At some point on the all-star George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival tour, drummer “Hawk” Shaw Wilson and his BR5-49 band mates hope to sit down with the country legend and talk about what it takes to stay on top of the game.
“We’d like to be one of those bands that came along and changed things and will be remembered as long as George Strait has been around,” Wilson said recently. “He’s one of the original rejuvenators of country music, a true country artist with a cowboy influence, a Lefty Frizzell influence, or Hank Williams.”
The rockin’ honkytonk band will get plenty of opportunities to corner Strait and pick his brain during his fourth annual cross-country tour, which opens March 24 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and runs through June 10. In addition to BR5-49, this year’s lineup includes Alan Jackson, Lonestar, Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Sara Evans, Asleep at the Wheel and the Warren Brothers.
Strait is a powerful source for BR5-49 to tap from: Over a nearly 20-year career, he has amassed 25 platinum albums (second only to Elvis Presley among solo male artists), 36 No. 1 country singles and 50 CMA nominations, and his box set is the second best-selling ever behind Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s live set. He also headlines one of the highest-grossing festivals around, playing to more than 2 million fans the past three years and averaging 45,000 per show.
BR5-49, for all its hard work and playful mixture of country and swing, can’t buy radio time. Its native Nashville, intent on churning out processed musical cheese, just isn’t paying attention.
“I truly believe this, that there’s a lot of people who listen to mainstream radio who are screaming for something like this, something different,” Wilson said. “I have the luxury of being involved in music, so I listen to a lot of different types of music and get inspiration from all that. These people are working their butts off, doing whatever their job might be, and they turn their radio on and that’s all they get. They’re being told what to listen to.
“If we can make it through that and reach those people, they can call up the radio station and say, ‘What’s that? Never heard that before.’ Then all of a sudden radio gets the idea that people want to hear this. That’s all radio cares about, where the market is and ‘how do we get them.’ ”
With its next album, tentatively due June 5 on Lucky Dog/Sony Music Nashville, BR5-49 hopes to break through the barriers.
Wilson says fans can expect more of the same but different. “We’ve been working steady between records always, honing our craft,” he said. “It’ll be the same mixture of country music, some shuffles, some waltzes, a couple of ballads, some real upbeat numbers. We have a couple of secret weapons that’ll go for us.”
Keeping it all live and real is producer Paul Worley (Wynonna, Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride).
“It’s been fun recording,” Wilson said. “I never liked it much myself, because I wasn’t used to it, but the more we do it, the more I like it. Working with Paul Worley has been unbelievable. He’s so laid-back; it’s all about the music and he has great ideas.
“We like to make it as live as possible, so when you go in and you do 30 takes, it’s kind of exhausting. Paul likes to get the live, fresh approach. He likes to take one of the first three. I think the most we’ve done is four takes. He doesn’t want to wear it out, so tracking went really fast.”
After BR5-49’s previous label, Arista Nashville, was gutted and dissolved into RCA Nashville, it didn’t take long for the group to find another suitor.
“Last year, we were touring on our own strength and it’s really hard to make enough money to tour nonstop and stay alive,” Wilson said. “We managed to do that, then Sony came out and said, ‘We really want you to sign with us,’ and we did. We put it in their hands and trust them in what their plan is, to find a way to get us on the radio. We’ve kind of been down that road before, but nothing like the support we’ve gotten this go round.
“We haven’t had huge success on mainstream radio, and that doesn’t mean we couldn’t, but it’s up to radio programmers if they want to incorporate a new sound rather than going on with the same trend they’ve had for the past five, 10 years.”
BWF (before we forget): Rope BR5-49 on the Web @ www.br5-49.com.