BR-549’s Chuck Mead,
The TVD Interview

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.

Listening to that song reminded me of the film Capote and, consequently, Phillip Hoffman’s recent death. It’s as if a litany of tragedy continues to unfold from that story.

I knew Phillip Hoffman’s brother, Gordy Hoffman. He was going to college at KU during my formative years there. We called him “Gordon Bordon, the Master of Contortion” (laughs).

Why so?

Well, we were all “The Master of Contortion” back then! (more laughter).

“Sitting on Top of the Bottom” was the first song I heard from the album. To me, it’s the inverse image of the Mississippi Sheiks’s “Sitting on Top of the World,” from their Dockery Plantation days. Did that even enter your thoughts?

Well, yeah, because so many people did that song. Everybody from Howlin’ Wolf to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded it. I’m just trying to tap into the tradition and make it my own, just like everyone else does. It’s a “two in the morning and I’m still here” song.

You cover a lot of ground on this album, stylistically. Is that a conscious effort or is that just what happens?

I tried to connect with everything I am and just let it all out. Really, this record, I was trying to do that, just let it all out.

There is a great tradition of genre-benders like The Band and Doug Sahm…

Those are great people!

What records influenced you early on?

Oh, I remember the first record I bought! I rode my bike up to a place, through very heavy traffic, and bought the 45 of  (The Beatles’) “Let It Be” backed with “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number).”

When you flipped that Beatles single over and listened to “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number),” what did you think?

It blew my mind. I thought, “Now, that’s a bunch of guys having fun! I don’t know what’s making it so weird, but I like it.” I still have that single along with a million other Beatles records.

We had records that our folks had bought us, kiddie records, because we had a little record player. We had Fairy Tales as Read By Danny Kaye, the Mary Poppins soundtrack—that was huge! My folks had all the Tijuana Brass, Al Hirt, and this record by Robert Preston called “Chicken Fat” (sings a bit of the song). It was an exercise record, but because it was Robert Preston, you were cracking up the whole time.

Heh-heh, Michelle Obama’s vision realized five decades earlier.

Yes! In fact, when that whole (White House) fitness initiative started, someone contacted me, asking me to write a song for it. I don’t know what ever happened with it on their end, but I did put it on my Upstairs at United Vol. 8 vinyl-only release. It’s called “Happy, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise.” It’s a little rocker.

Back to your first single, do you remember where you bought it?

Yes, it was a place called The French Market, which later became a K-MART, which is now standing empty in Oberlon Park, KS. They had “Kiddieland” beside it where you could see Whizzo the Clown, a local clown in Kansas City.

Maybe an unfortunate name! (laughter)

Whizzo was hilarious! It was a situation where you could almost smell the bourbon. He had a kiddie show and he would point to a kid and say, “Hey you! Yeah, you with the face, come over here!” My mom recently had some old home movies converted to video and there is footage of us going to see Whizzo at a special appearance right beside The French Market.

So The Beatles’ single was the first record you felt like you had to have. Where did it go from there?

My folks’ Hank Williams records were a huge influence. My dad listened to a lot of country music on the radio and I liked to listen to Top 40, all the way through the ‘70s. I have practically every ‘70s 45! I would just buy them all. I got into albums when I started getting more conscious of things, but, for example, I wore OUT that 45 of Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider.”

With “Funky Junky” on the flip.

That’s right! One time we were at Robert’s and I started into the “Hot Rod Lincoln” lick and then did the “Uneasy Rider” rap over it. It really worked. I had never sat down and tried to learn the song, I just knew it because I had played the single so many times.

Charlie was really hot back then.

Yes, he was on fire. “Trudy”! What a great song. If you ever watch that movie Heartworn Highways, there’s a concert sequence of Charlie from that era. That band is so tight and they’re still throwing down. I played the Opry a couple of months ago and they were on the bill, too. They still smoke!

Top 40 in the ‘70s was still in a time when the programming could be very eclectic.

Yeah, it was all over the board and I think that exposed me to many different things that, if I was growing up today, I might have missed. Now, everyone has their own specialized playlist but back then, you took it at face value because it was on the radio. They didn’t have “specialty radio” for all the subgenres, you heard Kenny Rogers, Chicago, and The Spinners all in a row on the same station, whatever was a hit. I love all that music because of that. Even “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” holds a special place in my heart.

Is vinyl your main music format?

When I’m at home, absolutely. It’s not practical to travel with vinyl and take it with you on tour, so I listen to music digitally in those cases. One thing I really like about newer albums is that they often give you the download code free so that you can have a digital copy along with the vinyl. I play CDs in the car because I still don’t have a plug-in for my iPod. When we’re on the road, we listen to either satellite radio or our iPods. We listen to terrestrial radio still just to see what the hell is going on. Like, “What can I pick up in Kentucky?” Along a certain part of I-24 in Kentucky, for example, there’s a killer oldies country station that plays things that will surprise you.

As you wrote this record about Kansas in the past, how does it look to you now from the distance of a few years?

I think that’s how I could write this record, because I do have some distance. I’ve been living in Nashville for over twenty years now, so I have a little perspective on home. It’s still home to me and I do go back periodically.

How has Nashville changed since you moved here?

There’s much better food and there are lots less gunshots in my neighborhood (laughter). It just seems like it’s exploded. People go where the vibe is, where other people are doing what they want to do, so Nashville is naturally a magnet. It’s always been that for country music, but now I think it’s expanded beyond that and there are many different kinds of people coming to town. It makes it much more interesting. I think it’s become more cosmopolitan since I moved here in the ‘90s.    Though I do miss all the peep shows downtown! (laughter)

Lower Broadway has changed quite a bit! I remember all the pawn shops that used to line the street.

