After ten turbulent years of critical acclaim, multiple GRAMMY nominations, relentless touring, and personnel shifts that might have beaten down most acts, one group has survived to deliver their most surprising move of all: With their new Dualtone Records album Dog Days, BR549 stands tall as the hardest-rocking – and hardest-working – here-to-stay band in Country today.
“We called the record Dog Days because it seemed like the end of something, and the beginning of something else,” explains vocalist/guitarist Chuck Mead. “It’s the start of a different way of thinking about BR549 and a different way of thinking about our lives and music.” The album, produced by John Keane (known for his work with R.E.M., Uncle Tupelo, and Widespread Panic) and recorded at Keane’s famed studio in Athens, Georgia, showcases 11 uncompromising songs from a band with fearsome instrumental chops, their own left field point-of-view, and an ever potent take on classic Country tradition. Now a lean four-piece of Mead, multi-instrumentalist Don Herron, drummer/vocalist Shaw Wilson and new bassist/vocalist Mark Miller, BR549 is a band defiantly reborn. “It’s 10 years since we started this, and we’ve been through a lot recently,” says Mead. “On this record, we wanted – and needed – to do something that was beyond the norm.”
BR549 has always been a band that lived, played and triumphed outside the lines. The band – named for Junior Samples’ ever-flubbed phone number on Hee Haw – began in the in the mid-90s on Nashville’s then-seedy Lower Broadway where the original quintet began playing marathon sets in the window of bar/bootery Robert’s Western World. The band was quickly signed by Arista, for whom they recorded three acclaimed albums and one legendary EP. By the end of the decade, they’d earned three GRAMMY nominations, performed all over network television, and toured internationally with acts ranging from Faith Hill & Tim McGraw to Ani DeFranco and The Black Crowes. Yet following the 2001 release of their sole Sony album, the band was rocked by the departure of original bassist Jay McDowell and co-founder/co-lead vocalist Gary Bennett.
The group disbanded, and Chuck, Shaw and Donnie returned to Lower Broadway to play weekly gigs with badass musical collective The Hillbilly All-Stars. The three were soon revitalized to again play music within an unpredictable scene, leading them to reform BR549 in 2004 with bassist Geoff Firebaugh and singer/guitarist Chris Scruggs for their Dualtone debut Tangled In The Pines. But following victorious tours of the U.S. and Europe (marred only by two separate thefts of their instruments and gear), BR549 was faced with their ultimate challenge when Donnie Herron was invited by Bob Dylan to become the new fiddle and steel guitar player in his band.
“It was a real test of our abilities as a family,” admits Mead. “Donnie went on the road with Dylan. Shaw moved to Arizona. I’d moved on to other projects. But for us, BR549 had always been something that needs to be respected and nothing we could ever take lightly.” Following months of heart-to-heart phone calls, plate-spinning scheduling and the addition of new bassist Mark Miller, the band finally convened in Athens to record in a way they never had before. “In the past, we’d always made a record coming off the road, with songs we’d been played for weeks and sometimes months on tour,” Chuck remembers “But this time, we were all coming in fresh, making the record then and there. It’s an album that’s truly in the moment.”
“There’s a musicality and rhythm on this record that is new to BR549,” says Shaw Wilson. “It was easier for us to incorporate different rhythmic flavors, which in turn lent itself to new melodic possibilities. Everything that happened was very near the surface.” “Because it wasn’t our usual way of recording, we discovered new ways to write and play,” agrees Mead. “Why not put banjo and B3 organ in the same song? We all decided that we weren’t going to put any rules around anybody’s – especially our own – perception of what BR549 is and what we should sound like.”
Dog Days bursts out of the gate with the jubilantly sinister bluegrass breakdown “Poison”, written by Chuck and Donnie after a night of incessant banjo picking and libation regret. “After The Hurricane” is a poignant ode written – long before Katrina – by iconoclastic Nashville singer/songwriter Tim Carroll. “It’s a totally different vibe for us, and we totally love it,” Chuck says. “It’s like Neil Young meets the Everly Brothers.” Mead co-wrote the moving “Lower Broad St. Blues” with the legendary Guy Clark.” Elvis Presley’s longtime backing vocalists The Jordanaires bring an inimitable Gospel flavor to “The Devil And Me”, and bassist Miller takes lead vocals on the married men anthem “You Are The Queen”. Chuck Mead describes the bouncy-yet-bitter “Bottom Of Priority” – about imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier – as “a protest song you can dance to.” “A-1 On The Jukebox” is a too-cool cover of the Dave Edmunds chestnut, and the album’s closer “Let Jesus Make You Breakfast” is an oddly inspirational homage to a certain drummer’s resemblance to a religious icon, a pristine pair of casual footwear and the spiritual nourishment that begins all our days. “It’s about truth, sustenance and Adidas shell toes,” laughs Mead. “How could Christians possibly be offended?”
Most of all, Dog Days is the sound of a band with an unshakeable legacy of integrity and the still-stunning ability to rattle the foundations of Country. “Some people think that there’s a music rulebook that was written a long time ago,” says Wilson. “BR549 never owned a copy of that handbook, and never will.” “We never sold millions and millions of records, but we’ve sold enough to continue to do what we do,” agrees Mead. “And because we never did bullshit anybody, we still have friends and fans from the very beginning. We still work our asses off, and there were plenty of times we’ve played 300 dates a year. We were always willing to do that for something we believed in. We still believe in BR549 and plenty of other people do, too. We owe it them and us to keep it growing. And that’s what Dog Days is all about.”