Chuck Mead Finds His Memphis Inspiration on 'Close to Home'

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Rating: 7.5/10

It's been 4 years since Chuck Mead last released an album, 2015's Free State Serenade. In the time between records, Mead has gotten a full immersion in the music of Memphis, as the musical director of the hit Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet and consultant on CMT's series Sun Records. So it's probably no surprise that the Nashville-based musician, who along with his band BR549 helped usher in the second wave of Nashville's country-rock revolution in the early-'90s, has produced an album that is steeped in rockabilly, blues, and early rock and roll, Close to Home, which releases June 21. on Nashville’s independent Plowboy Records label.

Working with star producer Matt Ross-Spang (John Prine, Margo Price) at Memphis' historic Sam Phillips Recording Studios, Mead has produced an album that he calls “the least-country record I've ever made. But at the same time, it's really a country record.” At its core, Close to Home is a love letter to the rockabilly era, which is underappreciated in the development of both rock and country, not to mention the genre Frankenstein's monster that is Americana.

The highlight of the album is “Daddy Worked the Pole.” It's an unapologetic nod to Chuck Berry, full of tight rhymes, clever wordplay, and driving guitars. The song itself is the story of a stripper and bar band drummer who fall in love and start a family. The stripper retires and the drummer takes a job as a lineman for the electric company, working “the pole so mama didn't have to.” With a liberal innuendo that Berry would have loved to have had while working on “My Ding-a-Ling”, Mead finishes the tale by having his narrator go to college, allowing his empty nester parents to pursue their real dreams, starting a burlesque troop with “mama” as the prime entertainment and “daddy” as the musical accompaniment. Like most of Berry's best works, it's a fluffy song that reveals some surprising linguistic depth when listened to closely.

Another highlight is “The Man Who Shook the World.” The premise will be immediately relatable to anyone who has had to endure endless tales from the guy at the bar whose claim to fame is that he saw Led Zeppelin or Fats Domino before they were famous. The song's narrator makes no claim to have created anything himself, instead insisting it should be an honor to “shake the hand that shook the hand of the man who shook the world.” While the musician who “shook the world” is never specifically mentioned, the album's Memphis connections and Carl Perkins-style rockabilly drive certainly points to Elvis Presley.

While much of Close to Home hews to standard rockabilly themes, there are some moments of unexpected depth. The album's title track, a tribute to country and early rock's outlaws, explores that moment when a song, a line in a book, or even a location seems to line up with the memory of a person or situation. A Hank Williams song “where it all goes wrong” floats into a conversation about infidelity.  Something a lover says lines up with a book Mead read. It's a pretty heavy metaphysical load made lighter by a jaunty steel guitar. “Big Bear in the Sky”, which Mead describes as “Johnny Horton fronting The Sonics” is based on a Mi'kmaq folk legend about the constellation Ursa Major.

Elsewhere, Mead pays tribute to Bakersfield-style country (“Tap Into Your Misery”), '70s cosmopolitan country (“My Baby's Holding It Down”) and even gospel country (“There's Love Where I Come From”). Together, it makes for a satisfying ride that, while traveling a lot of road, is always anchored by Mead's affable vocals.

If you want to see Chuck Mead perform the songs from Close to Home and you live in the Nashville market, you're in luck. Instead of a traditional album release show, Mead is doing a week-long victory lap around the honky-tonks, bars, and clubs that helped make him a star when he was first starting out, including the old BR549 “home base”, Robert's Western World. You can catch Mead on his Nashville “honky-tonk tour” at these locations:
Jun. 18- Honky-Tonk Tuesday at American Legion Post 82
Jun. 19- The 5 Spot
Jun. 20- Dee's Country Cocktail
Jun. 21- The Nashville Palace
Jun. 22- Grand Ole Opry
Jun. 22- Robert's Western World
Jun. 23- Grimey's New and Pre-Loved Music Performance and Signing