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BR5-49 lives to see the day when Hee Haw is hip

The bloodhound's name was Beauregard, and the phone number down at the used car lot was BR5-49. If those things make you smile, your secret is out: You were a Hee Haw fan.

Whether you saw it as a cunning satire of everything that drove you nuts or a proud affirmation of the much-maligned culture of which you were a product, there's no denying that Hee Haw -- for all its cornball chauvinism -- was how Nixon-era country music fans fed their TV appetites for old legends and new artists alike. Given the show's popularity, it was inevitable that an act from the current honky-tonk renaissance would choose its name from one of Hee Haw's longest-running skits. And it just so happens that the act that did so is one of the movement's finest. BR5-49, the phone number waved by jalopy maven Junior Samples, proved to be a common point of reference for songwriter/guitarists Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett, bassist Jay McDowell, dobro/fiddle/steel mandolin player Don Herron and drummer "Hawk" Shaw Wilson. The group hit on the name when, during a period playing gigs at Robert's Western World, a combination boot store/honky-tonk on Nashville's Lower Broadway, a truck driving fan gave them money to print up posters.

Lower Broadway is where failed musicians go to become embittered drunks; it's also where upstarts go to polish their craft. The group's ability to handle a lengthy list of covers showcasing hundreds of B-sides from the likes of Hank Williams, Bob Wills and lesser trad-country icons quickly made them the talk of the town. Add to that Mead's and Bennett's abilities to write new songs at least as well as BR5-49 plays the old ones, and it's not surprising that they soon drew the attention of major record labels.

But BR5-49's story is about more than Music City and Hee Haw. Back in the 1970s around Drexel, Missouri, Mead was "just the kid drummer behind my dad's band," pounding away as a bunch of drunken farm kids danced, flirted, fought and generally made fools out of themselves. (I should know; I was there. Mead was probably still on the bandstand when old Jack Daniel and I misjudged an icy turn and wound up in jail coming home from Drexel one night.) His mother and her family had performed on their own radio show in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the '70s his parents started up the band again, adding the 12-year-old Mead behind the drum kit.

"We played places like Eldorado Springs and the Elks Club in Nevada," Mead recalls, mentioning tiny Missouri towns where cattle outnumber people. "I was in rock bands as a kid, playing in the basement or the garage. But at the same time I was playing with my dad, so I saw both sides of it."

Those two sides clash amicably on Mead's "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)" from BR5-49's self-titled Arista debut, as the band two-steps the tale of a beehived jitterbugger with serious punk influences. Mead claims that he can easily reconcile the apparent disparity between the musical styles.

"The thrashy bands that I was in always did Hank Williams tunes. There's a kinship, a shared honesty, between punk -- which was really just rock getting back to the basics -- and country-western," Mead explains. "It all comes from American folk music; it never left the True Path."

The capital "T" and "P" are obvious in Mead's voice as he expands on the philosophy that resulted in a band with upright bass and steel guitar singing about elbows flying in mosh pits. "The Texas cats are the coolest. Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins were so cool, and they were country. Gatemouth Brown on fiddle ... whoaah," Mead declares. "You take the fathers of country music -- Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills -- they developed what they did out of things they learned from black people. The history of American music in a nutshell is that black people gave white people the banjo and got the guitar in return."

That's some heavy musing from a band that mixes old-hook, fresh-point compositions such as Bennett's bad-boy "Even If It's Wrong" and Mead's life-on-the-road "One Long Saturday Night" with reverent reinventions of tunes by country legends ranging from Mel Tillis to Gram Parsons. But for all of their love of tradition, the members of BR5-49 are very much a part of the world they live in.

"We've played at a Nashville grade school where they don't have music or art classes because they don't have any money. You have to do things like that," Mead says. "Putting cops on the streets is just putting a Band-Aid on a gaping head wound. The problem is kids that don't have opportunities to see the beauty in the world. What chance do those kids have, unless someone makes [them] one?"

Mead snags himself on his own thought, realizing suddenly that here he is, a second-generation country musician in a band that's gained a wide following in an incredibly short time who's still naive enough to think BR5-49 can make a difference.

"I'll get off my soapbox now," he says softly.

BR5-49 performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, December 5, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. Dead Crickets open. For info, call 869-

 
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