Photo | facebook.com/ChuckMeadMusic
Band: Chuck Mead & the Grassy Knoll Boys
Date: Saturday, Dec. 14 at 8 p.m.
Venue: The Peoples Room of Mobile, 78 St. Francis St., thepeoplesroommobile.com
Tickets: $30 (for reservations, call 251-367-4599)
Alternative country has become a favorite genre for many. However, it has taken decades to reach its wide expanse of listeners. Chuck Mead was performing in the band BR549 when the music industry first conceived this label. BR549 specialized in a modern interpretation of traditional rockabilly country.
Even though he has traded BR549 for the Grassy Knoll Boys, Mead still maintains a traditional rockabilly sound that has been shaped for the modern age. When they arrive at The Peoples Room of Mobile, Chuck Mead & the Grassy Knoll Boys will entertain the crowd with cuts from the band’s latest album, “Close to Home.”
Mead was fresh from a chiropractor’s appointment when he spoke with Lagniappe’s Steve Centanni, but he was more than willing to talk about his new album as well as the past and present of alt country.
Steve Centanni: Alt country is pretty big now. I remember when alt country was very new and niche. You were around back then when that label was conceived. How would you compare the scene back then to now?
Chuck Mead: What we were doing in BR549, we didn’t want to be alt country. We just wanted to be country. That’s what they said that we were, because we didn’t sound like whatever was on the radio at the time like John Michael Montgomery, which wasn’t bad. We just didn’t sound like any of that. We were different. From my point of view, it was weird for me, but in a sense, it made sense.
In the larger scheme of Americana music now, it made sense. We got lumped in with Son Volt and Wilco and bands like that. While those bands are called alt country, they were more rock ’n’ roll guys who liked country and had a feel for it. Whereas with BR549, we were a country band who had rockabilly leanings. At first we were like, “Why are we like these guys?” It was mostly because of our attitude towards music and being individual and that there’s room for everything. That shouldn’t have been alt country either. They should’ve been playing all of it. The avenue for having all kinds of different kinds of country is saying that it’s just good music.
Centanni: One thing that I find interesting about alt country is the retro aspect. BR549 had that smooth, rockabilly influence, and the alt country guys these days are inspired by that late ’70s/early ’80s type of country. Why do you think those classic country influences get a country band classified as alternative?
Mead: I don’t know why. I don’t have an answer to that. I do know that it’s natural for younger guys now to look at the outlaw country era at the same way that I looked at Pee Wee King and Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. That was my classic country music. When you put it to kids who are like in their 20s and 30s now, of course, the ’70s was even longer ago than the ’40s. It was a long time ago. To me, it’s only natural that it’s their country music. There will be a lot of people coming up in the future that ’90s country will be their classic country. That’s the way things go. Time marches on. I guess you have to have some sort of place to put it in the record bin. It’s all just marketing. That’s why I like Waterloo Records in Austin. It’s just alphabetic. You could run across any type of music anywhere, and it’s not genre specific.
The whole idea of alt country morphing into the Americana genre is at least another outlet for people who like to do their kind of music, whatever kind of music it is. You still have to get the Americana programmers the same way that you have to get the country music programmers. It’s all the same game. It’s just a different side game, I guess.
Centanni: One thing that I really like about your new album, “Close to Home,” and that I like about you as an artist is that you still display that passion for the old-school ’50s rockabilly stuff, but there’s this hint of innovation about you, specifically with that track “I’m Not the Man for the Job.” It’s old-school rockabilly, but it’s got that new-school edge too. What’s you songwriting process like? Do you intentionally vie to keep it extremely classic with a hint of modern?
Mead: When I write a song, it’s usually about something. That’s where you put your individual mark on something that is very specific. There’s a certain amount of things that happen in country music. While it doesn’t have to, there is sort of a recognizable thing about country music. So, to stay in that sort of a ballpark, which I like, I don’t necessarily have to do it. I can do a whole bunch of different things, but those songs just happen that way. That’s the way that I hear it in my head. You put your individual stamp on it, because you put your words to it. Hank Williams used to write songs to old gospel tunes. Then he would make up his own lyrics to it. Then he has his own song. That’s a folk or blues tradition.
With “I’m Not the Man for the Job,” there’s a buddy of mine named Alan Murphy. He’s one of the writers of “Me ’n’ Opie (Down by the Duck Pond).” I’ve been writing with him for years, and he’s a good buddy of mine. We wrote that song. I wanted it to sound like rocksteady ska out of San Antonio.
Centanni: That’s a great description!
Mead: I was looking to tap into that tradition without being overt and still making it sound like me. There’s just a lot of things that just come out of me. Luckily, this time we had a great producer. I recorded it in Memphis, so I wanted to get that flavor of it. Matt Ross-Spang there at the Phillips Recording Service, which is the studio that Sam Phillips built in 1962, is where I recorded the record. It’s a rocking, honky tonk record, but there’s a lot of Memphis grease in it too. I had to leave Nashville to have it that way. I’m really glad that I did. I like the sound of “My Baby’s Holding It Down,” which is the song that I wrote with Paul Cebar. That song emphasizes the feel of what it was like to record in Memphis, more than the rocking ones on the record. I’m not saying that it’s my favorite, but it captures the vibe that I was trying to capture.
Centanni: You’ve taken some of these songs on tour into the Northwest. What’s it been like taking these into the live environment?
Mead: Just before we started recording this record, I went out on the road with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. I’ve known J.D. Wilkes for years. They were doing a stripped-down version of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers with a banjo and piano. I went out on the road with them to support them as a solo act by myself. I was playing these songs that I had written every night for a couple of weeks, so I got to know these songs very well. I felt real confident going into it. Some of them, we’ve been playing for a little while, so we had them worked out. I already knew how to play them live. It was a matter of adding the other instruments after that.
Centanni: What can we expect at The Peoples Room of Mobile?
Mead: We always have a great time at that place. Jim [Pennington] is one of the greatest people in the whole world. God bless him for keeping that club going down there, because it’s a really special place. It’s always a good time, and it’s always low key. People are there, because they’re there to enjoy the music and have a good time and have a couple of drinks, because that always helps, but it’s not a sloppy barroom situation. We’ll be doing some songs off the record and doing old favorites and seeing what happens.
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