Go ahead, turn on a country music station today and see if you can identify any artist by their voice alone.
They’re virtually all indistinguishable, aren’t they?
You know Patsy Cline’s lilting vocals by heart, and you can spot a Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Sr. or Buck Owens song by a country mile, but can you honestly tell the difference between Collin Raye, John Michael Montgomery and Sammy Kershaw? Or Terri Clark, Lari White and Faith Hill?
And how about their personalities, does it shine through in their songs? Does their genuine love and respect for the music come across? And is their musicianship a cut above the rest, not just another chip off the cookie-cutter Nashville block?
Listen to what has been coming out of Nashville the past decade and you might think it’s the new capital of adult contemporary, but just when you think you have Music Row pegged, along comes the home-grown, homespun entertainment of BR5-49 to throw everything for a loop.
BR5-49 is just the shot in the arm that Nashville needed, and its second Arista/Nashville album, “Big Backyard Beat Show” (released July 14), will do even more to awaken that city’s fat-cat ears.
The quintet’s rockin’ honkytonk mix of original material and sly cover versions runs contrary to what’s happening in Nashville today. “Smilin’ ” Jay McDowell, the group’s upright bassist, says that’s exactly what brought him, singer-guitarist Gary Bennett, multi-instrumentalist Don Herron, singer-guitarist Chuck Mead and drummer “Hawk” Shaw Wilson together.
They wanted to play the kind of music they wanted to hear – gospel, bluegrass, rockabilly, Western swing, honkytonk, shuffles – all elements that encompass the country music they grew up on.
“We had no interest in trying to get a record deal,” McDowell said recently, “because we were so outside of what was going on. We didn’t pursue that at all. When it started pursuing us, I guess we were leery of that, because we knew the first thing they were going to try to do was tell us that we would have to change what we do, the way we dress. We didn’t want anything to do with that. Then the more people started telling us that we could do our own thing, we warmed up to it a little bit.”
In early 1996, BR5-49 – a name taken from the late comedian Junior Samples’ used-car salesmen skits on TV’s “Hee-Haw” – was packing them in at Robert’s Western World, next to Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. Oddly enough, their debut EP, “Live From Robert’s,” created a buzz in Europe, and soon celebrities and U.S. label heads were showing up at their shows.
“Even though we were right in the middle of town,” McDowell said, “we felt like we were a million miles away from the country music business. Then I guess what happened was we started having a good time playing, people started dancing at the shows.
“Nashville’s a very odd place in that you go to a show and nobody dances. It’s like everybody in the crowd is a musician, that’s the nature of Nashville. It’s a great environment for a musician, like Austin, New York or L.A., but it’s strange, you go to a show and the band will be tearing it up and when they’re done, everybody politely applauds and goes on talking while the band’s playing. I guess people are jaded or self-conscious about having a good time.
“For some reason, the club we were playing at, the atmosphere was different than the rest of the town. People were dancing, and people took notice of that. Once you walked into that door, it was a different atmosphere and I don’t know what it was. People just had no inhibitions there. Everybody got along, all the different types of people.
“The record company people, not the big wigs, the ones working in the mail room or art departments, would come down and have a drink. They told their friends, and before long, it worked its way up to the top of (Arista).”
The group’s self-titled studio debut album sold 175,000 copies in 1996 and generated across-the-board acclaim. They opened for Bob Dylan last year and won over more fans at European festivals, sharing the stage with Smashing Pumpkins and Beck, among others.
Now comes “Big Backyard Beat Show,” another creative leap. Tracks like the first single, “Wild One,” and an absorbing remake of Buck Owens’ “There Goes My Love,” ring clear and true to country’s roots.
“We set out to make a record that’s more like when we play a live show,” McDowell said, “because when we play live, everything runs the whole gamut of country music. And that’s how the title came about, we wanted to have some title that kind of conjured up the image of a show.
“We were surprised as we got into the studio finally that things went a lot quicker this time. We’re more familiar with the studio. We weren’t expecting that, really. I think we all thought we were better musicians from just playing everyday for three years together, just about. When we made the first album, we had just gotten together. For this one, we had that already under our belts, plus the experience of making the first record was past us too.”
McDowell said, like the rest of Nashville, they are still shaking their heads. They can’t believe they have made it.
“We ask ourselves all the time, ‘How did this happen?’ ” he said, laughing. “It’s almost like, ‘Where’s the trap door? If we take one more step, we’re going to be out in the cold again.’ We keep thinking that with every step.
“It’s like the whole reason we started out was because we all moved to Nashville thinking of our version of what we thought Nashville was, this romantic vision of people playing good country music and having a good time. What we found, really, with a couple of exceptions, everybody was a songwriter trying to write a song that would get cut by an artist and get on the radio. It’s complete prostitution, really. You’re trying to craft something, it takes all the guts out of it. You go for the safe thing, you don’t write about anything that’s controversial, you don’t want to rock the boat. That’s not us.
“The bottom line is, we love the stuff that we play.”