Chuck Mead, as usual, is laughing. It's part of his essence, part of his act -- part of what makes him and the band he heads, BR549, one of the hottest honky-tonk bands in the country, if not the Western world. "What we do is controlled chaos," he says. "We draw on lots of influences, from Bob Wills to George Jones, from the Beatles to the Ramones. But we never know what we're going to play till we get onstage. We 'audible' everything."
Spontaneity may be the essence of any great live act. BR549 has it aplenty, just as they did when they first started packing their home honky-tonk, Robert's Western Wear in Nashville, in the mid-1990s. At a time when soulless "hat acts" were rising to fame and fortune, those fans ached for an authentic sound. "One thing we do is play honest," says Mead. "We have fun. Folks respond to that. Seems like 'BR' appeals to just about every kind of fan." True enough for a band that has played with everyone from George Strait to Bob Dylan.
Maybe that's why Music City insiders pegged BR as the Next Big Thing -- even as the band, with its cowpie-kickin' act, outgrew its favorite venue and, it seemed, Nashville itself.
Today, though, an older and savvier Mead, 40, is simply explaining the name of the group, which takes the stage tonight at Annapolis' Rams Head Tavern as part of its current world tour. "Listen," he says in conspiratorial tones. "Hank Williams' first gig was in Baton Rouge in May 1949, right? Put it together, and what do you get? BR549. Pretty simple, huh?"
Simple, yes -- if it were true. But the name, like the band, is harder to explain. To get both, it helps to remember the late 1960s and early '70s, the TV heyday of NBC's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and its hillbilly knockoff, Hee-Haw.
Every week on that cornball variety show, a car salesman in overalls, Junior Samples, held up a sign with his dealership's number: BR549. No one -- not guitar picker Roy Clark, crooner Buck Owens or clown Minnie Pearl -- ever addressed the fact there weren't enough digits to make a phone number.
The true story fits, perhaps because Mead and his four bandmates are so democratic in their tastes. "Lord, was there ever good music on that show," says Mead. "Faron Young, Porter Waggoner, everybody in country. But it wasn't just them. Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown came on and played with Roy Clark. Ray Charles performed. I even remember seeing Paul McCartney -- he played [the Wings hit] 'Sally G.' When he was done, they stood up out of that cornfield on the set and hollered, 'Hee-Haw salutes Paul's hometown of Liverpool, Kansas, population 225. Saaa-LUTE!' "
Mead and his mates -- especially co-frontman Gary Bennett, who left the group recently after seven years on the road -- are no snobs in their tastes. "We're a country band with rock-and-roll leanings," he says. "We play what we grew up hearing on our parents' records: Hank Williams, Lefty Frisell, Jimmie Rodgers. The rock stuff is in there too, and some jazz-guitar stuff like Django Reinhardt, but it all stems from country." That's how BR differs from so-called alt-country bands such as Wilco and Son Volt, he says. "I'm not slaggin' on anybody. They're good. But they're rock bands who stumbled on the purity, the honesty, the majesty of country music."
The band's new release, This is BR459, affirms their roots, their multiple influences and their freewheeling sense of humor. One number, "Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)," covers an original by rocker Nick Lowe. Bennett's "The Game" is moody, and Mead's "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal," gives a "bluesy" voice to Mead's life motto: It's insanity to get a job. "Touring is hard," he says. "That's why Gary and [original bassist] Jay McDowell dropped out. It's been tough on all of us. We damn near broke up altogether.
"But let's be honest. What we do ain't 9-to-5 behind a desk. It ain't hammering nails. It's fun. If we ever lost that passion for what we do, we'd quit."
In fact, this fall they're doing anything but. When the band failed to "happen" commercially, nationwide, they didn't know why, and it drained them. Traveling 300 days a year can do that. Two years ago, they took a much-needed break and reassessed their goals. Bennett and McDowell dropped out. Mead, fiddler Don Herron and drummer Shaw Wilson stayed. They hired Paul Worley, the Dixie Chicks' producer, to oversee their new CD. They switched to Sony Nashville's Lucky Dog label. They wrote more originals. They hired a costume consultant, who persuaded them to shed their trademark overalls for a glitzier look. "We didn't know a thing about the record business then," says Mead. "I'd like to think we've grown up some."
That changed their sound, if only a little. Singer and guitar picker Chris Scruggs, 19 -- grandson of Earl, the man who supercharged the bluegrass banjo -- and bassist Geoff Firebaugh signed on. "It's the same energy as BR always had," says Mead. "The coloring's a little different. I miss singing with Gary, which was a big part of BR549. But we'd never do a thing to weaken the sound. We owe that to BR fans, here in America and in Europe."
After they polish off the East Coast, in fact, Mead and his mates pack for Spain, Scandinavia and the British Isles, where record sales have always been strong -- and where their former label, BMG, just re-released their first "Best Of" album.
Rams Head fans are in for a rollicking 90-minute show and then some, Mead says. "If we're in a groove, we'll keep playing. We love the Rams Head. The sound is great."
The Rams Head labels them "alt-country hipsters." Mead shrugs. Any good music is hard to categorize, he says. "That's cool, though," he says, laughing. "We'll take it. But really, we're a hard- driving country band. That's how I normally put it. We just like to play."
He pauses to put things in context. Typically, for this band, there isn't any. "We're a country band, yeah," he says. "But what's our niche? Our niche is that we have no niche. We aim to keep it that way."
Where: Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St., Annapolis
When: 7 p.m. today