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Clothes Don't Make the Band

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BR5-49

Schubas, January 30

Waco Brothers

FitzGerald's, February 1

By Kevin McKeough

Whether you're talking about the songs of the old south and west or contemporary music that formally resembles those songs, the phrase "traditional country" is fraught with irony: what country could be less traditional than the United States, shaped as it has been by the constant push toward new frontiers?

Of course, the human desire to be a part of something enduring and fundamental--which presupposes that some aspects of life are absolute--runs counter to this state of affairs. American society has also been shaped by the tension between these opposing priorities, as is evident in a host of cultural debates, from gay marriage to doctor-assisted suicide.

That same tension has repeatedly surfaced in country music over the decades, heightened by the genre's inherent conservatism. The post-rock 'n' roll introduction of electric guitars, drums, and more aggressive rhythms dismayed purists in the late 50s, but today songs like George Jones's rambunctious "White Lightning" (written by rocker J.P. Richardson, aka the Big Bopper) are universally acknowledged as classics. After Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and others scored big with easy-listening country pop in the 1970s, the "new traditionalists" of the 1980s, artists like Ricky Scaggs and Dwight Yoakam, arrived with a leaner, twangier sound influenced by country from the 1960s and earlier.

This tug-of-war between tradition and trend has continued into the 1990s. Country has enjoyed unprecedented popularity in this decade, thanks to both "hat acts" like Garth Brooks and Vince Gill and changing audience demographics: the music's audience is now as suburban as it is rural, and its commercial growth has been achieved by attracting baby boomers put off by most contemporary rock. Accordingly, newer country stars are as likely to perform a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles, or ZZ Top as one by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. Furthermore, they're more likely to write mildly southernized rock of their own than to follow the lead of the new traditionalists.

Yet even as country has struck gold by ignoring its roots, a new crop of musicians--among them Iris DeMent, Kevin Welch, Dale Watson, and our own Freakwater--has again embraced them. Lumped together despite their diversity as part of the "alternative country" movement, most of these artists have been shut out by the Nashville-based mainstream country-music industry, relegated to a network of smaller labels (even DeMent, who records for Warner Brothers, got her start on Rounder). So industry watchers took note last summer when Arista, home to superstars like Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn, signed BR5-49, a Nashville bar band that mixes faithful renditions of country chestnuts with like-sounding originals. At a time when the genre's commercial growth, like that of the recording industry overall, is flagging, some traditionalists are optimistically speculating that the band's rise may signal a mainstream trend--and the accompanying financial support--back toward old-time country.

But even if country's suburban, rock-weaned listeners could be persuaded to embrace a more rural sound--which is unlikely--those traditionalists ought to think twice before they embrace BR5-49. As the quintet demonstrated during the first of three sold-out performances at Schubas last weekend, there's a big difference between mimicking a musical style and carrying on a cultural tradition. "We're going to continue on in the country fashion here," singer-guitarist Gary Bennett declared a few songs into the set, and indeed, for BR5-49 country music is a matter of fashion, something that can be donned and abandoned with equal ease, much like the vintage duds the quintet wears. Their sock-hop rock ditty "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)" for example, describes a punk rocker who's gone country ("Ramona," of course, is the heroine of a 1977 Ramones classic). For many postpunks, alternative country is attractive for the same reasons--its immediacy, simplicity, emotional vigor, independence, and artistic integrity--that alternative rock held before its commercial co-optation. In the song, this trend (which, intriguingly, parallels the boomers' gravitation to mainstream country) amounts to no more than another change of clothes: "She done traded in her Docs for kicker boots / Safety-pin T-shirts for Manuel suits."

