BR5-49's Chuck Mead rediscovers his sweet spot in classic honky-tonk | Bleader

BR5-49's Chuck Mead rediscovers his sweet spot in classic honky-tonk


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Chuck Mead
  • courtesy of Chuck Mead
  • Chuck Mead
Back in the mid-90s Chuck Mead helped kick-start a revival of classic honky-tonk aesthetics in Nashville as a member of BR5-49, playing weekly gigs at a combination boot shop and bar. An antidote to country music's shift toward soft rock aimed at the suburbs, the quintet played plenty of classic covers, but for most of its recordings the band emphasized original material written and performed in old-school fashion—sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. Over time, though, the band put aside its retro trappings—both in terms of look and sound—and its music, while still far from mainstream country, became less gripping. And after Arista Records chewed them up, Mead turned his contempt on the industry that first gave them a chance.

Last year he released his second solo album, and it proves his love of hard-core country hasn't been diminished by his experiences. For Back at the Quonset Hut (Ramseur), he set out to make a collection of covers of classic tunes, but the album took a sharper focus when he learned that, after years as an office building. the old recording studio once owned by the legendary producer Owen Bradley had been reopened as a lab for the Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business at Belmont University. A few of the dozen tunes that ended up on the album were cut at the studio, casually referred to as the Quonset Hut after Bradley added a military-grade structure on to the original studio—including Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor" and George Jones's "You Better Treat Your Man Right."

Yet Mead went further and employed some of Nashville's most veteran studio musicians to play alongside his own Grassy Knoll Boys—folks like pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, fiddler Buddy Spicher, guitarist Harold Bradley (Owen's brother), and bassist Bob Moore. The great Bobby Bare added vocals to a version of the Carl Smith classic "Hey Joe," while contemporaries like Jamie Johnson and Elizabeth Cook also added cameos (on, respectively, "You Better Treat Your Man Right" and a cover of the Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn hit "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries," which Kelly Hogan previously covered with Andy Hopkins on her terrific 2000 Bloodshot album Beneath the Country Underdog). It's a delightful album—steeped in the past, but not bogged down by fussy details—that showcases Mead in his natural element. The pressure for BR5-49 to succeed commercially seemed to sap him of the spirit on display all over this record.

Below you can hear Mead's version of the Del Reeves trucker song "Girl on the Billboard." Mead and the Grassy Knoll Boys play FitzGerald's on Saturday.

Today's playlist:

Rodrigo Campos, Bahia Fantástica (YB Music)
Frank Lowe, Doctor Too-Much (Kharma)
Eyvind Kang, The Yelm Sessions (Tzadik)
Oumou Dioubate, Lancey (Sterns)
Shirley Gunter, Oop Shoop: The Flair and Modern Recordings 1953-1957 (Ace)

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