Chuck Mead & The Muse of Enlightenment
Chuck Mead wraps his fingers around an oversized cup at a window table tucked in the back of East Nashville’s Ugly Mugs, talking about life, old school country music, DIY punk, Broadway shows, and maintaining one’s truth while also maintaining the bottom line. He laughs easily, punctuating his thoughts with flashing eyes — and his mind effortlessly makes pinball-fast associations.
With his rumpled hair, seemingly tossed together hipster chic, Mead looks like the sexy dad who is grown, but ageless. Evoking actor Sam Shepard, he’s the sort of ageless but full-grown man in the carpool line who makes all the moms restless. To look at him, you’d never think that once upon a time, he’d ignited a Lower Broadway explosion of cool that eventually turned it into Nashville’s drink ’n’ drown destination a la Daytona.
“What happened down there, you could not make it up,” Mead says, letting the coffee’s warmth steep into his hands. “It was all over the place, so much happening you couldn’t really tell what was happening. But man, looking back … .”
Looking back, it is hard to imagine. Mead, a Lawrence, Kansas, townie with a taste for punk rock and roots music, had fallen in with a DIY/get-in-the-van crowd that included Nashville alt-rockabilly icon Webb Wilder in its outer rings. Growing up playing in his family’s country band at Elks Clubs and VFW Lodges, he was ripe for the post-cowpunk hybrid — and Wilder, as well as Tucson’s Green On Red and L.A.’s Gram Parsons-loving Long Ryders, suggested the hybrid he was creating had a place in the world.
But how that would be remained to be seen. Looking back even now, Mead marvels. After all, how many people get nominated for Grammys, tour with The Black Crowes and Bob Dylan, produce tribute albums to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings that feature Henry Rollins and John Doe, put together postmodern country supergroups with members of The Mavericks, Chris Scruggs, Geoff Firebaugh, and Joe Buck, then find themselves sitting at the Tonys where the play they’ve been the music supervisor/producer on is nominated for four awards?
And if BR5-49, the little rockabilly/old-time country band that rose from Lower Broad’s combat zone days, didn’t turn into a franchise of Rolling Stones propensity, it may be better. Along the way, Mead turned into a roots David Byrne, the sort of taste-making catalyst who straddles forms and genres in a way that finds the art inside the things he’s drawn to.
A Kerouacian kid
Mead is no dilettante. At 12, he got a drum set and was drafted into the family band — where even his Grandpa played rhythm guitar and sang. Started in the ’40s, singing on WNEM in Nevada, Missouri, they were The Hayloft Gang. They played Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Hank Williams, as well as “Tulsa Time” and “Looking for Love” from Urban Cowboy — “and my mom sang tons of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, too.”
He laughs now, assessing the situation: “We were edgy because we didn’t play any Alabama, out there in the honky-tonks and Eagles Clubs in places like Hiawatha, Kansas. I was a kid; I didn’t know. I actually thought my grandpa and dad wrote all those songs. But hey, whatta life! I had money and got to see a bunch of grown-ups getting hammered.”
It was fun while it lasted, but then, like a lot of kids, Mead wanted to make his own music. A series of little bands followed, hitting the couch-surfing circuit that moved through Iowa into Chicago, down to Nebraska, then Oklahoma City and Norman, Oklahoma.
A true Kerouacian kid, he hitchhiked across the country. He slept on couches, jumped trains, and had the rootless drifter period many folks may dream of but never do. And in doing what a lot of kids who feel disenfranchised by the music of the day do Mead put together bands that played loud and fast in the name of combustion, youth, and rebellion.
“I wanted to play in a rock & roll band,” he explains. “My first band was a mod band that played The Who and The Jam, heavily English rock. But I played all kinds of things in all kinds of bands.”
When they couldn’t find places to play, Mead’s bands rented a city park, bought a keg, and charged people to come. In Lawrence, home to writers William S. Burroughs, Langston Hughes, and Laura Moriarty, crop artist Stan Herd, and scientist Charles Michener, self-expression is. In 2005, the city even had International Dada Month.
“I always wanted to go pro,” he confesses without a speck of shame. “I saw Elvis in ’76. I’d been on stage. I didn’t quite know how, but I knew … .”
The Scorchers light the way
And that’s when Jason & The Nashville Scorchers came to town. Suddenly, Mead’s life had a purpose. Everything he’d lived for fell into place. He became friends with them, as well as Wilder, who’d hired Mead’s friend Mike Janus to tour manage and do sound.
Suddenly, the hardcore country fell in line with the rootless kid who wanted to rebel. For Mead, who can hang anywhere, the band house litmus test was simple: “I lived in a place that was a nonstop party for two years. I knew who my friends were when I’d put on the Bob Wills at 2 a.m.”
