And hold up a minute ... isn't that a Dave Edmunds cover? Is this the same band that used to play Hank Sr. for packed houses at Robert's Western Wear in Nashville?
Lawrence native Chuck Mead, at the center of BR549 since the band's beginning more than a decade ago, shakes off sleep he's been up late as a guest on The Steve and Johnnie Show, an all-night radio talk show in Chicago and confirms it. "A-1 on the Jukebox" (and nowhere on the charts) is an Edmunds original. "That [song] is one of my favorite things there ever was," he says. "BR549 ... we kind of fit it. We got a little shuffle version of it together."
Back in the early '80s, while Edmunds was still soaring, Mead and a gang of musical compatriots used to play packed, sweaty marathon shows at local venues such as the Jazzhaus. Mead, waking up, graciously strolls through the memories and fills in the band's scorecard, beginning with the Homestead Grays (named for the Negro Leagues baseball team).
"The Grays were my band," Mead explains. "I was in sort of a thrashy country band called the Pagan Idols, then I was in a pop band called the Blinkies. Some of the guys from the Blinkies and I peeled off, and we formed the Homestead Grays, a country band. I was also in a surf band called Rabbit Scat."
"There were 10 or 12 of us and four bands," Mead recalls. Back then, they'd book whole evenings, pausing between bands for a quick break, a toweling off and a change of clothes.
"And different mind frames, for sure," Mead says. "There was also a reggae band called Poverty Wanks, but I wasn't in that. A bunch of the Grays were, though." Those nights often featured Mead singing a Tammy Wynette song or two with his mom. "In fact," Mead says, "she still does that sometimes with BR549."
"Lawrence is the center of the universe," he insists, and he's not joking. "The rest of the band gets really sick of me and Shaw [Wilson, fellow Kansas native and BR549 drummer and singer] bumping into people we knew from Lawrence all over the world."
After a decade as one of the hardest-working bands ever, BR549 has gone through some major changes over the past year. "Last year was kind of a down year for us," Mead says. "We weren't out there for 200 dates last year, like usual. Don [Herron, the band's fiddle, pedal-steel and mandolin master] was off playing with Bob Dylan, Shaw was spending most of his time in Arizona, and I was in Nashville writing songs and doing my own thing." (Lately, his own thing has included producing and playing on tributes to both Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings as well as working on a solo record.)
In addition, the band pulled in a new bassist, Mark Miller, a Nashville veteran formerly of the Ex-Husbands. "Mark's a great singer and great performer and songwriter," Mead says. "He took over the vocals and harmony singing with me."
"It was a different way of making a record," Mead says, describing Dog Days. "We basically all met in Athens, Georgia, to make this record. A lot of these songs, nobody had ever heard, and we just kind of put them together right there. We were in band camp or something," he says, laughing.
"When we first got a record deal, we were doing 300 dates a year," Mead continues. "Last year, we couldn't work that much, but we cranked it back up for this record." Mead doesn't predict a 150-date year in 2006, but he's excited about what's going on now.
He emphasizes that in spite of all the changes, the band is still BR549. "We always thought that we could do different things in our own way. We all come from ... country," Mead says. There's really no better way to explain the band's blend of honky-tonk, bluegrass, Southern gospel, Western swing and little splotches of roughly a thousand other microgenres. "It's a hillbilly thing. The concept of who we are comes from Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, but you can't just keep making the same record over and over."
Dog Days, with songs ranging from the deceptively gentle "After the Hurricane" to more BR-typical songs such as "Let Jesus Make You Breakfast," still sounds new. "It's a little more sparse," Mead says. "I mean, there's only four of us now. John Keane [the studio owner who has produced R.E.M. and Widespread Panic] added his little ingredients to the whole equation, and I think it really came out well."
One of the highlights of the album is "The Devil & Me," a gospel morality tale featuring Mead's sad but exu- berant vocals backed by the gorgeous harmonies of the Jordanaires Elvis Presley's backing singers for several classic albums.
"It took them all of 30 minutes to do that track," says Mead, clearly still impressed. "They came in and did their part, and then the rest of the time they were sitting around telling stories, which was great, too. They're real pros. They've been doing it for 50 years. I mean, come on I hope I'm still doing it then."
If you count forward from the Pagan Idols era, Mead has been going at it for at least 20 years. He suddenly gets a little somber when asked about his two decades in music. "Hey, man ... I am old," he says, finally. "You people that sit around and figure out math ... don't do that."