"We're gonna make sure shit gets broke at Abilene," promises country singer/songwriter/all-around rambunctious hillbilly cat, Chuck Mead. And though he and his band, the Grassy Knoll Boys, will undoubtedly tear up the joint, Mead is a respectful artist who speaks with an excited reserve when talking about his latest platter, "Back at the Quonset Hut." It was recorded at what was originally known as Bradley's Film & Recording Studios, the famed studio that birthed Patsy Cline's "Crazy," Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry," and Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet," among other classic songs. The studio closed in 1982 only to be revamped and re-opened in 2006 as part of Belmont University. Mead recorded this album of country and rockabilly songs among the dust and ghosts, going so far as to incorporate some of the original session musicians and hired guns that worked in the studio's golden age.
Mead first burst on the scene with the three-time Grammy-nominated retro-hillbilly outfit BR549. With the band officially on hiatus, Mead has focused on a solo career and producing the Broadway hit "Million Dollar Quartet." He called from rehearsal to discuss recording in the country-music equivalent to the Vatican, how you always have to include Acuff and Williams, and why there will never be a BR549 musical. Here's an edited transcript of what was said.
CITY: How was it laying down a session at The Quonset Hut?
Chuck Mead: Oh man, it was a pretty spectacular experience. You go into a spot where so much of what you do and what is part of you musically as an artist was created, for most of all hillbilly music — that and RCA studio B —was amazing.
This seems like a perfect fit for you. Why didn't you try this earlier?
It wasn't open earlier. It was dormant. Years ago when we BR549 changed labels from Sony to Arista, the studio that once was the Quonset Hut was where the art department worked. You could still go and stand in the spot where the singer stood, and it was this weird spot that didn't sound like any other spot in the room. So Belmont University decided to revamp it and threw a bunch of money into it. And it just so happened that the sound engineering professor was Mike Janas, who had co-produced the first four BR549 records years ago. When I decided I was going to do a classic country record he said, "Why don't you use the Quonset Hut?" It snowballed from there and I thought instead of just my band, why not get some of the musicians that played on all those old records I was recreating?
How'd you run them down?
Well, they're still working. They're in the union book. You just call them up and they'll come play your session for you. It was a complete honor for me to have Harold Bradley and Bob Moore and Buddy Spicher, all those guys... Harold Bradley is the most-recorded guitar player in recording history and the sweetest, most honorable man I know. I love that guy. Having those guys come in and be the backbone on a handful of songs was a tremendous honor and just a total gas.
How'd you pick the material for the album?
I picked songs we've been doing live. I wanted to do songs that were recorded at The Quonset Hut, too. I know the Hank Williams song was recorded at the old Castle, but that doesn't count. If you're making a classic country record, you've got to put a Roy Acuff and Hank Williams song on your record. You know what I mean?
What's the Chuck Mead spin on the material? How did you make it yours?
My spin is there's always just a little bit of rock 'n' roll in it, because there was always a little bit of rock 'n' roll in those guys. It just wasn't called that then; it hadn't completely morphed into the atomic age. And we didn't do exact replicas of the songs, because it's ridiculous to match it note for note. We just kind of did it our own way. I think we modernized it. I mean, we recorded it on Pro Tools and bounced it over to tape when we mixed it to get more warmth. It all still went down live. There're probably three or four overdubs on the whole thing.
How did you get involved with the "Million Dollar Quartet" musical?
It was a weird phone call I got in 2005 from Colin Escott asking me if I'd ever worked on a Broadway musical. Then he explained what it was. I knew the songs and thought, I can do this. We started with a little production down in Florida and I just approached it like I was producing a record. I just wanted to make it authentic rockabilly music. Those guys were really up there playing.
Were you mindful of making it too corny or mainstream?
I was looking at these guys as a musical legacy. I didn't want it to get all cheesed out. And I think we achieved that. I think we achieved a very entertaining show that people who go to regular musical theater would enjoy just as much as the people who never go to musical theater who would think, "Hey, that's a great rock 'n' roll show. I can dig that." I got the bug now; I kind of want to write a musical.
BR549 the Musical?
It would be a great musical but I don't know who we'd cast as Donnie Herron.
What's a dream collaboration, duet, or project for you?
Well now, I'd like to do an old Carl Perkins tune with Paul McCartney. That'd be killer. The Beatles were just a rockabilly band, right?