In our experience, hybrid act BR549 is best experienced in person, when audiences can benefit from the band's live voltage -- part '40s Western swing, some punk-infused honky-tonk and enough country to get your two-step going. But BR549 has undergone a personnel shift in the last year or so, and it remains to be determined whether it's a change for the better. Jay McDowell and Gary Bennett have gone the way of the band's hyphen; the new members, bassist Geoff Firebaugh (formerly of Nashville punk band javachrist) and multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs (grandson of Earl), bring youth and nerve to an outfit that has seemed to prefer "tightness" over spirit in recent recordings.
The first half of the band's latest release, This Is BR549, might fit in OK on contemporary-country radio, but, fortunately, the remaining tunes kick up the tempo and remind listeners of the early days, when BR549 used to tear it up at Robert's Western Wear in Nashville. When Smilin' Jay and Bennett left the group after the album's release, the rest of the members went back to playing for tips and eventually hooked up with Scruggs and Firebaugh in Nashville's Lower Broadway district. The band's been touring since May with the new lineup, and reports are largely favorable. Our hope? That the new blood reminds the founders that "tight" is rarely better than letting loose and seeing what comes out.