Nashville singer-songwriter Chuck Mead has worn his fair share of hats. Best known as the leader of revered roots outfit BR549, he has also been a songwriter, producer and theatrical musical director. Now he can add another credit to that list: solo artist.
"Music is it for me. It's what I love and what I'll always do in one form or another," says Mead, who recently released his solo debut Journeyman's Wager, and will be performing in support of the disc Wednesday at Midtown's Hi-Tone Café.
Over the course of a decade and a half-dozen albums, Mead fronted
Music City retro-revivalists BR549, spearheading the '90s alt-country movement, and helping remind mainstream Nashville of its hillbilly roots. However, following the release of 2006's Dog Days, the group went on hiatus, with several of its members spreading out and taking different gigs.
Meanwhile, Mead earned himself a publishing deal and decided to try his hand as a Nashville songwriter. He also played a key part in the musical "Million Dollar Quartet," a stage play about the impromptu 1956 Sun Records session that featured Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The production's co-author, Sun historian Colin Escott, approached Mead about becoming the show's musical director.
"The main thing was they didn't want fake theater rock and roll, which it could've easily been in the hands of somebody who's just your regular musical director," Mead says. "I was kinda like the Jiminy Cricket of the music: to make sure it was represented in an authentic way that appealed to the modern listener, but would also go over in the theater setting."
Despite his varied musical pursuits, by last year, Mead says he was itching to record and tour again.
"I woke up one day and realized it's been three years since I've been on the road; I need to make a record," he says.
A lifelong "band guy," Mead decided it was finally time to go the solo route.
"I'd never done something that was totally under my name or that was completely my baby," he says.
Picking up on a thread started with the last BR549 record -- on which Mead covered a song by Welsh guitar great Dave Edmunds -- Journeyman's Wager luxuriates in the loose sound and spirit of '70s British pub rock.
"We gave it that extra Stiff Records feel, which was something that heavily influenced me during my formative years in rock and roll," says Mead. "Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Rockpile, all that stuff was bound to come out."
Produced by Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams) and aided by a contingent of top Nashville cats -- including guitarists Kenny Vaughn, Mike Henderson and Audley Freed -- Journeyman's Wager is a sonic throwback: Cut mostly live to 2-inch tape, it's a decidedly old-school effort that expands Mead's musical universe with a mix of country, pop and gospel (as well as a yodeling cover of the Beatles' "Old Brown Shoe").
The album is also highlighted by a handful of co-writes with a wide-ranging cast of characters, including rock polymath Jon Tiven, country singer Mark Collie and glam-pop tunesmith Nicky Chinn. Mead says his collaborative experience proved useful.
"Any time you get together with anybody and write a song, you're going to learn something from them 'cause it's a real personal thing," Mead says.
"It's a chop that I learned," he adds. "But co-writing or not, it's ultimately the same process. It's about sitting in a room with a blank page and filling it up before you leave. And hopefully, with something that's cool."
Back on the road now, Mead says he is enjoying the slightly less-hectic touring pace in support of Wager -- at its peak, BR549 would play as many as 300 dates a year -- and the chance to run through the new songs.
"It was designed as a performance-based record, and now that's what we're out here doing," says Mead, laughing, "performing."
-- Bob Mehr: 529-2517
Chuck Mead, with John Paul Keith and The One Four Fives
9 p.m. Wednesday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar.
Tickets are $10, available at the door or at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 278-8663.