Chuck Mead made his name as a classic country revivalist in the ‘90s as one of the leaders of the band BR5-49. Since that band’s demise, Mead has gone on to serve as musical director on the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, which dramatizes a legendary recording session where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all played together. With a resumé like that, it’s no surprise that Mead would have an album of classic country covers up his sleeve.
Back at the Quonset Hut was recorded at the legendary Nashville studio of the same name, a studio that hosted all sorts of country legends from the ‘50s all the way into the early ‘80s. The studio closed in ‘82, but was revived in the 00’s as a teaching space and working studio for Belmont University music students. So Mead rounded up his own band and as many ringers as he could and recorded the songs live in studio as full band performances. The results are pretty darn satisfying, even to a classic country neophyte like myself.
The album kicks off with probably the most famous track, Roy Acuff’s “Wabash Cannonball”. Mead recruits fellow revivalists Old Crow Medicine Show to play along on the song, and there’s a joyful, upbeat feeling running through the whole song, from the vocals to the instruments. That spirit continues into the next song, Joe Horton’s “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor”, which features great piano and baritone guitar playing from old school Nashville session players Pig Robbins and Harold Bradley, respectively. The mood takes a turn for the silly on the Carl Smith song “Hey Joe”, which features Mead dueling with classic crooner Bobby Bare as they tell the titular Joe of their intent to steal his girl.
Mead deserves a lot of credit for bringing the various musicians together and really capturing the feel of country from the ‘50s and ‘60s. But he should be credited for his canny song choices, as well. The 12 songs here have a wide variety of styles yet manage to fit comfortably under the same umbrella. The 6/8 ballad “Apartment #9”, made famous by Tammy Wynette, is a world away from the rockabilly of Carl Perkins’ “Cat Clothes”. Meanwhile, the upbeat, treble-heavy clean electric guitar sound of “Tennessee Border”, with its confessional lyrics about falling in love and getting married to a beautiful girl is in stark contrast to Del Reeves’ “Girl on the Billboard”. This trucking song is just as upbeat, but the music is dominated by low, chunky guitar, while the sly lyrics find a trucker obsessing over a girl on a billboard.
As for the giants of country music, Mead makes sure they’re represented. “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” is a Hank Williams song, while “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” was made famous by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Mead and singer Elizabeth Cook give an energetic, rockin’ vocal performance on the song and it closes out the album. Mead brings in Jamey Johnson to duet on George Jones’ “You Better Treat Your Man Right”. As entertaining as the song is, the lyrics have a not-quite-spoken “or else” tone that bears an undertone of misogyny. Yet this seems like a perfectly appropriate (and possibly necessary) song choice to fully represent the attitude of some country back in the old days.
Back at the Quonset Hut should be a treat for fans of Mead and fans of classic country. Mead’s decision to largely stay away from the most famous songs from his list of country giants is a good one. It’s nice to hear him digging a bit deeper into the songbook. On the other hand, Mead set out to capture the feel of these old songs as accurately as possible, so there aren’t any big departures to be found here, either. Still, though, Mead has clearly accomplished what he set out to do, and he and his cohorts have done it very well.