Yes, I got a great Fender cabinet down there once.

I remember taking a tour of the Ryman in ’92 and it was in considerable disrepair. You could only go in a small part of it because much of the building was falling in and unsafe.

You couldn’t go in the balcony but you could go to the old backstage and see that it was just a massive dressing room on both sides. I remember the first time I came down here in 1985 with a band called the Homestead Grays. We kept saying “We need to move to Nashville!” We were friends with people like Webb Wilder and Jason and the Scorchers because they played in Lawrence and we got to know them.

Eventually, I found my way here and it was the right time, because something happened! (laughs) It seems liked forever at the time but, really, BR-549 was only playing at Robert’s for two years before we got the record deal. After that we started to tour more, but for those two years, everyone came to us. It was great! I got to sleep in my own bed every night. But, honestly, we got play all over the world and meet so many great people, so the touring was very rewarding.

I know you touched a lot of people. Last year, when I spoke with J.D. McPherson, he talked about seeing BR-549 at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. When I told him that you were the one that introduced me to his album, he was thrilled!

I was in Chicago, visiting the local production of Million Dollar Quartet. I have to go periodically and make sure the band is playing everything correctly. It just so happened that during this visit, J.D. was having his record release party at the Double Door. My buddy Jim Herrington, who has taken all the photos for my albums and the BR-549 albums, had just been hanging out with him and told me I should go. So I went to the show and it was fantastic! Joel Patterson, a great Chicago player, sat in with them. I was just blown away. J.D. has such a magnetism live and that really comes across on the album.

Yes, it’s hard to put that appeal into words. He’s doing the same thing hundreds of other players have done, only he’s doing it better.

But he’s doing it his own way. That’s the thing. We did that all the time with BR. Half the records we covered, we didn’t really remember how they went. Someone would request an old song and I’d say, “Sure, I know that one!,” and we would just play it like we remembered it and that would become our version. That’s what you’re supposed to do with roots music, you take what came before and put your own twist on it because then it makes it true. What was it that Tom T. Hall said, “Just be yourself and you don’t have to rehearse.” (much laughter)

About your past, I was recently talking with Paul Burch about the infamous “Hank Williams request” incident and he corrected me. I had thought it was Ricky Van Shelton who said “I’ll give you $25 for every Hank Williams song you can play,” but he told it was John Michael Montgomery.

Yeah, that was weird because Paul was up there on drums, sitting in, because “Hawk” Shaw Wilson, our drummer, had to go to the bathroom. Gary Bennett, the other singer from BR, was there and a guy who called himself “Hank,” who played next door at the Wagon Burner (now Layla’s Bluegrass Inn) was at the bar, along with some other guys. So there were at least four or five guys in the bar who could’ve done what I did but I was the one who got the call. At one point, I said, “Okay, that was three hundred bucks worth, do you want me to keep on going?” He said, “Hell yeah, son!,” so I did.

Was it true that someone wound up walking with John to the ATM to make sure he got the money to pay you?

No, he had the money but that was all the cash he had on him. He had to go to the ATM in order to pay the bar bill. In all fairness, he was twenty-five bucks short but I told him that was okay. (laughter) Still, that $675 went to a good cause: my rent!

Tell me about how the Upstairs at United Vol. 8 album came about.

Jay Millar at URP called me up and wanted me to be involved. They had already recorded a bunch of cool people there and it was just a really groovy thing to do. You set up in the room, they record you and mix it as it goes. It’s like old school recording, they’re practically cutting it right into the wax. Then they master it and that’s the record, warts and all.

Did you feel all the ghosts up there in the “Motown Suite”?

Yes, I visited the suite. It would make a nice little rental apartment, I’m surprised they don’t rent it out. I guess it’s more of a museum now. They’ve got a great hi-fi in it, I can tell you that!

Are there any artists that you’re excited about now?

I’ve been listening to Kasey Musgrave’s album a lot, on vinyl, of course. I think she’s really great. I’m always glad when I see something become popular that’s actually good. I’m always rooting for that, I don’t want to hate. That Mavericks record that came out last year is great, too.

Do you buy records as you tour?

Yes! You can store them right here under the bunk and they stay safe. Recently, I found a bunch of jazz 7” EPs in a thrift store, artists like Art Blakey. I don’t think they’re worth anything much but they have great sleeves. If there’s a record store near where we are, I always try to stop by. We used to do that all the time in BR. Jay, especially, is a big record collector. We used to hit record stores all the time. He had a big “want list.”

This would be the point where I should suggest that you download The Vinyl District app for your phone so that you can locate the record stores much more easily.

Yes! Thanks for that suggestion.

I always enjoy your appearances on A Prairie Home Companion. Do you have any plans to play future dates?

We played the fall kickoff and every now and then, we get a call. Whenever Garrison calls, we go.

How is the experience of being on the show?

Oh, it’s fantastic! It’s like the Grand Ole Opry went to college. He’s like a Mark Twain. Even though it’s scripted, it’s all up to his whim. You have to hang out and stand by, because you might go on earlier than you expected. In that sense, it’s very spontaneous. When he does “The News From Lake Wobegon” segment, there are no cue cards, he’s just up there telling you a story. It’s always compelling. Everyone on that show is terrific and we always have fun when we’re on it.

Chuck Mead’s Free State Serenade is available now. On vinyl.
Chuck Mead Official | Facebook | Twitter

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