Hillbilly Nuts

Anyone who has seen BR5-49 perform knows that the best place to hear the band's music is in a live setting — preferably in a smoky bar filled with drunken cowboys, high-haired belles, flying beer bottles and at least a fight or two. This Nashville-by-way-of-Kansas group — which takes their name from an old Hee-Hawskit — is among the last of the true-blue, honky-tonk road warriors.

Even though live albums tend to be merely tour souvenirs and between-studio-album filler, such is not the case with BR5-49, who actually debuted in 1996 with a wonderful EP called Live From Robert's, recorded in a performance at the downtown Nashville bootery/bar where they first got noticed. Four years later, with two studio albums under their belts, they've returned with another live set, and suffice it to say that if the world were truly a fair place, this album would become the band's breakthrough — kind of their own BR5-49 at Budokan.

This five-piece band, led by guitarists and singer/songwriters Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead, has been barnstorming America the last half-decade with its jacked-up brand of old-school country and rockabilly, and the well-honed versions of "Tell Me Mama," "Six Days on the Road" and "Uneasy Rider" found here tear the roof off the sucker. Still, even though a live BR5-49 album seems like a win-win proposition, Coast to Coast is marred by a few — and, frankly, inexplicable — problems.

Although the sound quality isn't as bad as a bootleg, it sounds no better than a straight-from-the-mixing-board tape. Thus, "Hawk" Shaw Wilson's two-fisted drums are somewhat muddy, and Don Herron's mind-blowing steel guitar playing (which at times resemble cartoon sound effects) unfortunately tends to get lost in the mix. Another complaint is that Coast to Coast sticks with the rigid 10- to 12-song format that is common with country releases — even though this is a band that generally plays lengthy sets that would comfortably fill up a CD with far more songs than presented here.

Also, while some of their best numbers are represented (their wonderful original, "Even If It's Wrong," for example), many of the group's most popular tunes don't appear — most notably, Big Backyard Beat Show's terrific "Out of Habit." (In fact, none of the songs from that 1998 album are showcased here.) The omission of such songs as "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)" and "Cherokee Boogie" is a shame — kind of like Gene Simmons and company leaving "Rock and Roll All Nite" or "Strutter" off of Kiss Alive! or Paul Stanley forgetting to ask the audience, "Are you ready to rock?" Still, if you want to look at this glass as being half full, we can view these omissions as leaving room for several unreleased songs you can't get anywhere else. And for that, these ever-likable troopers can be forgiven.