rolls into the next, never jarring, never out-of-place, washing over your ears and into your continuously moving feet.
Shaw Wilson is proud of the arrangements. "It just flows along like a river. It's driving music. You can clean your house to it, sing in the shower, whatever. That's what you shoot for when you're making a record. There's some art to it, and a little bit of science, Thank God, because it seems to work out better that way."
Until the big time comes knocking on BR549's door, they'll just keep doing the only thing they know to do:
"Take a little faith, a little polish, put it out there and hope the people like it."