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Chuck Mead

Close to Home – 2019 (Plowboy)

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

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CDs by Chuck Mead

Honky tonker Chuck Mead, former leader of the neo-traditionalists BR-549, steps out once again for his fourth solo effort, this one recorded in Memphis under acclaimed and current "go-to" roots producer/engineer Matt Ross-Spang. "Close to Home" was recorded at the historic Sam Phillips Recording Studios and marries country with vintage rock n' roll. Of course, Mead's been doing that for the better part of 25 years, but this one has that Sun Records Memphis flavor, perhaps inspired by Mead's role as musical director of the Broadway musical "Million Dollar Quartet" and the CMT dramatic series "Sun Records."

Those two projects gave Mead the opportunity to meet Ross-Spang, who was the head engineer of the studio. The two set out to make a record slightly out of Mead's comfort zone. Mead points to several unexpected directions, one being the opening "Big Bear in the Sky," nodding to Johnny Norton in a history-like ballad of the Indian folk legend about the Ursa Major constellation. "I'm Not the Man for the Job" has a completely direction, a combination of Doug Sahm Tex-Mex strains with reggae beats. Two songs in, it's already sounding varied and special.

Mead gets most traditional of on his co-write with Brent Maher, "Tap Into Your Misery" with the requisite weeping pedal steel, honky-tonk piano and references to beer and jukebox. The title track speaks to situations we've all experienced. You begin thinking or talking about someone, and suddenly they appear. Or, you happen upon a book or movie that's synchronous with your own life. It's one of several examples depicting how Mead doesn't just tread through the conventional country clichés.

Echoes of Chuck Berry imbue the predictable "The Man Who Shook the World." Despite its familiar pattern, Mead makes it fresh. "Billy Doesn't Know He's Bad" is the perfect sing-along for a live show. Pre-rock hillbilly appears in "Better Than I Was" while Louisiana swamp rock carries "Shake."

These various styles and tempos hang together remarkably coherently as Mead's honky tonk and deep country music sensibilities anchor it all. Yes, it's mostly vintage, as you'd expect from a Sun Records recording, but there are just enough surprises along the way to pique interest.