It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who loves country music not also loving Chuck Mead’s Back at the Quonset Hut— because of course, this is a record made by and for country music zealots, and it’s no great stretch to say that the album represents something of country music’s spirit and history, distilled to their very essence.
Even the title is a tip-off to the fact that this is very much an act of homage. Mead recorded the album at a legendary Nashville studio space– former occupants of which include not just Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Carl Perkins, but even Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. Mead and his rugged band of country pros are literally surrounded by history. And then there are the songs, every one a country music classic that you know by heart, at least if you know your country music, and probably even if you don’t.
That all might sound like the recipe for mere homage, but the crowning achievement of this set is how it avoids studious. It’s not a historical reenactment. It’s a very loving and passionate take on standards– and like so many standards collections before it, it’s made memorable not because it reinvents the wheel, but because of its sheer empathy, enthusiasm, and warmth.
The album is, in other words, a roaring good time– rich and hearty and rustic, everything a great country album should be. And it’s amazing how much of its appeal comes from what might seem like little things; I was a full convert before the second song, “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor,” had stopped playing, partly because of the sonorous, two-stepping upright bass, partly because of the splashes of honky tonk piano (right around the time Chuck gets to the “Jelly Roll” line), but largely because of the singer’s own spirited and authoritative rendition.
Mead’s album is a winner for its diversity, as well. It begins on a truly old-fashioned note, and who better than the Old Crow Medicine Show to help Mead bring the hoedown all the way down from the mountain? Almost as old-fashioned is the wonderful barroom duet with Bobby Bare Jr. on “Hey Joe.” There are a couple of excellent ballads– a tender “Sittin’ and Thinkin'” being a standout, an excellent truckdriving anthem (“Girl on the Billboard”), and, with Jamey Johnson, a terrific, trash-talking “You Better Treat Your Man Right.”
Mead is not one bit afraid to stretch his country music to encompass early rock and roll– there are a couple of terrific rockabilly sides, including a “Be Bop a Lula” that curiously reminds me of John Lennon’s take on the song– but Mead saves the finest number for last. “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” is fiesty, sexy, and an absolute delight– so it’s no great surprise that Mead shares the romp with Elizabeth Cook, another singer/songwriter whose gift is for bringing country music past roaring into its present.