Though their first studio album with a newly reconfigured lineup (including the grandson of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs) is due out any day now, BR5-49's well-deserved reputation has been built on its live shows. The five members raised themselves playing five-hour sets four nights a week at Robert's Western Wear -- a combination bar and boot store just across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium -- at a time when Nashville's Lower Broadway district was in disrepair. But the fire-limit-sized mixed crowds of dancing blue-collar workers, music-industry types, punks, and Vanderbilt preppies proved that country music could be fun once again. As much as anyone, BR5-49 is responsible for the resurgence.
But after the departure of road-weary band co-founder Gary Bennett and longtime member Jay McDowell in late 2001, the remainder of the group -- guitarist-vocalist Chuck Mead, drummer Shaw Wilson, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron -- also needed a recharge, so they returned to their downtown roots.
"We played down Lower Broadway pretty much all that winter," says Herron. "We played under the name Hillbilly All-Stars, which was kind of a rotating thing. We went right back there and found two guys that were playing on the street -- the same street we were playing at, the same bars we were playing at down there -- and we went, 'Hey man, this feels like it should.' It was a lot of fun," Herron says, "and it still is."