(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )
Few people who watched Hee Haw will ever forget it.
Even if they want to.
From the pickin' and grinnin' of Buck Owens and Roy Clark to the halter tops and daisy dukes of Barbi Benton, the show both spoofed and celebrated below-the-Bible-belt Southern culture so shamelessly that even now one can hardly hear the name "Minnie Pearl" without wanting to cast swine.
In the case of the Grammy-nominated, countrybilly act known as BR5-49, however, the operative Hee Haw name is " Junior Samples." As fans of the show may remember, "BR5-49" was the phone number on the sign that Samples held while pitching used-car bargains from his junkyard. Or was it?
"Well, no," chuckles Smilin' Jay McDowell, the group's bassist. "That's not exactly the way Junior held it up. His sign said 'BR-549.' We're BR5-49. So we're not completely historically correct."
A misplaced hyphen may not seem like a big deal in these post-literate times, but for a quintet as committed to the accurate detail as BR5-49 is--their sound and look hit many nostalgic Nashville nails squarely on the head--the mistake is out of character.
The story behind it goes like this: While playing for tips at a club called Robert's Western World on Nashville's Lower Broadway, the then-anonymous group began attracting large and diverse crowds with an enthusiastically delivered repertoire of classic country songs. Eventually, the group attracted a truck driver with walking-around money.
"This happened before I joined the group," McDowell explains, "but this truck driver came through town, saw them play, and gave them a fifty-dollar tip on the condition that they make posters and advertise with it. So that necessitated coming up with a name.
“Well, one day, a regular at Robert's named Louie was telling a story about a time he was in another bar there called Tootsie's. He had two girls at his table, and Junior Samples walked in and said, 'Louie, that ain't fair! You got two girls, and I ain't got nairn!' Then somebody said, "Hey, remember? He used to say, 'Just call BR-549,' and the guys said, 'That has to be the name!'
“But they didn't remember where the hyphen went, so when they made the posters, they had it in a different place than Junior did."
Newly christened, the combo began attracting more attention. Major labels came knocking, too, with the promise of even more fast fame in exchange for the group's five signatures on five dotted lines. McDowell--whose facility with the upright bass had earned him a place in the group by then--remembers those exciting yet perilous days well.
"We had to turn down a couple of labels that were really interested because they showed signs of wanting to change the band: 'O.K., we just have to add a keyboard player and horns.' Others were saying, 'We can't have you play on the record. We'll hire people to come in and knock it out real quick.' That was another thing that made us say, 'Thank you for your time.'"
McDowell laughs--they don't call him "Smilin' Jay" for nothing--because the story has a happy ending. Arista Nashville, aware of the outfit's local appeal, vowed not to fix what wasn't broke, and so far it hasn't.
The album BR5-49 appeared last September, and its infectious combination of classic C&W (Johnny Horton's "Cherokee Boogie," Webb Pierce's "I Ain't Never") and genre-friendly originals (the country-is-better-than-punk "Little Ramona" and the situational-ethics-are-better-than-none "Even If It's Wrong") has so far resulted in a Grammy nomination for "Best Country Group or Duo" (McDowell sat next to Buddy Holly's widow, Maria Elena, at the awards) and sold-out club shows from coast-to-coast and around the world.
"We've played Chicago several times," recalls McDowell. "The first time we played a little place called Fitzgerald's, another time we opened for the Black Crowes at the Navy Pier, and the last time we played two nights at Schuba's, which is a nice little room. The shows sold out immediately, and they added a third show. It was really fun, but it was a shame we weren't playing a bigger place because we could've filled one that night."
As the prospect of filling bigger places looms, the larger picture begins coming into focus. Because Arista has released BR5-49 not only here but also abroad, McDowell and his buddies have become de facto Hee Haw ambassadors to the world.
"We've even played in Europe and Japan," says McDowell, "and the Europeans and the Japanese eat it up, the style of music we do. When I learned they had no idea what Hee Haw was, I thought, 'This is never going to work.' But it seems that our name piques their interest, especially of the people who know country and rockabilly.
“When they find out there was a show they've never heard of that ran for twenty years and that featured that music, they want to know more about it. Now we get letters from all over the world from people who've gotten tapes of Hee Haw from America.
"I'm very proud to be spreading that whole thing."