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Chuck Mead bets on new music

By Andy Turner, June 2009

When BR549 took a hiatus three years ago, frontman Chuck Mead found inspiration in another form of collaboration, as a staff songwriter for Ten Ten Music Group, a Nashville publishing house. All the songs on his first solo effort, the self-released "Journeyman's Wager," except for a George Harrison-penned Beatles cover, come from that fruitful stint.

Mead says he still has a deal with Ten Ten, but he is no longer drawing a salary. "It was great because I learned how to sit in a room with someone with a blank piece of paper and come out with something. It's pretty intimate thing to do, and some experiences are better than others, but given the right person you can come out with something pretty damn good like that with a couple of people bouncing ideas off each other."

"There's a craft to it," he says, "but there's also learning from the other person and incorporating it into your own writing that you maybe consider too personal to write with anybody else."

The job enabled him to connect with other songwriters who he would have been unlikely to work with on his own, including Nikky Chinn, who helped compose Little Willie and The Ballroom Blitz and other hits for glam rockers Sweet. While there are no Chinn co-writes on "Journeyman's Wager," there are several songs on which Mead collaborated with noted musician, producer and songwriter Jon Tiven, who has worked with Frank Black, Steve Cropper and Howard Tate.

Chuck Mead performing Natchez Trail at SXSW

The first Mead/Tiven effort was the album-standout She Got the Ring (I Got the Finger), a title that should sure make Jerry Reed smile up in honky tonk heaven. After the Last Witness is Gone and the disc-ending No Request, which Tiven's wife, Sally, also had a hand in writing, showcase similar good humor and style..

Greg Crowe, Angaleena Presley and Trent Summar were among his other songwriting partners. Mead's favorite co-writer, however, was country musician and occasional actor Mark Collie. He and Collie became fast friends when Collie used to come down to Robert's Western World in the early days of BR549 and "get radical," says Mead. Collie helped the band land a national television spot on Crook and Chase's Nashville Tonight on the defunct Nashville Network. "We didn't even have an album out yet," Mead says.

Mead calls In a Song and A Long Time Ago, the songs he penned with Collie, two of his favorite songs he's ever written. "It's a very organic thing," he says. "We've been friends forever. We can sit for 10 minutes at an airport bar, and we have a song."

For In a Song, Mead approached Collie with the body of the track. "He and I kind of came up with the lines, in a bar, of course, a drinking establishment," Mead says. "We kind of let it go for awhile, and then we kept trying to get back together and write. When we finally did, the whole thing came together, and to me, I just love that song."

The versatile Ray Kennedy served as producer. Mead and Kennedy previously co-produced Dualtone's Johnny Cash tribute and Kennedy mixed BR549's "Tangled in the Pines" album.

Recording this time with no demands or direction, from a label, Mead and Kennedy worked hard to nail down exactly what Mead wanted for the album. "We wanted to make sure that we went for the absolute best songs that went together in a way that makes it feel like one big work," he says. "Even though I am a journeyman, and I'm a worker, and I move from one spot to another, I'm half artist, and I understand all that. That all went into the process of trying to figure out how I wanted to go about making a record and how it was different this time. Win or lose, I'd only have myself to blame. At least, I'll learn a little something, and believe me, I have."

They took an "old school" approach to recording the disc, says Mead. "We did it all on two-inch tape mixed down to a half-inch tape - no Auto-Tune," he says. "ProTools is fine, I'm not slagging on it, but I wanted to get that fidelity you can't get (with ProTools) because there's a lot of stuff between one and zero."

Pub rock references crop off frequently, especially on songs like the I-bet-Dave-Edmunds-wish-he-wrote-this I Wish it Was Friday and the groovy album-opener, Out on the Natchez Trail. Mead is bringing the party-ready songs out on the road with the Grassy Knoll Boys (guitarist/bassist Mark Miller, drummer Marty Lynds and Carco Clave on pedal steel).

He cites Stiff Records alums such as Elvis Costello and Wreckless Eric as musical favorites along with Brinsley Schwarz and Mott the Hoople. "The hillbilly and pub rock are both a part of me," he says. "BR recorded Play that Fast Thing, a Nick Lowe song, and we also did A1 on the Jukebox, a Dave Edmunds song. So, I've always had that propensity, but that was just their version of the hillbilly and rockabilly shit that I do. There's a little kindred spirit there."

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