The former singer for honky tonk band BR5-49 goes to the home of country music on his "Back at the Quonset Hut" album.
"We made it old school," Chuck Mead says of his new album, Back at the Quonset Hut. The former singer for the honky tonk band BR5-49 cut the album of classic country songs at one of the storied Nashville studios, and the experience moved him. "I don't think I'll record any other way. You record a performance." It helped that he had Nashville session greats Bob Moore on bass and Harold Bradley on guitar in addition to his band as he tried to make a modern version of classic country. "I love that they supported what I was trying to do."
Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys open for Old Crow Medicine Show at the House of Blues tonight, and the new album seems like something Mead was going to do some day, whether in BR5-49 or on his own. His love for classic country shines through in these performances, which are true to the vibe and intent of the originals without being slavish. Like so many of the greats, Mead's a crowd pleaser, and he doesn't try to out-cool anybody with obscure song selections. Instead of rescuing lost B-sides, he offers up his versions of such hits as "Cat Clothes," "Girl on the Billboard" and "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor," all of which were originally recorded in the Quonset Hut. He even revisits "Be Bop a Lula" - a song that wasn't technically recorded in the studio. It was recorded in its basement.
Mead wasn't sold on the idea when it was first pitched. "I never thought anybody needed to do that again, but we do our own take on it," he says, and it works. Mead slows it down a little and refocuses it on Carco Clave's pedal steel. If nothing else, recording the song gave Harold Bradley a chance to tell a story about seeing Gene Vincent and the Blue Cats walking on Music Row before it was called Music Row and thinking the French Navy was in town.
"I love that - the French Navy," Mead says.
The project started as something for him and his band to record quickly to give them something to sell at shows, but when someone suggested he record at the Quonset Hut, the project snowballed. That led to bringing in the band and students, for whom it was a learning experience as they helped with the recording and the shooting of the accompanying DVD. For the students, it was the first time many had been a part of this kind of session. Most were accustomed to building tracks through overdubs.
The studio has gone through some serious changes since it was the Nashville hit factory, but Mead was surprised to discover that for all of its changes, all the experiments with where to set up the band so that they'd sound good and be able to hear each other resulted in the players sitting where they'd sat 40 or more years earlier. "I'm standing in the same spot where Patsy Cline did when she sang 'Crazy,'" Mead says. He's not a guy who's particularly concerned by the unseen, but he couldn't help but find that inspirational. "You're dealing with ghosts there. There are certain things that may be in your mind, but that doesn't make it less real. I picked up one of Hank Williams' guitars and hit a big ol' fat E chord on it and hit sent chills up my spine."
Mead has a number of guests on the album including Jamey Johnson, Elizabeth Cook and Old Crow Medicine Show, who joined him on "Wabash Cannonball." As meaningful as it was for him that Bradley told him, "You really nailed it," his real takeaway was the method of recording. He says he'll never go back.
"Live's the way to go," he says. "Record a performance. Set up the mics, get it sounding good and play. That's recording."