Tangled in the Pines (Dualtone)
No matter who’s onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, the real show happens behind the scenes. This is true especially at the Ryman Auditorium, where you have to cross the stage shielded behind a thin backdrop, push past spangle-suited legends and nervous newbies in the wings, and then follow the other music that leads you up the stairs and toward a suite of dressing rooms.
And there’s BR549, burnin’ through “Blue Bonnet Rag.” Geoff Firebaugh, his bass plastered with travel stickers, pumps the beat in an adjoining room. Closer to the action, surrounded by the rest of the band, Chris Scruggs rips an insane solo on his lap steel; his chords slither up the neck, then tumble back down in a riot of percussive slaps and quivering glissandos.
They’ll be in the spotlight in a few minutes, just as they’ve been maybe 15 times over the past couple of years since Chris and Geoff, the newest members, joined the group. Odds are they’ll be regulars for years to come too, judging by the response they always get from the crowd, as well as from the old-timers who recognize something from their own past in the band’s soundkick-ass and, at the same time, respectful of those who kicked ass before them.
And now they’re welcomed on mic by Little Jimmy Dickens, the Yoda of country music. “They play the old ’50s style of country music,” Dickens informs the cheering crowd, with a sly affection that betrays a touch of the same Force that’s fueled these guys since their apprenticeship on Lower Broadway a decade ago.
It’s a shock to be reminded that 10 years have passed since the first incarnation of what was then called BR5-49 set up shop at Robert’s Western Wear. They seemed like a novelty act, but the veterans knew better; where hipsters saw irony in their dime-store duds, folks like Dickens recognized them as true believers. They were funny, sure; their songs could turn heartbreak into a Hee Haw guffaw. But their spirit was true. And, mirabile visu, it’s stayed that way, through travails that have done in countless bands of lesser faith.
Chuck Mead has been on board from the beginning. He co-founded the band in ’93, held on as they caught the updraft on Lower Broadway and rocketed through a flurry of big-time tours, quality time with Clive Davis and gigs on Letterman and Conan. Mead and most of the guys were also on board when Gary Bennett and Jay McDowell quit in January 2002, leaving their former colleagues uncertain of what was to come.
“It was a big deal,” Mead remembers, a few days after the Opry show. “In Nashville, there’s so much of, 'Well, I’ll play in this band until I get a better gig,’ but that wasn’t the way it was in our band at all. When Gary and Jay decided they didn’t want to go on the road anymore, we didn’t know what to do. All we knewShaw [Wilson], Donnie [Herron] and mewas that we wanted to play together. So we did the only thing we knew how to do: We went back to Lower Broadway and started playing.”
What they found were two new guysScruggs and Firebaughstirring things up. They all ended up playing together as the Hillbilly All-Stars at the Bluegrass Inn. “It was a free-for-all,” Mead says. “And we were like, 'Wow, I remember this. We had fun playing music.’ So we decided, 'What’s the harm in going out as BR549 again?’ After all, nobody knew at the time what was up with us. We didn’t know what was up with us. So when we got some offers to go to Europe, we were like, 'Well, shit. Why not?’ ”
With Firebaugh’s muscular, punchy attack and Scruggs’ sometimes manic virtuosity, the band was like a cozy old car suddenly buzzed on high octane. Of course, they wanted to document all this, but there was one minor problem: Their relationship with Arista Records had run its course, and there didn’t seem to be much of a chance of nailing a comparable deal.
In fact, there wasn’t. But that didn’t stop them from hooking up with Dave Roe, who invited the band into his basement studio for an old-fashioned, high-intensity spell of recording. “We had nothing to live up to at that point,” Mead says. “We were left to our own devices for the first time since we hit Lower Broadway. So we took Cowboy Keith [Thompson], our recording engineer and tour manager, went down there to Inglewood, and got to work.”
These sessions reflected their epiphany at the Bluegrass Inn. Each track, available now on the Dualtone release Tangled in the Pines, was recorded straight through, none of it doctored with Pro Tools or any other digital editing devices. “It was like the way records used to be made,” Herron says. “You play the whole song. If you like it, you keep it. If you don’t, you do it again. These days, you do 20 takes, and the producer says, 'I like what you did on Take One at the chorus. Then, I like what you did on the second verse in Take 11.’ You put it together like that.”
“That can be rigid,” Mead observes.
More to the point, Scruggs says, “It doesn’t tell the story anymore.”
The songs they came up with seemed different too. Unlike other BR549 projects, Tangled in the Pines consists entirely of original material. And while there’s plenty of their usual stuff about being flummoxed by love, other songs are more elusive or, on the other hand, take aim at clear targetsespecially those who feed on the fate of the struggling musician. “No Friend of Mine” has less than complimentary things to say about “a man in D.C.” who “gives me advice like he’s my best friend / But all he wants from me is a billboard grin.”
But the band shift uncomfortably at the suggestion that they’re targeting the music industry, especially in their hometown. For one thing, that scene is changing, most likely for the better from the player’s point of view. Dualtone, their new label, sits in a house on the edge of Music Row, like a hungry new breed evolving in the shadows of faltering dinosaurs. The label’s strength, particularly for bands with bonds to roots music, is in its niche positioning and commitment to small but steady profits over the long haul.
“A lot of people give Nashville a hard time,” Scruggs says. “They’ll say this is a corporate town. But when you think about it, Nashville is Ernest Tubb. Nashville is Little Jimmy Dickens. Nashville is Hank Williams. Even in big-time country music, you’ve got Alan Jackson, and he’s as country as can be. So you can’t blame Nashville for a lot of the things that have happened here. To me, that’s like blaming a house for being robbed.”
“We’re not 20-year-old kids,” Herron adds, “saying, 'I want to be a star. I’ll do whatever you want.’ We go at it a different way: Just help us with we want to do.”
“That makes us partners with our label,” Mead concludes. “We’re in control of our own destiny now. And that’s the way it should be.”
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