PLOWBOY RECORDS - ALAN CACKETT - June 16, 2014
It took me a little while to get to grips with this latest album by BR549 founder Chuck Mead. As soon as I placed the CD in the player, I was smitten. He showcases an exciting mix of honky-tonk country, folk, rockabilly and roots-driven music backed by his Grassy Knoll Boys, a kind of ad-hoc group of Music City pickers, including BR549’s Don Herron, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Critter Fuqua, Will Rambeaux and Mark Andrew Miller. Though I loved what I was hearing, initially there seemed to be a lack of continuity; no sense of purpose for what appeared to be a disparate collection of songs. After several more plays, it all began to fall into place. Chuck was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, where he led various bands playing a variety of music prior to moving to Nashville some 20 years ago and forming BR549. It is Kansas and Chuck’s obvious affection for his home state that is the link that ties all of these self-penned songs together.
Much has been made over the years of the importance of such regions as Texas, Kentucky, the Appalachians, Oklahoma, Louisiana and the West Coast in the development of country music, but I don’t recall there being too many references to Kansas. Well, it’s just possible that Chuck Mead has addressed that faux pas with the aptly titled FREE STATE SERENADE.
His smooth vocals, which are alternately passionate and vulnerable on this collection are chockfull of dazzling country music imagery, whether he is telling the story of a wild odyssey in Ten Light Years Away about when Chuck and some buddies saw a UFO, or laying down a cool rockabilly groove in Evil Wind, a true 1959 dark murder yarn, crafting a western swing dancehall two-step in Neosho Valley Sue, or spinning the folk-styled lament of the unfortunate Little Ivy. He shows himself to be one of country music’s finest storytellers, whether he’s evoking the thrill of finding love in Reno Country Girl —a song whose rhythmic steel and churning beat evoke his traditional country music roots—or romping through one of his patented rave-ups like A Short Goodbye.
While the concept and lyrics aren’t quite revolutionary, they bear an understated authenticity—after all it isn’t cosmopolitan Manhattan of which Chuck writes. He mixes full-throttle Americana music with an introspective singer-songwriter approach. It sounds like the South. It sounds like country music ought to sound. Accomplishing what he set out to do, Chuck Mead does an excellent job of creating a cohesive collection of rootsy country music. If you’re one of those who were crushed when BR549 broke up, this will definitely be the album for you.