Chuck Mead is to country music what bulls are to cowboys in the rodeo. He bucks trends.
With BR549, Mead provided a tableau of country authenticity during the 1990s.
With His Grassy Knoll Boys, Mead visits the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia, on July 11. Country throwback Kelsey Rae opens. Altogether, they helm the latest installment of Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time Show in yee-haw fashion.
“Bristol, it’s the birthplace of country music,” said Mead, by phone from his home in East Nashville, Tennessee. “It holds a high esteem for people like us. It’s a great little town. You go there and soak up a little soul.”
Sophistication marks Mead’s new album, “Close to Home.” Tempered country flourishes peek through soulful rays of lyrics and melodies.
“The last cycle of records I put out were quasi-concept albums,” Mead said. “With ‘Back at the Quonset Hut’ (in 2012), I went in and recorded a classic country record at the legendary Quonset Hut (studio in Nashville). ‘Free State Serenade’ (2014) is my love letter to Kansas.”
“Close to Home” amounts to another expanse from Mead’s musical travelogue. He’s an explorer as he picks and shovels his way through myriad landscapes of musical terrain.
“‘Close to Home’ is a collection of songs, a bunch of little stars that aren’t really connected, but they’re connected in that I recorded them at Sam Phillips’ Recording Studios in Memphis,” Mead said. “There’s a supernatural feeling there.”
That illustrates well in “Tap into Your Misery.” A country shuffle a la Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, hints of Memphis refinement sand its edges ever so subtly.
“We had been playing that one live for a while,” Mead said. “We played it like a Ray Price shuffle. It’s a shuffle with a little more grease into it.”
A native of Kansas, Mead’s love of music began as a twofold affair. For one, as a kid he loved rock’s Beatles. For another, he played drums in his family’s country band.
“Man, half the songs we did in BR549 we did in my family’s band,” Mead said. “My mom’s family was musicians. They had a singing group in the 1940s and ’50s. They were part of the Hayloft Gang. In the early ’70s, they put the band back together. When I was 12, they got a set of drums and said I was the drummer.”
Seeds of a dream sewn, Mead moved to Nashville from Lawrence, Kansas, in 1993. He landed on Lower Broadway at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, legendary as a proving ground and hangout during the 1950s and ’60s for the likes of Roger Miller, Mel Tillis and Willie Nelson.
“I went to Nashville to play real country music,” Mead said. “That’s what I did. Gary Bennett was playing at Robert’s (a couple of doors down from Tootsie’s).”
One night, Mead joined Bennett on stage.
“Well, I never left. We were the only two guys playing Johnny Horton and Hank Williams in Nashville,” Mead said. “That’s how it started. I knew Shaw Wilson from Kansas. Smilin’ Jay McDowell was in the audience. Donnie Herron was roommates with Gary.”
They dialed country authenticity and got BR549. Signed to Arista Records, nationwide tours with opening slots for George Jones and then Bob Dylan followed. They snagged three Grammy nominations and widespread critical and peer acclaim.
“We played a rainforest benefit at the Beacon Theatre in New York with Dr. John, Keith Richards, Clarence Gatemouth Brown,” Mead said. “I still have a cigarette I bummed off Keith Richards. He said, ‘Take two. Put one behind your ear.’ It was really cool to be welcomed by those guys.”
BR549 distilled as moonshine, Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys as wine. Country pours likewise from each spout in distinct flavors of the real thing.
“The stars lined up and created BR549,” Mead said. “I love my guys now. We’ve played for 10 years. We’ll play most of the album in Bristol, maybe a few from BR.”