You don't have to look far right now to find country acts invoking the genre's past. It's practically de rigueur to namedrop Cash, Jones and the Hanks — both Jr. and Sr. — over a wall of rock guitars, so as to underscore one's country-ness. Think of it sort of as the functional equivalent of flashing a gang sign.
Chuck Mead, on the other hand, has always been the sort of performer whose actions speak louder than his references. As a founding and co-fronting member of BR549 — the hot, young post-punk hillbilly band that built such a deafening buzz with their mid-1990s sets at Robert's Western Wear (now Robert's Western World) that major labels and national media came calling — he has a long track record of reviving and revitalizing earlier sounds.
Considering Mead is the product of a family of Midwestern country performers and that BR549 developed quite the arsenal of old-school covers while playing for tips on Lower Broadway, it's surprising he hasn't made a classic country covers album before now.
Says Mead, by way of explanation, "When I started out alone, just playing Tootsie's in the front window, just one guy, the emphasis was on your [original] songs. Of course, you'd play people's requests, because they wanted to hear old country music too. Really, at that time, I didn't have five hours' worth of my music to play. ... So [when the band got together] we just did what we knew, and that was old country and rockabilly and rock 'n' roll. I mean, we were doing weird things like hillbilly versions of Ramones songs."
A decade-and-a-half later, Mead decided it was high time he devote an entire album to selections from the country songbook, which is exactly what he's done on Back at the Quonset Hut, his second solo effort, and the subject of an accompanying documentary.
You'd be hard-pressed to find many country performers — from the heart of the mainstream to the outer fringes of Americana — who don't profess a love of old country music, meaning stuff from the 1970s outlaw era and earlier, songs distinctive in sound and distant in time. But Mead outdid them all with the tradition-conscious care and creative flexibility he applied to his new album.
Its title isn't just figurative. He really did record it at the Quonset Hut, Music Row studio of legend — set up by Owen and Harold Bradley, host to some of most important sessions of the '50s and '60s, now in Belmont's hands and, at long last, operational again. He invited legendary A-Team session guys like Hargus "Pig" Robbins, Buddy Spicher, Bob Moore and Harold Bradley himself to augment his own band, The Grassy Knoll Boys (plus latter-day BR member Chris Scruggs). Getting the veteran players in that space made it a literal homecoming.
"They were sitting in the exact places recording where they did for years and years and years in the '50s and the '60s," says Mead. "And I got a front-row seat to see it. They were just as nice as they could be to me, and they were digging the music, and it shows. ... They're playing their asses off."
Like the players, the gear they used spanned generations, from vintage Elvis mics to computer-based Pro Tools, oft maligned by analog purists. "You can use Pro Tools for good," Mead says. "It doesn't have to be all Auto-Tuned. ... If Hank Williams was alive today, he'd be recording on Pro Tools."
Mead's song selection — or curation, in today's intellectualized parlance — was equally free of tunnel vision. "At first," he says, "it was like, 'OK, I'm gonna do all songs that were recorded at the Quonset Hut.' ... But then I started thinking, 'You know, I've got to do a Hank Williams song.' Hank Williams was my bread and butter in my musical development."
Hence the frisky cover of "Settin' the Woods on Fire." Same deal with the hopped-up, Old Crow Medicine Show-backed rendition of "Wabash Cannonball."
"Roy Acuff needed to be on there," says Mead. "That wasn't recorded in the Quonset Hut, but it's still representative of what I consider classic country."
It's worth noting that Mead didn't fall in line with today's selective musical memory. He cut a familiar Williams number, sure — and in inspired fashion — but he also dueted with Bobby Bare Sr. on "Hey Joe," a hit for Carl Smith. And Smith, unlike Williams, has yet to be adopted as a rock 'n' roll icon. "I think arrest records have a lot to do with it, if you know what I mean," says Mead.
He also chose the album's guests more for personality than fame factor. Besides Bare's playful turn as a guy cutting in on a friend's girl, there's Jamey Johnson, in his element singing done-me-wrong country blues, Elizabeth Cook, who plays Loretta to Mead's Conway, and Old Crow, whose recording session wowed a college engineering class.
Mead laughs, "Probably those Belmont students were more familiar with Old Crow than they were with me, because, you know, I'm old now. We were hip back in the '90s."
That same good-humored humility characterizes the entire project, so that it never feels merely reverent.
"I didn't want it to be a period piece," says Mead. "I didn't want it to be stale and scolding: 'This is how country music should be.' Because nobody wants to be told, 'Your music is crap. Listen to me, because I know what's up.' That's not what music is about. It's about freedom, right?"