Roots Watch: Chuck Mead’s Nashville Is Smart, Live, and Kicking

Barry Mazor | March 6th, 2012

Chuck Mead 2

Owen and Harold Bradley’s Quonset Hut, the first Music Row studio, was a place where, circa 1966, Tammy Wynette could be recording her breakthrough “Apartment #9” in one room, and Bob Dylan recording cuts from Blonde on Blonde in another, while an unknown named Kristofferson emptied the ashtrays for both. But then, people tend to forget that Gene Vincent turned up the rockabilly heat to scorching recording “Be Bop a Lula” at the same place a decade earlier, no matter what that Buddy Holly Story movie suggested about how they couldn’t rock there— or in Nashville in general. A guy like legendary bass man Bob Moore might play with Elvis one hour, Flatt & Scruggs the next, then move right on to that lavish Nashville Sound session . Chuck Mead knows these things, knows what sparked all that and what they had to do with each other in a way that’s added up to the music he’s made for a couple of decades now. He’s gathered up songs, sounds and musicians (including Music Row A- Team players, Mr. Moore among them)  and taken them back to record at the site to remind the rest of us of all of this on his new CD, Back at the Quonset Hut.

It’s very, very good-crisp, clean, alive and evocative.  It has both musical homework and chops behind it , and, sure, also a sense of history.  But make no mistake; this one shouldn’t be described by the word that’s so often,and generally inaccurately, been applied to Chuck Mead’s music—“retro.”  “Retro” suggests music in quotes, a self-conscious return to older sounds you can say you’ve done it, very possibly with a few snide remarks tossed in regarding the downward slide ever since. Since co-founding BR549 some nineteen years ago, Mead’s long suit has been pulling off the challenging trick of being accurate about older styles and how they work while avoiding embalming them or mocking them, and, all things considered, without turning them into an antagonistic cause, either.. You can hear that he plays what he plays because it’s alive for him now,—and that’s almost always a maverick, minority position.  Such guest artists on the new record as Old Crow Medicine Show, Elizabeth Cook and—yep—Jamey Johnson share precisely that trait.  They’re not so much “alt” anything as absolutely involved in the twang styles they take on.

It may be tough to recapture now the excitement with which BR549’s initial 1996 major label EP Live From Robert’s and the follow-on, self-titled full album were greeted in musical circles looking for an alternative direction in country music. Their anthemic, Chuck-written “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts),” about this ex-punk rocker girl who’s “turned in her Docs {Martens, that was} for kicker boots” was the driving, perfect encapsulation of the spirit of that moment’s Next Big Thing Alt.Country. (A soft vinyl version of that single included in the Sept-Oct 1996 issue of No Depression was the only recording ever to be included inside the magazine.)  The band, unlike too many others of the era, didn’t just refer to country while staring at their own shoes (boots or Docs)  and playing indie rock with a lap steel tossed in for style;,  they played an aggressive, knowing  updated yet warm brand of country that took off from the sounds of 1940s hillbilly boogie and fifties rockabilly, and they did it very well. (Their versions of “Cherokee Boogie” or “Ole Slewfoot” simply cooked.) They didn’t mind a little Nashville flash in the dress and presentation departments, either—which brought extra visibility from the beginning. Mead, partner Gary Bennett and company in BR549 shared some of that sensibility, capability and enthusiasm with others who emerged from that same Lower Broad Nashville Scene—Kenny Vaughan, Paul Burch, Greg Garing—all contemporary, all capable of taking part in those now legendary live Hank Williams song marathons, none of them sonic embalmers or automatic wayback-playback duplication machines.

Mead has known how to say yes to varied Nashville flavors ever since; he’s had Music Row cowrites with writers ranging from Guy Clark to Mark Collie. And his tendency to bring the music back alive and kicking has continued; in his role as musical director of the Broadway book show The Million Dollar Quartet he’s kept casts in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London capturing the spirit of Elvis and Perkins and Jerry Lee and Cash live on multiple states, and with actors who can actually play the instruments called for. He’s been, in effect, the musical conscience and quality control officer of that very successful salute to Sam Phillips and the stars of Sun.

Just last week, at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater, he opened the Back at the Quonset Hut CD release show by (as he put it) “opening for himself,” with his current versatile band The Grassy Knoll Boys. After a showing of a revealing film on the making of the record by Craig Havighurst, A-team legends Harold Bradley, Buddy Spicher and Bob Moore, plus ace picker and sometime musical partner Chris Scruggs, and for “Wabash Cannonball,” (as on the CD, the Old Crow Medicine Show boys joined the band for a genuinely live set of the Carl Smith and Tammy Wynette and Carl Perkins and George Jones and Del Reeves songs the same gang put on the record.

Chuck Mead has been and remains a great Nashville resource—and example.  This concept of loving what you do and plunging into it instead of decrying and opposing what you don’t, maybe it could catch on.  Meanwhile, check out this record; it’s infectious.

And by the way:  Knowing a little something about what you’re talking about is often an excellent idea, even now, and that applies to talk or arguments about country music, too. I highly recommend getting a copy of the brand new, second edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Music, compiled by the staff of the Hall of Fame and Museum, then giving a second copy to the person you argue with about these things most. Reflecting the many changes that have occurred since the first 1998 version, and including artists, new research and authoritative new lists of chartings and awards, this one sets records straight and up to date.  (I’m a minor contributor, but don’t let that stop you.)

  1. Rick
    March 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Its great to read that Chuck Mead has found his way back to the “true path of country music righteousness” (lol) as his last album was far too “Americana” for my tastes. I rarely buy new releases, but this album moves to the top of my list of well, one album. That release show is something I would have loved to have attended in person. I wish they would re-do it on Music City Roots where the rest of us could tune in. Oh well…

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