BR5-49 got its start playing for tips at Robert's Western World, a combination bar and boot store. After nearly two years of performing there three nights a week, six hours a night, it's an energetic and musically proficient group, but it's still a cover band at heart, more inclined to replicate songs than interpret them. When fellow guitarist-vocalist Chuck Mead finished a requested rendition of Hank Williams's "You Win Again," Bennett commented, "Mighty Hanky of you, Chuck," and he was right again: Mead had slavishly imitated Williams's high lonesome tenor. Bennett, in turn, delivered a rendition of "The Long Black Veil." Shying away from the song's emotional complexities, he sounded like he was reporting the tale of betrayal and devotion from afar, rather than making the narrative his own. In place of such emotional exploration, BR5-49 offers what any good bar band should: good times.

The best of BR5-49's original songs, in fact, are good-natured celebrations of roguishness, from Mead's paean to Betty Page, "Bettie Bettie," to Bennett's endorsement of profligacy, "Even If It's Wrong." This is music concerned with the fleeting pleasures of young male adulthood, from ogling girlie magazines to throwing money around to wearing cool old clothes and playing at country music. There's nothing wrong with that, but unless they move on, the pleasures of BR5-49 will also be fleeting.

The Waco Brothers, who played a record release party for their second CD, Cowboy in Flames (on the local Bloodshot label), at FitzGerald's last Saturday night, don't observe country's sartorial or stylistic conventions. From the opening song, the lurching, clanking original "Death of Country Music," they declared themselves artistic scavengers, "picking the flesh off the bones." The band--a busman's holiday for six or so local guys, most of whom play in other established groups--then upheld that declaration, playing fast and loose with musical genres throughout the rest of their set. "Out There a Ways" paired Mark Durante's weepy steel guitar with lumbering T. Rex boogie; amid drummer Steve Goulding's implacable Bo Diddley beat, Dean Schlabowske's terse vocal gave way to Jon Langford's traffic-jam guitar solo on "Out in the Light"; and kicking off the Clash-style stomp of "See Willy Fly By," Langford bellowed the words "in this suburb of Babylon" like a hellfire preacher pronouncing judgment on sinners.

It ain't country by any standard definition, but then as Langford sang in "Death of Country Music," the tradition already lies mangled "beneath the tires of Nashville / In a blood pool of neglect." The song continues: "We'll spill some blood on the ashes / Of the bones of the Jones and the Cashes." They may be pillaging country's grave, but in the Waco Brothers' hands, such desecration becomes an act of reverence, a tribal ritual designed to commemorate fallen elders and carry on their work.

The first order of business is to restore the blue-collar muscularity that first drew punks to country (not to mention farmers and truckers and cowboys). To that end, the band augments raucous riffs with Langford's bearish roar, Schlabowske's bleary twang, and occasional contributions from mandolinist-bodybuilder-Mick Jones soundalike Tracey Dear. Durante isn't the virtuoso BR5-49's Don Herron is, but he's far more evocative, his sweet, plaintive tones giving the songs the requisite sense of longing. Tom Ray's bass parts throb, and Goulding takes just enough force off the beat to make the songs swing like crazy.

The Waco Brothers' own songs extend some of country's most enduring themes. There's working-man populism, best represented by the labor anthem "Plenty Tough Union Made," desperado narratives like "Harm's Way," and meditations on fate and mortality like "Dollar Dress." And though the band began by declaring country music dead, it concluded with a barrage of classics--Roy Acuff's "Wreck on the Highway," "White Lightning," Buck Owens's "Tiger by the Tail" and Cash's "Big River" and "Folsom Prison Blues"--that more than made up in intensity what they lacked in formal resemblance. Unlike BR5-49, the Waco Brothers made a statement with their covers: life is hard; dignity and delight are hard to come by; these songs provided a little of both for a community that understood such things, and they still can.

It's not a message that will ingratiate the Waco Brothers with those suburbanites of Babylon for whom Nashville has so successfully retrofitted country music, but this is one band that couldn't care less. BR5-49 may sound more like "traditional country," but the Waco Brothers are the true traditionalists. They understand what BR5-49 has yet to learn: it's country music's spirit, not its form, that's absolute.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): BR5-49 photo by Marty Perez/ Waco Brothers photo.

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