“Did that sound drunk enough?” asks Chuck Mead at the end of “Better Than I Was (When I Wasn’t So Good)”, the fourth track on Close to Home. Mead’s question sums up the giddy good fun that permeates Close to Home from beginning to end. It might still be too early in the year to toss around superlatives such as “best”, but it’s safe to say that Close to Home is quite likely the most fun, varied, and generally delightful blast of rock ‘n’ roll and country, tinged with hints of soul, reggae, and gospel, that will be filed within the “Americana” genre this year.
Mead, formerly a member of alt-country band BR5-49, blasts Close to Home wide open with a raging rockabilly ode to stargazing, “Big Bear in the Sky.” The second track, “I’m Not the Man for the Job”, is Mead’s “Take This Job and Shove It”. Here, Mead combines pedal steel guitar accents courtesy of guitarist Carco Clave with a reggae-ish rhythm and the vocal exhortation, “See ya / Wouldn’t want to be ya,” as Mead notes that he is, indeed, not the man for the job.
The musical variety continues with the third track, “My Baby’s Holding It Down”, a mid-tempo ballad that lives at that metaphorical and metaphysical intersection where elements of folk, soul, pop, and country magically meet to create transcendent songs. We’re talking tunes like “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “Rainy Night in Georgia”, and “Behind Closed Doors”, among others. Yes, “My Baby’s Holding It Down” is worthy enough to be mentioned in the company of those classics.
“The Man Who Shook the World”, another raver, sounds like it could be about Sam Phillips, the late founder of the legendary Sun Records, which launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others. Whether or not Mead is literally talking about Phillips when he invites listeners to “shake the hand that shook the hand of the man who shook the world”, it makes sense that it could be about Phillips. Close to Home was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service, in Memphis, Tennessee and the spirit of Phillips and the artists he mentored fully inhabits Close to Home. That spirit reveals itself in excellent songwriting and musicianship throughout the album.
Mead displays a knack for clever story songs, like “Daddy Worked the Pole”, which tells a Chuck Berry-like tale of young love and marriage, with a twist, and a message: “to make it through you gotta do what you gotta do”; and “Billy Doesn’t Know He’s Bad”, a morality tale that betrays a distinct Warren Zevon influence. Oh, and do you crave a new classic country drinking song? Chuck Mead is happy to oblige with “Tap Into Your Misery”.
Each of the 11 songs on Close to Home contains some element of greatness, but it’s the stunning title track where everything comes together. Back in the 1970s, “Close to Home” would have been classified “hard country” to distinguish it from the Olivia Newton-John and John Denver songs that were storming the country charts, and annoying George Jones and Tammy Wynette. “Close to Home” feels like the best serious country song to have come down the pike in years and years, maybe decades. You know how Michelangelo (the artist, not the Ninja Turtle) claimed that the sculpture was already in the marble and he just had to chip away until he uncovered it? “Close to Home” feels like that. “Close to Home” has always existed, the perfect country song. George Jones would have knocked “Close to Home” out of the park, but even No-Show Jones might not have topped Mead’s vocal, as he laments, “You know that song / Where it all goes wrong / Hits a little close to home.” Of course, it does. It was the job of Chuck Mead and cowriters Jon Tiven and Sally Tiven to unearth “Close to Home”, and they did so, gloriously. Wow.
Mead closes Close to Home with “There’s Love Where I Come From”, a gentle plea for love and tolerance served up in a decidedly non-preachy gospel-tinged pop song. Mead is utterly convincing when he sings, “There’s love where I come from / Won’t you come and get you some?” Chuck Mead, producer Matt Ross Spang, and all of participating musicians have poured tons of love into the creation of Close to Home, and you can feel that love in every song.