As a member of BR-549, Chuck Mead helped revive both hardcore honky-tonk and the Lower Broadway district of Nashville. The band’s performances at clothing-store-turned-venue Robert’s Western World drew people back to an area where Ryman Auditorium was collapsing from disrepair and most of the businesses were either pawn shops or porn emporiums. Lower Broadway’s reinvention as a “hillbilly Bourbon Street,” with rows of packed shops, saloons, and, indeed, Nashville’s new-found reputation as an “it city” owe much to the sweat equity Chuck and the band laid down in the early ‘90s.
Full disclosure: I have known Chuck for several years and I do work for Plowboy Records, his current label home. What follows is a discussion between friends about his new album, Free State Serenade, ‘70s AM radio, and growing up in the strange and wonderful state of Kansas.
I don’t think anyone was expecting a concept record about Kansas from you (laughter). How did this idea come about?
A few years back, I wrote a song about my wife for her birthday, “Reno County Girl.” After I wrote that, a couple of other songs cropped up that seemed to be about my past in Kansas. During this time I got involved with the “theater thing” [Ed. note: Mead is the musical director for the musical Million Dollar Quartet] which made me think about things more conceptually. I thought, “Yeah, it would be a good idea to do an album of short stories about things I thought I about when I was a kid, growing up in Kansas, including legends that loomed large in my psyche.” Once I made that decision, I started writing toward that goal. I did it in spite of people thinking that Kansas is not interesting, but it is. A lot of creepy things have happened there.
While there are some sweet and happy-go-lucky moments on the album, some very sinister things are also chronicled. On “Evil Wind,” for example, a rollicking, high-spirited beat conveys what is, essentially, a demented murder ballad.
Dick Hickock & Perry Smith were the boogeymen when I was growing up. [Ed. note: Hickock and Perry murdered the Clutter Family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, which became the subject of Truman Capote's first book, In Cold Blood.]
If you grew up in Kansas, people my age and older clearly remembered that happening. When they filmed the movie version of In Cold Blood in 1966, they went to Holcomb to film it and Robert Blake looked so much like Perry Smith that it really freaked people out all over again. It’s something that happened in a place you’d least expect it. Since it happened in the late ‘50s, I thought it should have a rockabilly feel, so I took it there. The only way I could figure to get the whole story across was to tell it through the eyes of Perry Smith, the guy who supposedly pulled the trigger on everybody.