‘A Little Good News’ For Reinvigorated BR549

Country quintet feeling optimistic following label woes.

NASHVILLE — The road dogs in country band BR549 are lucky dogs.

After losing their first record deal when Arista Nashville was folded into the RCA Label Group, BR549 signed to Sony’s Lucky Dog imprint and released their fifth album, This Is BR549, in June.

“We figured that we’d be one of the ones that got shook down at Arista,” BR549 co-frontman Chuck Mead said. “But we never lost faith in what we’re doing, and we beat the odds. We’ve gotten two major-label record deals. We feel pretty lucky.”

Mead and bandmates Gary Bennett, Don Herron, Shaw Wilson and “Smilin’” Jay McDowell feel fortunate to have won the confidence of Sony, considering that commercial success has eluded them so far.

BR549 (yes, they’ve dropped the hyphen) were signed to Arista largely on the strength of their now-legendary live performances at Nashville honky tonk Robert’s Western World. Without any top-40 country hits, their album sales range from 24,000 (last year’s live Coast to Coast) to 196,000 (1996′s BR5-49), according to SoundScan figures. By contrast, the Dixie Chicks, on another Sony imprint, have sold a combined 20 million copies of their last two albums.

The new label deal isn’t the only development injecting BR549 with renewed vigor. The band recently took its first extended break from the road. “We were never home for more than 10 days at a time the first few years,” Mead said. “It hurt our psyches. We really didn’t have that much to show for it. We were out beating the bush, building a fanbase, but we became frazzled and needed to take a step back and reassess.”

BR549 also changed producers, working on the new set with Dixie Chicks co-producer Paul Worley and his frequent engineering partner, Mike Poole. A former top executive at Sony, Worley made a good run at signing BR549 in 1995, before the band landed at Arista. Sony feels BR549 have the potential to reach millions, like the Chicks, and the label wants to change the perception of the group as strictly a retro-hillbilly, alternative-country act with little hope for mainstream exposure.

Sony Music Nashville chief Allen Butler likened BR549 to “a male Dixie Chicks” in a recent issue of Billboard, contending that “they’re country but with a cool, hip factor that sets them apart from the run of the mill.”

“If Allen Butler has that high of aspirations for us, I only consider that a big vote of confidence,” Mead reasoned. “I love the Dixie Chicks. They opened up for us in Tulsa five years ago, before they had Natalie [Maines]. They were a lot like us. They played old western swing and bluegrass and traditional country. But they also had a lot of original songs, like we do. They just wanted to take it up another notch. Man, they took it up several notches.”

BR549 hope to take their careers up several notches, too. They’re giving it their best shot by widening their horizons. For the first time, they used an image consultant. As a result, they seem to have toned down some of the characteristics that stigmatized the band as retro or kitschy. Their stage attire is a dash more sophisticated, they’ve modernized their sound a bit and their repertoire has come in for a little retooling.

This Is BR549, like their past albums, combines homespun originals with classic covers. Bennett contributed three songs. Mead penned two, including the first single, “Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal.” The boys revved up the Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love” and dusted off Rockpile’s “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time).”

More surprising, the hillbilly hipsters cover the ’80s Anne Murray hit “A Little Good News” without a hint of irony. BR549 also draw from outside sources for three new songs, something they’ve been reluctant to do in the past.

“We’re a little bit wiser now and know more about how the music business works,” Mead said. “We decided to not be such bastards about having to record our own songs and decided to just put a really good record out.”

To illustrate his point, Mead cites “Look Me Up,” written by ex-NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson and former Boy Howdy frontman Jeffrey Steele (now a Sony artist himself). “Even though I wrote a song with those guys, I think that song is better than the song that I wrote with them,” Mead said.

Mead and company also recorded new songs by James Hardie McGehee (“Psychic Lady”) and Harlan Howard and Kostas (“Let’s See How Far You Get”).

Mead doesn’t see any of the changes as commercial concessions. “We’ve delivered something that doesn’t betray who we are,” he said, “yet can still go on commercial country radio.”

Mainstream country radio has been slow to put “Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal” into rotation, however. Released June 11, the song has not entered Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart (though it did register on the magazine’s Country Singles Sales chart). A music video debuted July 27 on “CMT Most Wanted Live.”

“People that tell you that they don’t care if they have a hit or not are lying to you,” Mead said. “Hank Williams wanted a hit. Buck Owens wanted a hit. Of course we want a hit. We’re still going for the brass ring.”

A solid live outfit, BR549 in years past have opened for pop and rock acts such as Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Brian Setzer and the Black Crowes. This year they played to mainstream country audiences across the U.S. on the side stage of the George Strait Country Music Festival.

Throughout July, BR549 played shows in Canada and overseas in places such as Enland, Poland and France. On July 25, the band entertained American military troops in Bosnia. They are touring the States in August, and they appear on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” on September 5.

While reaching for the brass ring, BR549 appear pleased just to be “telling [their] little stories” and being a small, lively chapter in the larger country music story.

“At first, people were telling us that we were going to be huge,” Mead said. “It didn’t exactly happen that way, but I still feel like we’re doing something important. We’ve still been getting pretty good gigs. Bob Dylan called us up. That’s a pretty good call to get.

“There is a story about Charlie Parker. After late-night jam sessions he would go to a diner and play country music on the jukebox. The guys in his band, these hardcore jazzers, would be like, ‘What are you playing that crap for?’ He would answer, ‘The stories, man, the stories.’

“When you recognize that you’re part of that [tradition],” Mead continued, “you can’t feel too sorry when things don’t go exactly the way we want them to. We’re still out there performing and getting our point of view across.”