BR549 may not be a household name across America just yet, but it's hard to come back from a trip to Nashville without feeling like you've stumbled upon the country band version of Howard Dean just prior to his ascent to national stardom. Taking their name from a phone number used on Hee-Haw, BR549 started out with a long stint at Robert's Western Wear, a cowboy haberdashery that doubles as a bar. There, they pulled off the impossible: making country sound hip to a range of people spanning frat boys, punks, and broken-down drunks at a time when Garth Brooks nearly killed the genre off by breaching the boundaries that separated it from a corrupting pop marketplace. But whenever a beloved style of art is besieged by brutish modernity, a counterrevolution always forms, and BR549 were elected the champions of the old school honky-tonkers.
This position has always sat uneasily with the group, since the very thing that made them exciting in the first place was their willingness to look forward in addition to reaching back. Most people found their ubiquitous covers agreeable, but some sniped that singer Chuck Mead sounded too arch in his delivery, and this translated into a mini-backlash that viewed BR549 as false prophets, a modernist facsimile of something they only pretended to understand. This bunch was only irritated further by the band's willingness to try new things, such as working with producer Steve Albini (formerly the brainchild of Big Black, whose final album was titled Songs About Fucking). Tensions reached a climax with 2001's This is BR549, a record with a claim of self-definition that was more dispiriting than bold thanks to a set of songs that struck many as a tragic sell-out to a country music establishment that had already ruined everything else in Nashville. When original members Gary Bennett and Jay McDowell left soon afterwards, rumors of a breakup began to swirl. To continue the earlier analogy, this was when BR549 took a beating in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But BR549 did not break up. Instead, they jumped ship from the major label which had put out This is BR549 and recruited two new members, Geoff Firebaugh and Chris Scruggs (grandson of Earl). Photos of these two new additions may not ease the fears of fans questioning the group's recent direction -- Firebaugh has a soul patch and Scruggs sports black plastic glasses suitable for Rivers Cuomo -- but the first album they helped to record, Tangled in the Pines, should relax some nervous hearts. The elder statesmen of BR549 claim that some young blood was just the kick in the pants they needed, and there's little arguing with the results. Paying for the studio out of their own pockets, BR549 set out to make the album they've always wanted to do, playing entirely original tunes for the first time in their recorded history. Listening to it, it's hard not to wonder why no one let them have their way before. Though it seems certain it won't make the splash that their debut did, Tangled makes a strong case for the band's artistic rebirth while it simultaneously captures the struggle to get to that point.
Many observers noted BR549's punky energy when they first surfaced, with some even going so far as to lump them in the alt-country camp. With time and countless gigs, this spunk wore down, and while the musicianship always remained top-notch, one feared that BR549 would simply burn out before too long. Yet the pair of youngsters now onboard doesn't come across as an attempt to mask the ravages of time so much as a way to give it the kind of weary vitality the Rolling Stones captured so well on Exile on Main Street. That record is afforded classic status today but got a lukewarm reception at the time of its release. No one can say for sure how the public will react to Tangled in the Pines, but if BR549 manage to finally get people thinking about them as a long-term act, don't be surprised if this is the album pegged as the one that did it for them.