Country converters

BR5-49 is here to teach you something you might not have known about hillbilly music: It swings.

When the band established itself with a now-famous year-long run of four-hour, tips-only sets at Robert's Western World in Nashville back in 1994, the diverse crowd of old-timers, young hipsters and college students crowded the dance floor and spun to the rollicking back beat of "Hawk" Shaw Wilson's drums and "Smilin'" Jay McDowell's doghouse bass.

So when BR5-49's current tour -- a 45-date, two-month stint with The Brian Setzer Orchestra -- arrives Saturday, July 31, at House of Blues, it will make a certain kind of musical sense.

Setzer fans "understand where we're coming from," says vocalist and guitarist Chuck Mead. "Brian has some of the same influences we do. It's just that we fall more on the country side, and he falls more on the uptown rockabilly side. There's just a lot of simpatico."

The party fervor of those not-so-long-ago gigs at Robert's -- a dive that doubles as a boot boutique and honky-tonk -- built a large and loyal following, and garnered the attention of the mainstream record labels on famed Music Row. That led to two CDs on Arista/Nashville ("Live, From Robert's" and the band's current release, "Big Backyard Beat Show") and three solid years of touring the United States and Europe.

It is now a matter of history that the band -- which got its odd name from Junior Samples' used-car-salesman skit on "Hee Haw" -- was one of the vanguard acts in the current wave of alternative country that has led to widespread awareness of and critical acclaim for artists like Lucinda Williams and the Del McCoury Band.

In his excellent book published in April, "Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory" (Dowling Press), David Goodman writes, "The group is motivated by a sincere devotion to and respect for the traditions they represent." Those include the shuffles of Ray Price, hillbilly boogie as pioneered by the Maddox Brothers & Rose, and, above all, the heartfelt country blues of Hank Williams.

At the show, you're likely to hear covers by any one of those or scores of other seminal country artists. But you'll also hear the witty and dynamic songwriting of Mead and co-frontman Gary Bennett. Standout cuts from "Big Backyard Beat Show" include "Out of Habit," a hard-swinging tune by Mead about a guy taking grief from his sweetheart about his vices, and Bennett's "You Flew the Coop," which is full of chicken jokes.

The band also is previewing new material. Mead says after a well-deserved break later this summer, they'll take to the studio to record their third CD.

Layered above the band's striking backbeat are the two other sources of BR5-49's dynamism. First is the vocal union of Bennett and Mead, who at their best evoke the great brother duets of the '50s and '60s: the Louvins, the Stanleys and the Delmores. Then you have multi-instrumentalist Don Herron, who keeps up scorching leads on fiddle, mandolin and dobro. Lately, Mead says, "He's been incorporating the pedal steel into some songs, so we can do more Buck Owens-type things."

The last time BR5-49 was on tour, it was with Bob Dylan and Ani DiFranco, which gives an idea of the kinds of varied audiences the band likes to entertain. Playing for audiences who aren't country fans is, for them, a kind of evangelism.

"We're going to get a whole lot of people converted over to the hillbilly music," says Mead.


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