Think Globally, Act Yokelly

Washington City Paper | January 20, 2006
Nearly 10 years after BR549’s debut long-player hit the racks, it’s finally possible to see why the band named itself after a Hee Haw gag: It’s a nifty disguise for a group that’s always aspired to alt-country sophistication but has never wanted to be considered a bunch of alt-country sophisticates. You probably know the type—those authenticity-addled No Depressioneers who come off as book-learned aspirants rather than real-deal practitioners and, not coincidentally, crank out overcalculated music that would sound better at a Country Music Hall of Fame symposium than at an actual hoedown. If you don’t, I’ve got two words for ya: Son Volt.

The Nashville-based group has more or less lived up (or down, as the case may be) to its name, too, lacing its achy-breaky art with plenty of good humor and passing references to such out-of-favor genres as ’50s honky-tonk and rockabilly. In case anyone missed the corn-pone cheekiness of it all, the band members donned cowboy hats, snazzy Western suits, and overalls. Although engaging from the get-go, BR549 paid a price for its creative self-consciousness, seeming, at best, playfully contrived and, at worst, like someone who can’t stop rattling off jokes to cover his nervousness. I mean, overalls? When it comes to hipster slumming, that’s the next-worst thing to a John Deere hat.

On Dog Days, the band’s fifth and latest studio full-length, BR549 finally ditches those sophomoric trappings and stands revealed as...a bunch of alt-country sophisticates. But the good kind—the kind that knows enough not to take all that hard work of sounding authentic too seriously. (Another two words for ya: Trailer Bride.) The album’s opening number, “Poison,” even finds ringleader Chuck Mead tipping his ten-gallon hat in the direction of bluegrass luminaries Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ cheesiest work, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” The track comes complete with a fast-paced, Appalachian-inflected melody and the kind of frenetic finger-picking that the revered duo delivers during the race-to-the-finish rave-up that closes the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies. Old habits really do die hard, apparently, and it’s worth remembering that Mead once enlisted Scruggs’ grandson Chris Scruggs to play in BR549: a perfect emblem for the way the guy, at least earlier in his career, wanted to be close—but not that close—to country’s past masters.

Elsewhere, though, Mead makes like a master himself, bringing far more to the proceedings than goofy fanboy adoration. “Leave It Alone,” for instance, sounds like a country-rock standard in waiting, a crunchy twangfest that roots-rock vet Dave Edmunds probably can’t wait to cover—which would only be fair. After all, elsewhere on Dog Days, BR549 gives Edmunds’ own “A-1 on the Jukebox” an outsized, kick-drum-powered reading that nearly surpasses the one the co-author himself turned in back in 1978. No small feat, that.

“A-1,” a commiserating ode to perpetual up-and-comers everywhere, is a fitting fight song for the likes of BR549, a band that, despite its well-honed, chart-making knack for cranking out hooky honky-tonkers, can’t seem to pry its way onto the clamped-down playlists devised by country music’s radio programmers. That’s hardly a surprise, of course. To its ongoing embarrassment, country radio has taken a pass on the likes of Lucinda Williams, Tex-Mex greats Los Lonely Boys, and the recent albums of Emmylou Harris, too—all while mauling the Dixie Chicks for being politically incorrect and propelling a dim-bulb yukster like Toby Keith into the chart-topping stratosphere.

A shameful track record, really. And on Dog Days, BR549’s music positively aches to be heard by an audience tuned to the airwaves. This is the kind of pristine, punchy stuff that would sound perfect coming out of any number of symbols of sonic universality: transistorized handheld, front-parlor console, roadhouse jukebox. It’s music for folks who’d probably pass on the album but buy the single—say, a Hank Williams–style toe-tapper such as BR549’s “You Are the Queen.” That goes double for “The Devil & Me,” the populist show-stopper on Dog Days if for no other reason than that the track features backing vocals by Elvis’ favorite gospel group, the Jordanaires. “You can’t know good ’less you know evil,” sings Mead while the Jordanaires lay down a come-to-Jesus altar-call behind him. “You can’t tell the truth unless you’ve heard a lie.” It’s a lyric worthy of the King himself, one that comes clad in a fetchingly blue-sueded tune that Presley could positively own if he were alive and karate-kicking today.

For all its charms, though, Dog Days isn’t flawless. Sometimes it even succumbs to alt-country’s original sin of indulging in form for form’s sake. The hokey rocker “Bottom of Priority” signifies as mere musical drag, with Mead making like Billy Swan of “I Can Help” fame while his band marches in retro-neo-rockabilly lockstep behind him. Flirting with facsimile frequently works for this band of record collectors, it’s true. But given the caliber of the hookup, going all the way in this case doesn’t even qualify as a guilty pleasure. Ditto for “Cajun Persuasion,” a by-the-numbers genre exercise despite some fine fiddle work by Don Herron. Its hop-along rhythm and cheeseball lyrics—“Got me a Cajun persuasion/Way back in the wood/Got me a Cajun persuasion/You know she do me good”—let’s face it, are better suited for Branson, Mo.–style line dancing than East Texas–style two-stepping.

The album’s sometimes studio-slick production can be a drag, too, but you have to admire producer John Keane’s impulse not to hook Mead up to a vintage microphone that would make it sound as if he were coming to us live from the Opry circa 1952. And who knows? The sonic strategy behind Dog Days might even net the band the airplay it desires and deserves. On that front, I’d tap “I’m Goin’ Down” and “Lower Broad St. Blues” as the tracks most likely to succeed. The former is a loping paean to hitting rock bottom that, just before the last verse, features a crucial key change that’s pure Johnny Cash bliss, conjuring the approach that made “I Walk the Line” a classic the instant Cash committed it to acetate. The latter is a slinky little Western-swing number goosed gently by Wilson’s lightly tapped high-hat and jazzy chord changes. A dot-connector that goes from the famed Nashville locale of the title to the Brill Building and beyond, this is BR549 at its musical best. The song features the disc’s most evocative words, too—not to mention Mead’s most soulful stint at the mike. “Dancers all limp home/The street lets out a groan,” he sings with whiskey-soaked melancholy. “And the winos are all snug under the bridge.”

Wistful—if bleary-eyed—nostalgia? Well, maybe on that particular gem. Overall, though, Dog Days positions BR549 as a group of new traditionalists well versed in, but not mesmerized by, country form. In the straight-laced (and frequently straitjacketed) world of alt-country, that makes Mead & Co. pretty sophisticated indeed—even if they do have to live with a name nicked from a country bumpkin like Junior Samples.CP

BR549 performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 2, at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. For more information, call (703) 549-7500.

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