When BR549’s Chuck Mead answered his cell phone, he was in Ann Arbor, Mich., in search of a music store where Ranger Doug Green used to work. Mead is the kind of guy who has a unique appreciation of Green’s band, Riders in the Sky, but he’s also quick to point out that Ann Arbor spawned two famous rock acts — the Stooges and the MC5.
With BR549 in the Detroit area for a series of shows with the Mavericks, Mead was looking for guitar picks. The picks should be easy enough to find, although Mead jokes, “Well, you know, they’re a special kind … because I’m a special kind of player.”
The Mavericks tour allowed BR549 to take its uncompromising style of hardcore country to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City while they promote the new album, Tangled in the Pines. The connection between the two bands also extends to Tangled in the Pines, which opens with “That’s What I Get” — a song Mead co-wrote with Mavericks front man Raul Malo. At recent concerts, BR549 has been returning for an encore with the Mavericks.
“In New York, we did four songs at the very end,” Mead says, mentioning Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” Mead adds, “Then all of a sudden, Raul jumped into ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ And we ended with ‘All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down.’ They fly by the seat of their pants — just like us. We put out our best every night, but it’s just great when the show goes way over the top in New York City.”
This week, BR549 head to Texas for a Thursday night (March 18) show in Austin during the South by Southwest Music Conference and a Friday (March 19) concert with the Mavericks at the famed Floores Country Store in Helotes.
Tangled in the Pines features BR549’s new lineup featuring bassist Geoff Firebaugh and vocalist-guitarist Chris Scruggs. They fill the vacancies created after Jay McDowell and Gary Bennett left the band following the release of the 2001 album, This Is BR549. Still in the fold with Mead are multi-instrumentalist Don Herron and drummer-vocalist Shaw Wilson.
After Bennett and McDowell departed, Mead acknowledges, “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were at a loss as to what to really do. The best thing we knew to do was to go back to Lower Broadway.”
Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville is where BR549 first established its reputation with a lengthy tenure at Robert’s Western Wear. Mead quickly realized that others had kept alive the traditional country torch for a crowd that still includes college students, older rock fans and even older die-hard country fans.
“We went back down and hooked up with a bunch of guys who had been playing there since we left,” Mead says. “Geoff and Chris were just two of the guys down there.” After playing there for a few months with Scruggs and Firebaugh as the Hillbilly All-Stars, it became clear that this was BR549’s new edition.
Scruggs is the son of singer-songwriters Gary Scruggs and Gail Davies — and the grandson of Country Music Hall of Fame member Earl Scruggs. Firebaugh previously played in punk and rockabilly bands in Seattle and Nashville.
“It’s like putting a new engine in a really great old car you love and don’t want to give up,” Mead says. “They bring a different dynamic to the band. It’s not any better or any worse. It’s just different and, to me, it’s great. I really love it.” However, he notes, “They’ve had to pass a few tests with some of our older fans. But they passed, and everyone loves them.”
BR549 recorded for Arista Nashville before recording This Is BR549 for Sony Nashville’s Lucky Dog imprint, a label primarily designed for established touring acts who didn’t require a six-figure budget to record an album. In releasing Tangled in the Pines on the Nashville-based independent label, Dualtone Records, BR549 reunites with executives Scott Robinson and Dan Herrington, who worked with the band during its days on the Arista Records roster.
“We just moved onto something else,” Mead says. “It’s a small town. Everybody changes labels.” He adds, “But we’ve known these guys for a long time. We feel more like a partner than an indentured servant.”
Although he’s happy BR549 has found a new home at Dualtone, Mead isn’t one to criticize the music business in Nashville.
“I think Nashville gets a bad rap about music,” he says. “It’s all like, ‘Austin has the integrity.’ Well, maybe they do, but Nashville does, too.” Explaining that people often have a negative perception of Nashville simply because it’s a business center for the music industry, Mead says, “Everybody has to make a little bit of money, right? You can’t hold it against those people.”