Chuck Mead: 'The Light Is Right Where You Grew Up'
Kansas native Chuck Mead is the subject of KMUW's upcoming music tasting on Thursday, Sept. 5, at Roxy's Downtown.
Raised in Lawrence, Mead is a founding member of the Grammy-nominated band BR549. He also brought the Tony Award-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet to life via his understanding of the intersection between rural and urban music.
As a member of Lawrence's Homestead Grays in the 1980s and '90s, he forged the future of Americana music by combining elements of country and rock ‘n' roll.
Since BR549's disbandment in 2006, Mead has created a series of acclaimed solo albums, including Free State Serenade and this year's Close To Home.
In two interviews with KMUW, he discussed his Kansas roots and his memories of the Sunflower State.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Music was the family business for you.
When my mother was young, my grandpa, my grandma and my mom's two brothers had a radio show in Nevada, Missouri. Right down 54 on a station called KNEM. It was the late '40s, early '50s. They did old hillbilly songs and Western songs. Gospel music. They had a 15-minute spot, part of a thing called The Hayloft Gang. Then they peeled off and got their own show.
When my mom and uncles got older they wanted to play basketball and do other things. Then, in the early ‘70s, they decided to put the band back together. For my 12th birthday, I got a set of drums, and I became the drummer.
Right into the band.
From the time I was 13 until I was 17, I played almost every Friday and Saturday night, all the way through southeast Kansas, west Missouri. We'd play Rural Electric gatherings or Eagles, Elks lodges, Knights of Columbus Halls. A few honky-tonks. I grew up wanting to go out and mess around with my friends in junior high and high school, but instead, I had money because I was singing country music live.
The real turning point for me was in 1982 when Jason & the Nashville Scorchers came through Lawrence. I was firmly into The Clash and The Jam, Nick Lowe, Rockpile, which is all really related. But when I saw Jason mix country music with that punk rock aggression, it really connected a lot of dots for me. I didn't think I was that crazy.
You played with the Lawrence band, Homestead Grays, for a long time. When did BR549 come into view?
I wanted to play country music for real. The only way that you can do that is to move to Nashville. I did in '93. The Grays had come down here quite a few times and always gravitated toward lower Broadway because that's where Tootsie's Orchid Lounge was.
Tootsie's shared an alley with the old Ryman Auditorium where they had the Opry from the '40s all the way to the '70s. It was a dilapidated street where there was a lot of peep shows and older honky-tonks. It was pretty rough. People were scared to go down there.
A lot of scenes start in those forgotten places.
That was kind of the start of it. Everybody was trying to be a writer and a hillbilly singer, back then especially. I got a gig, and I learned that I was doing a lot of stuff wrong. I had a lot of wrong inclinations about what country music really was. At that time, I didn't exactly get how to play it right. To really dissect it, you have to get up with the teachers, right? This is where they all were.
There was a little bit of a scene there, though.
[BR549 co-founder] Gary Bennett was playing in a club a few doors down. He was a lot like me. We were the only guys on the street playing old Johnny Horton, Ray Price and Hank Williams.
Gary came down one day and said the owner of Robert's, which was a Western wear place back then, had put together a band. He sold gun belts and shirts and then stuck a bar in there with a stage.
Gary said that the regular guitar player couldn't make it, and he wondered if I'd come down and play. I went down, played guitar and sang with him, and we immediately hit it off.
We were coming from different angles of the same thing. He was a little more Faron Young, and I was a little more Carl Perkins. We played on Friday and Saturday nights at first. Every night we had to take all the clothing off the stage so that we could play.
People thought, for a while, that we were just studio musicians or lawyers — which was the funniest one — having a laugh on the weekends. By that time we were playing Wednesday through Saturday. I thought, "You think that we're just messing around?" Pretty soon there was a line all the way around the block to see us. Then, the next thing we knew, we had a big record deal.
Did you feel well-received by the old guard country community or was there blowback?
No. We played with Johnny Paycheck, George Jones. One of the first people to come down was Marty Stuart. Marty played with Lester Flatt when he was 13-years-old. If anyone knows country music it's him. He brought Connie Smith down to see us. Little Jimmy Dickens was a big supporter.
We weren't outside the lines. We were harkening back to a spirit that they understood. We felt more embraced by some of the older guards than some of the newer guards. The first night we played the Grand Ole Opry, Grandpa Jones was on the side of the stage saying, "Sign 'em up!" If you want some validation, there you have it.
Tell me about your Broadway career. Was that something you ever expected you'd be doing?
I got this call from Colin Escott, who is a great music writer, wrote a biography of Sun Records. There's a segment in there about the Million Dollar Quartet, the one and only time that Elvis and Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were in the studio at the same time. This madman from California got the idea that that would make a great musical.
Colin called me and said, "Have you ever thought about working in musical theatre?" I said, "Not really." Then he told me about this project they were working on. They didn't want to get a New York music director to make their version of rockabilly. They wanted real rockabilly. He knew that I could do that. Well, he didn't know I could do that but he wanted me to try!
I didn't really know what I was doing. We did this working production in Daytona Beach and decided I should act like a record producer. I'd done that before. In that situation, it worked for that play. It's a play where the main characters have to play, act and sing like Cash, Perkins, Lewis and Presley.
We developed it, opened in Chicago in 2008, was there for eight years. Then we went to Broadway. The next thing I knew I was sitting at the Tony Awards! It's in London's West End, and we did four years of a national tour.
Then you made Free State Serenade, an album that focuses on Kansas. What made you circle back to that?
Kansas is still home to me. The light's right where you grew up. Although I made a nice life here in Nashville. I have a lot of friends here, this is where my wife and I have been for over 25 years. Kansas is still home for both of us, really. I wrote a couple of songs, thinking about home and then I thought, "What if I wrote a song about Quantrill's raid?" "Why don't I write a song about In Cold Blood?" "Why don't I write a song about the time I saw a UFO out at Clinton Lake?"
It was kind of a mixed-up bunch of little short stories that all had Kansas as the backdrop of it because Kansas is my backdrop. It probably always will be.
Did you see connections between the songs on Close To Home as you were writing them?
It was less of a conceptual thing. The thing that ties it all together, though, is where I recorded it. I recorded it in Memphis. All my solo records and the BR549 records were recorded in Nashville. There's a certain machinery in Nashville. They're such good musicians and can come up with arrangements so quickly. It's incredibly efficient. But, in Memphis, there's less of the clock and less of a discipline because that's how you got rock ‘n' roll.
So I recorded the record at Sam Phillips Recording Service. It was the studio Sam Phillips built-in 1962 when he had [enough money from working with] Elvis and Carl Perkins and all those guys, he moved up and designed a studio the way he wanted to. It's never stopped being a studio since 1962. That's what kind of ties all the songs together, just the vibe of the songs.
What are the things you think about when you think about Kansas?
I mostly think of Lawrence, simply because that's where I lived and that's where I grew up. There are so many historical things that happened there: John Brown making his speech, Wilt Chamberlain playing basketball there, breaking the color line in the movie theater. Bottle rocket fights at two in the morning out by Clinton Lake. Chasing tornadoes with walkie-talkies. Just generally feeling like anything is possible.
I don't know if it's the air or the light, I still think of Kansas as home.
This story is part of the KMUW series Gravel Roads and Lost Highways, which is made possible in part through a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. KMUW is partnering with PBS to promote the Ken Burns documentary Country Music.