BR549 May Call It Quits

After five albums and years of nonstop gigs, Nashville’s favorite hillbilly band, BR549, might be throwing in the towel.

Co-frontman Chuck Mead says the band officially remains on Sony’s Lucky Dog roster but is on an “extended hiatus.” Mead will not elaborate further on the band’s status until contractual and legal issues are resolved.

“It’s complicated,” he told Thursday morning (March 7). “There’s so many factors involved with so many people. ... You have to tell certain people certain things at a certain time. I just don’t know what to say right now. There’s a ton of rumors flying right now. … Until we get things worked out, no one knows what’s going to happen.”

Rumors of the honky-tonk band’s demise have percolated for months in the music industry and among the group’s loyal fan base. The band built grassroots momentum when it began playing seven years ago at Robert’s Western World on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. They played four nights a week at the shotgun bar, drawing overflow crowds and creating a buzz to rival the one that greeted Jason & The Scorchers a decade earlier.

“The basic truth of the situation [is] there are some guys in the band that don’t want to travel anymore,” Mead says. “If you’re working as a music entity, you have to go out and play for the folks.”

BR549 have not toured since November. Bandmates Mead, Shaw Wilson (drums) and Don Herron (fiddle, steel guitar) play regularly with other musicians as The Hillbilly All-Stars at the Bluegrass Inn on Lower Broadway.

Gary Bennett (vocals, guitar) and “Smilin’” Jay McDowell (bass) are not playing with the other members, and attempts to reach them by phone were unsuccessful.

“We just go down there and play for tips because we’re jonesing to play,” Mead says. “Anything can happen [on stage], just like when [BR549] originally started down there. You go back to what you know. We’re not making tons of money or anything; we’re just playing down there because we like to play and we want to keep our chops up.

“I’ve been writing [songs] with a bunch of different people,” he continues. “I never had a chance to do that before because I was never in town.”

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. The disc reached No. 54 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. Without any Top 40 country hits, their album sales range from about 25,000 to 200,000, according to SoundScan figures.

“The band worked for seven years together,” Mead says, “and that’s a long time for five guys to stick together. We had a certain amount of success. It wasn’t like Garth Brooks’ success, and I’m not saying we ever wanted that. But we didn’t have any hit records or anything and it was real hard [work]. We had to go out and play a couple hundred dates a year. After a while, it starts to get to people. It’s totally understandable.”

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