CHUCK MEAD (BR5-49) By Shaun Mather)
Born Charles Lynn Mead, 22 December 1960, Nevada, Missouri
Anyone familiar with the retro-hillbilly band BR5-49 will know Chuck Mead as the Robert Redford look-a-like who plays lead guitar, shares lead vocal responsibilities and is pretty much the smooth talking front man of the band. He claims that he and Gary Bennett formed a partnership after they met in a bar and had a contest to see who could sing the most Johnny Horton songs - not a bad reason to form a band.
Bennett was singing in Nashville's bar/boot store Robert's Western Wear when he was joined by Mead, who'd also been playing on Lower Broadway, with the Homestead Grays. They formed BR5-49 in 1993, adding Smilin' Jay McDowell on slap-bass, Shaw "Hawshaw" Wilson on drums and Don Herron on fiddle/steel/kitchen sink/penny whistle/comb/pin-that-drops/clogs/two fingers/harmonica/coconut shells (useful for Tennessee Stud) and dobro. They built up a reputation as the city's best/only real country band, playing covers of Hank/Cash/Horton/Moon(who?)/Faron Young etc. They made their money from a tip jar. Their name came from a sketch on Hee Haw. By '95 they were becoming a tourist attraction and late comers had to settle for a view of the band from outside on the street. The place was so packed that even a few Music City Row executives turned up. Surely they were too country! Regardless, they were signed to Arista on October 13, 1995, and immediately recorded a mini-CD, recorded live at Robert's. Made up of originals and covers, it shows the band were raw, but obviously they wanted it this way. They'd insisted when they signed to Arista that they would only record for a major label if they could retain their hillbilly sound - they didn't want to sell out (just yet!).
They toured with the Mavericks and Junior Brown and in late '96 they recorded their first full length album. The album was a critically acclaimed success, with another high quality mix of originals (Even If It's Wrong) and covers (Cherokee Boogie). Country (ha) radio was typically sceptical of playing anything with a hoe-down feel, but the record still managed to enter the top 40. Other highlights of the album included One Long Saturday Night and Lifetime to Prove.
The next album came in 1998, Big Backyard Beat Show, which followed the same format as the others. Another goodie, it featured tracks that were a staple of their live show, like 18 Wheels And A Crow Bar and My Name Is Mudd. With Bennett and Mead still sharing the lead vocal role, their close harmonies had also improved. I know it's Chuck's birthday, but I can't go on without mentioning the musicianship of Herron, whose all-around work is great, but particularly his steel guitar playing.
In '99 they toured the US with the Brian Setzer Orchestra during which they recorded a full live album, Coast To Coast. When Arista's country division went the way of the dodo, the band were on the street. They were picked up by Lucky Dog (Sony) who proceeded to try to make them sound like 90% of country radio. The album This Is BR549 was a real let down. The band now looked like the Beatles, they had a heavy radio-friendly drum beat and the songs seemed far removed from Little Ramona and Sweet Sweet Girl. For some reason they even removed the hyphen from their name. As with the others, the record failed to sell (despite the drop of the hyphen).
After a long quiet spell the writing seemed to be on the wall and it came as no surprise when a split was announced. Bennett and McDowell left and have since been replaced by singer/guitarist Chris Scruggs and bassist Geoff Firebaugh. They band have produced a mini CD for sale at gigs only and appear to be regrouping. They have their hard-country hat back on and hopefully will be back to have another crack at the Nashville empire. And leading the band will be the easy going blond guy with the big smile, the good looks and the tasty guitar licks.
BR5-49 homepage: http://www.br5-49.com/
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