New BR549 members change band's dynamics

It's been a time of uncertainty and quite a bit of excitement for BR549, the Nashville, Tenn., stalwarts known for incendiary live shows that feature country standards and the band's own riotous hillbilly offerings.

After seven years together, singer and guitarist Gary Bennett and bass player Jay McDowell left the band this year to spend time with their growing families. Mixed in with their departures was the unpleasant fact that Sony imprint Lucky Dog, BR549's label, dropped the band.

While the remaining three members decided whether they wanted to keep playing as BR549 (named after the "one-call-gits-all" phone number for "Hee Haw"), they took up a five-month residency at a Nashville club on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

"We kind of got to know Nashville. That's the longest we've been home since we started going on the road as BR," guitarist and singer Chuck Mead says by phone from Knoxville, Tenn.

Mead is a Lawrence, Kan., native.

The weekly club dates yielded profitable new friendships with drummer Chris Scruggs (whose lineage, yes, is connected to that Scruggs) and bassist Geoff Firebaugh. They joined the band for a European tour in May and are on the road now as part of a U.S. tour.

Mead acknowledges that the new members have changed the band's dynamics.

"It's explosive in a different way. There's a new energy to the band because these guys, they're out there rockin', you know," he says.

Staying home in Nashville for an extended period allowed Mead to indulge one of his other passions: the music of Johnny Cash.

Mead and Cash's bassist, Dave Roe, produced a rollicking tribute to the legend called "Dressed in Black." Focusing on Cash's years at Sun Records, the tribute features contributions from Hank Williams III, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, the Rev. Horton Heat, Rodney Crowell and Robbie Fulks, among others. Mead plays guitar on much of the record.

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