He’s been known as the co-founder of the three-time Grammy nominated BR549, the honky-tonk heroes that almost single-handedly lit and carried the blowtorch for the mid-‘90s alternative country explosion.
He’s been hailed as ‘The Hillbilly Renaissance Man’ for his subsequent successes as a songwriter, performer, producer and musical theater director. Now after more than a decade as one of the most uncompromising and consistent talents in the American roots music movement, Chuck Mead at last emerges with the most anticipated role of his entire career: Solo Artist.
With Journeyman’s Wager, Chuck Mead throws down the gauntlet with an album that defies all sonic expectations while re-defining his position as one of the hardest-working artists in the business. “I respect the term ‘journeyman’,” Mead says, “because that’s I what consider myself.
I’ve been living by my wits musically for more than 20 years now, going from job to job and doing them all pretty well. Certainly there’s a hustle to what I do, but there’s always been a gambling aspect to it, too.
With this album, it’s finally all me going all-in. It’s a record that challenges listeners in a good way. Best of all, I’ve challenged myself.”Produced by Grammy-winner Ray Kennedy, the eleven tracks on Journeyman’s Wager embody not only the core of country music, but also the pulse of pop, R&B, hillbilly rock, Gospel and beyond.
“Why be confined by barriers or genres?” Chuck asks. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all American Music. These are the sounds that made up my musical vocabulary. I still believe that American Music is about real things, good stories and unique songs.
And I’m willing to bet that most everyone else does, too.”“It’s hard to believe that it’s taken him this long to make a solo record,” says producer/engineer Ray Kennedy, best known for his work on classic albums by Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle.
“What sets Chuck apart from so many artists is that he’s a genuine hard-working, blue-collar performer. I hate the word ‘old-school’ but we didn’t want this album to sound like a lot of modern records where everything is over-tweaked and perfect.
We knew we had to make it intimate and real.” Kennedy recorded the entire album analog on two-inch tape, in a studio full of both state-of-the art and vintage equipment that included ‘60s tube microphones, a Vox Continental organ, and a badass band that featured Kenny Vaughn (Marty Stuart), Audley Freed (The Black Crowes), Mark Miller (BR549), Mark Horn (The Derailers), Dave Roe (Johnny Cash), Mike Henderson (The SteelDrivers), Pat Sivers (The Everly Brothers) and Jen Gunderman (The Jayhawks).
“Chuck is the same in the studio as he is on stage,” Kennedy explains. “He loves working without a net. There are a lot of multiple voices singing into one microphone and the band playing together in one room.
Most of all, it’s an album that really represents his worldview song-wise. It has humor, intelligence, sarcasm, a bit of politics and a lot of spontaneity. Plus he’s singing his ass off. Chuck doesn’t have a model; he really is a journeyman in that songwriting and entertaining is his life.
”For Mead, life and music have always been irrevocably intertwined. “I joined my first band at 12 years old,” he explains with a laugh. “Ruint me forever.” Throughout his 20s, he led several groups in and around his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, including the popular Mid-western cult band The Homestead Grays.
By the early ‘90s, Chuck found himself as an itinerant musician on Nashville’s then-seedy Lower Broadway. It was a place in time where a performer armed with only the vision of a sonically relentless hillbilly band with nothing to lose could try anything.
Within months, Mead co-founded a quintet that began playing must-see marathon sets in the front window of bar/bootery Robert’s Western World. Seven albums, three Grammy nominations and millions of worldwide fans later, BR549 would become one of the most improbable success stories of the past decade.
“BR549 is on extended hiatus,” Chuck now says. “We were – and remain – a family, and taking a break from each other will make us miss each other more. We survived the highs, the lows and all the hype, and we still had fun making music we love.
But it was also time for me to do my own thing.” With the exception of occasional reunions on Prairie Home Companion (at the behest of longtime fan Garrison Keillor) and benefits for favorite charities, Mead’s post-BR career soon became known as much for its continued integrity as for its eclecticism.
He founded the touring collective The Hillbilly All-Stars featuring members of The Mavericks, co-produced acclaimed tribute albums to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, guest-lectured on ‘The Sociology of Modern American Culture’ at Vanderbilt University, and became a staff writer at one of Nashville’s top song publishers.
In 2007, he was named Musical Director of Million Dollar Quartet, the new hit stage musical based on the night in 1956 that Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley came together for an impromptu jam session.
“It’s been incredibly liberating to do all these things I’ve never done before,” Chuck says. “But most of all, I wanted to call my own shots and make a record that mattered.” Ten of the eleven tracks on Journeyman’s Wager are co-written by Mead, who’d spent the past year working with such idiosyncratic and award-winning songwriters as Tia Sillers, Bobby Huff, Greg Crowe, Patrick Davis, Angeleena Presley, Mark Collie and Jon & Sally Tiven.
The album roars out of the gate with the twanging highway stomp of “Out On The Natchez Trail”, and runs head-on into the sinister mystery of “Gun Metal Grey”. The horn-powered “She Got The Ring (I Got The Finger)” is a sly nod to Jerry Reed’s “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)”.
There’s classic country-pop wisdom in “Albuquerque”, gentle insight in “Up On Edge Hill”, and hard-driving good times in “I Wish It Was Friday”. “A Long Time Ago” is a paean of pedal-steel regret, while “After The Last Witness Is Gone” is a bold testimonial that’s equal parts honky-tonk and roadhouse rocker.
“In A Song” may be the album’s genuine showstopper, a gloriously sanctified testament to the Everlasting Church Of Music. The disc’s sole cover is a fiery version – complete with yodeling – of George Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe”, the obscure Beatles b-side from “The Ballad Of John & Yoko”.
The album closes with the assured shuffle-funk of “No Requests”, a song whose chorus is a potent statement of purpose from an artist who is now truly his own man. “Even when BR549 were being called a throwback act, we never allowed ourselves to be classified,” says Chuck.
“The key was to always bring something new to everything we did. Today my slate is cleaner than ever before. This album is all me, doing what comes naturally.” For Chuck Mead, the time has come for one of Americana’s most uncommon artists to finally step out, step up and be heard on his own unique terms.
And in a game where sure bets are rarely the real deal, one singer/songwriter/performer is again unafraid to lay it all on the line. “I mean everything I say on this album,” Chuck Mead says. “You can tell it with a wink and a smile, but it’s still the truth.
And the truth is that Journeyman’s Wager is the culmination of everything I’ve learned. These are my decisions. This is my music.
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