Not long ago, a couple of Music Row power playersa record producer and a hit songwritermet with the members of the country-rock group 5 Bucks. “We love what you’re doing,” the established insiders told the hungry outsiders. “We think what you’re doing is the way that country music has to go. We want to work with you and make it happen.”
But there was a catch: Even though the members of 5 Bucks write their own songs, the two Music Row men told the group that they would provide the material. The two power-players would write the songs and produce the album, dictating the direction of the band and maintaining final approval of all musical decisions.
When the band rejected the idea, the Music Row insiders changed their tone: If the band didn’t work with them, they’d find another group to work with, and they’d create something similar to what 5 Bucks does. Even if the band was fortunate enough to get another recording offer, by then they would be considered bandwagon-jumpers rather than originators. “It was about the politest threat I’ve ever heard,” says Richie Owens, guitarist and co-songwriter for 5 Bucks.
Afterward, the band members reiterated a long-standing pledge to themselves: They were going to have a good time; they weren’t going to compromise; and they would make the best music they could and let the music business come to them.
“We got together as a band because we have fun playing together,” Owens says. “Rather than spending time pitching ourselves or our tapes, we went out to build a fan base playing live. We want to focus on the interaction between us as a band and between us and the fans.”
If you ask the members of 5 Bucks to describe their music, all they’ll say is that they’re country boys playing rock ’n’ roll. Waldschlager struts and snarls like an old-school rock starimagine Mick Jagger if he had grown up wearing denim overalls. Meanwhile, the other players combine nasty guitar licks with clean harmonies and concise song craft. The group likes to say its sound is defined by the long Tennessee border: There’s the Memphis strut of Rufus Thomas, the compact tunefulness of Music Row, and the mandolin-driven sound of the Smoky Mountains.
Formed two years ago, 5 Bucks originally performed as Shinola until a trademark problem forced the group to change its name. For the band, though, the shift was simply part of an ongoing evolution; most of the members have been playing on Tennessee bandstands for years.
Waldschlager previously fronted the Dirtclods, a Knoxville-based band, while guitarists Richie Owens and Bob Ocker were members of The Movement, a popular Nashville alternative-rock band in the ’80s. Bassist Mark Brooks is a former Dirtclod who joined the band in late 1996. Drummer Bob Grundner joined a few months later. Fellow band members all point to Grundner’s entry as a turning point; his ability to bring muscle and finesse to the band’s wide-ranging sound lit a fire under the other members.
The band got a boost earlier this year when it backed Dolly Parton on her recent album, Hungry Again. Owens, Parton’s cousin, had worked with her off and on for years, helping her with her short-lived TV variety show, with demo recordings, and with a children’s album. Parton originally hired her cousin’s band to back her on demo recordings, but the pairing worked so well that Owens ended up co-producing her album and using the band as the supporting musicians. The album has become Parton’s most critically praised release of the ’90s.
“We like the idea of being the kind of band that has its own identity but is flexible enough to back other artistslike the Grateful Dead or The Band or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” Owens says. Indeed, the band has since been hired to play behind other singers, both live and in the studio.
“That’s the kind of thing we admire and that we’re proud to be able to do,” he continues. “We’re interested more in longevity than in making some kind of big score. We’ve all been doing this a long time. And the reason we still like doing it is because we’re enjoying ourselves. That’s really the main goal. We want people who see us to be able to tell we’re having a blast.”
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