Chuck Mead: All The Way to Memphis

A Honky-Tonk hero creates another classic with Close To Home

Chuck Mead / photo remix by Ron Hart

Chuck Mead spent more than a decade on stage with BR549, the band that reinvented country music in the 90s. His guitar playing and singing helped propel the band to cult status, but BR wasn’t his first stage experience.

“I started out when I was 13, playing the drums in a country rock band led by my parents,” Mead said from the back porch of his Nashville home. “My mom sang ‘Satin Sheets’ about a million times at Elks Clubs and Eagle Clubs. It was great. I had spending money in my pocket all through Junior High. This was back in Lawrence, Kansas, before I moved to Nashville”

After BR549 broke up, Mead launched a solo career and became musical director of the Million Dollar Quartet, a show based on the spontaneous collaboration of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins that happened one afternoon at Sun Studios in Memphis. He helped put together the show’s Broadway debut and still works with the touring companies that take the show to theaters across the United States. He got further exposure to the sounds of Memphis working on CMT’s TV series Sun Records. The time Mead spent in Memphis inspired the sounds on his latest album, Close to Home. He recorded at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis, with producer Matt Ross-Spang. He said it’s a real country album and also his least country record.

Chuck Mead Close To Home, Plowboy Records 2019

“There’s a Memphis vs. Nashville thing going on,” Mead said. “Memphis thinks Nashville has a stick up its ass. Nashville thinks Memphis is a bunch of amateurs. But in reality, that’s what’s great about the musicians in both towns. In Nashville, everything’s precise. Someone says, ‘I got a 10 am session and a 2 pm session.’ You play it, ‘Boom, boom, boom,’ then get on with the next track. In Memphis, the clock disappears. You can chase something around the room a little bit more than you’re allowed to in Nashville. I took what I learned in Nashville and went to Memphis. I actually had a rehearsal before we recorded, but Matt would say, ‘Let’s try more guitar on that, or a different rhythm.’ He had ideas that helped the songs that I couldn’t hear, because I was too inside of them. It was an enjoyable experience. 

“We got the sound of the record from the studio. It just oozed vibe, so we sunk into it. I felt like Sam was watching over things. It was thrilling, because Jerry Phillips, Sam’s son, was there with us. It was great to have him along. Matt understood the importance of the place and the unique sound you get out of that studio, that you can’t get anywhere else. With someone like him at the helm of project, you feel like you’re in really good hands.” 

The songs on Close to Home crackle with energy. Mead recorded with his touring band – Mark Andrew Miller on bass and backing vocals; Martin Lynds on drums and backing vocals and Carco Clave on pedal steel, electric mandolin and resonator guitar. Two players Meade knew from his work on the Sun Records show – Rick Staff on keyboards and John Paul Keith on guitars – filled out the sound. Producer Ross-Spang added acoustic guitar and percussion to a few tracks. 

 

VIDEO: Chuck Mead in Europe, June 2019 

Mead’s honky tonk vocals are full of spunk and bring the working class humor of the lyrics alive. The tracks are musically rooted in hard-core country, but there are a few outside of the box surprises. “My Baby’s Holding It Down” has a funky Memphis soul beat, “Daddy Worked the Pole” is full of tongue twisting wordplay, sung with a phrasing that suggests Chuck Berry, while “I’m Not the Man for the Job” has a relaxed ska backbeat. “That’s Rock Steady from San Antonio,” Mead said. “I love ska. To my ears, it’s akin to the Tex-Mex feel. 

“We just went for whatever the song called for. I sang into an overdrive mic to get that spacey Houston-we-have-a- problem vibe. On the country songs, the vocals are up front, on others they drift through the mix. Where they set depends on the sonics of the song.”

The band played together, in the studio, to capture the feeling of a live gig. “It was all tracked to tape, all analogue, everyone in one room, playing together. If we needed to make a fix, we’d bounce ‘em over to Protools to put more layers on the stuff we wanted to add to. Protools is digital and has presence, but you want to capture all the ones and zeroes that are between the ones and zeroes you can hear on digital. They’re all there on the analog tape. It’s an actual vibration you can feel, so we recorded most of it the way it went down in the room. We just added a little bit of candy on top.”

 

STREAMING: Chuck Mead Close to Home

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *