It’s been over three years since the honkytonk revivalist group BR549 released their last album, and with each band member engaged in various other projects, fans wondered if they’d ever hear from frontman Chuck Mead again. After spending a hiatus as the musical director for the stage show Million Dollar Quartet (based, of course, on the famous Sun Records impromptu jam between Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley), hillbilly heartthrob Mead is back with his first solo venture, Journeyman’s Wager.
BR549 was one of the better ‘90s neotraditionalist bands, but Mead more than holds his own as a solo artist. If anything, Mead is even better by himself because he’s not tied solely to BR549’s sound. Journeyman’s Wager winds through typical country song subject matter, from the Johnny Paycheck sentiments of the blue-collar anthem “I Wish It Was Friday” to the lovelorn ballad “Albuquerque”. But thanks to Mead’s skilled songwriting, these songs sound sharp: retro without being tired, traditional without sacrificing innovation.
Ten of the songs on Journeyman’s Wager were written or co-written by Mead. The album’s only cover is a surprising one: George Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe”, which Mead transforms into a rockabilly-influenced romp, complete with frenetic guitars and an organ playing in the background .
Like BR549—a band named after a phone number in a recurring Hee Haw sketch—did, Mead infuses his songs with wry humor. Case in point: “She Got the Ring”. The song could have been penned by Harlan Howard or Roger Miller, were they still with us; even if they might have objected to the use of the word “bling”, it’s hard to imagine those two wordsmiths not appreciating lyrics such as “Her new groom looks like a gorilla but she says he’s cute / She was looking for a man who would fit into her monkey suit / She got the ring / And I got the finger / She didn’t want to waste the time on no worn out singer / She wanted all the bling that married life would bring her / She got the ring / And I got the finger”.
Mead’s “worn out singer” reappears throughout Journeyman’s Wager, almost to the point of making this a concept album—luckily, Mead exercises some restraint on this front. But a must-listen is “A Long Time Ago”, which details the sacrifices made and ideals lost in search of a music career—it’s probably one of the most depressing songs to be released this year, but it’s also one of the best.
Producer Ray Kennedy (Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle) gives the entire album a classic feel, recording it on two-inch tape while Mead and his backing musicians used vintage microphones and amps. While Kennedy’s retro recording methods don’t magically bestow the warm tones of vinyl onto compact disc, it’s an acceptable compromise.
At this point, it seems like a BR549 reunion is doubtful. But if it means that Mead keeps putting out this caliber of music solo, that might not be so bad.