Given his taste, his goals weren’t a Billboard No. 1 hit or touring with Garth Brooks. With a focus that made sense, Mead made the move to Nashville with one goal in mind. “I wanted to get a gig at Tootsies,” he says. “It was dilapidated. It was dangerous. But it shared an alley with the Mother Church of Country Music, and it had a real history of its own.”
Most movements start in places people have thrown away. CBGB was in the worst part of New York City. The Anti-Club on Melrose in Los Angeles was a seedy hellhole. Even Cleveland’s notorious Flats, where Pere Ubu and The Dead Boys played, was a forgotten strip in the abandoned mill zone by the
“There was nothing down there,” Mead says of Tootsie’s. “The Wheel was a peep ’n’ whack. It was rough. There were fights and drunks and whores. But there were also guys in the window playing Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, and I wanted in.”
In he got. After getting up one afternoon on a challenge and singing his original “Me ’n’ Opie (Down By The Duck Pond),” he started having shifts as a singer for tips and working the door. Faron Young took a shine to the bright-eyed kid and called him “Jimmy Durante.”
To pay the bills, he answered an “Activist Wanted” ad in the Nashville Scene. He rang door bells for Greenpeace during the day like a Jehovah’s Witness for whales. At night, he preached the gospel of Johnny Horton and Carl Smith. For Mead, who wanted to play and experience music at the source, it felt pretty right.
“You could fire a cannon off at night and not hit anybody,” noted music historian Robert K. Oermann remembers of Mead and his band named for the phone number (BR5-49) of the car dealer on Hee Haw. “They really deserve the credit for bringing people back; Chuck was handsome, young, and terrifically talented. BR5-49’s attitude was right and their taste was impeccable.
“But it wasn’t a given,” Oermann, a longtime East Nashville dweller, continues. “I went with some reluctance because people’s hype seldom lives up to what they say. And it wasn’t packed, but then, within a matter of weeks, it was so packed, you couldn’t even get inside Robert’s!”
Robert’s Western World, where BR5-49 came together and exploded out of, was idiosyncratic in its own right. Originally a warehouse and office space for river merchants, it became the factory and showroom for the iconic company, Sho-Bud Steel Guitars, formed by Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons.
As Lower Broad fell apart, the space became a liquor store that Robert Moore converted into a clothing store. When Mead wandered in, the “bar” was set up around the boots, and the owner had an unorthodox notion. But Robert’s taste in country aligned with Mead’s, and it wasn’t long until BR5-49 came together.
More than come together, though, there were symbiotic convergences. In 1995, the Independent Newspapers Conference was in Nashville, where the scrappy traditionalists played a few songs for the conventioneers at the newly reopened Ryman Auditorium. After the show, the entire crowd, including activist Michael Moore, moved to Robert’s. The buzz was on.
“We knew we were doing something”
A few months later, Billboard’s editor-in-chief, Timothy White, was in town for Fan Fair. The Mavericks’ Paul Deakin brought him down to the airless, overstuffed bar to check out the band who could seamlessly play classic honky tonk, rockabilly, and swing. White, a longtime Rolling Stone editor, knew good when he heard it. After more than a couple rounds, he announced, “I’m gonna put them on the cover of Billboard.”
He did. The bidding war began. But more importantly, the band were committed to their aesthetics. At the time of Brooks & Dunn’s strip mall honky-tonk, they insisted on playing their own instruments, keeping the sound authentic and creating a future for music that had been forgotten.
Then came the Grammy nominations, tours with Brian Setzer and The Black Crowes, the Late Night with David Letterman appearances. Although they couldn’t get their retro sound or quirky lyrics — something almost akin to the Ramones on the Louisiana Hayride — on country radio, the band made an impression. The kind of impression that sticks.
Mead, Gary Bennett, Don Herron, “Smilin’” Jay McDowell, and “Hawk” Shaw Wilson started something that was bookended by Greg Garing at Tootsies. RB Morris and Paul Burch were also making the scene. Just like Max’s Kansas City, the hipoisie were coming — from iconoclast videomaker Sherman Halsey to haute cowboy couture designer Manuel. Connie Smith and Marty Stuart also came by.
“We knew we were doing something,” Mead says. “There were no bands on our side of the street, just one guy in the window with a guitar. It’s cool. But this was a whole other kind of energy.”
The band signed to Arista Records, releasing the covers/original Live at Robert’s as an introduction in April 1996. Then in September of 1996, they went into Castle Recording Studios to make BR5-49, a move that allowed them to play on their recordings.
“Back then, labels weren’t so tight-assed,” Oermann says of the fuss around them. “Creative people were still allowed to be on major labels, could still make music without being on the same grid as Alan Jackson.”
Ultimately, they would release three albums and two EPs at Arista before parting in the industry downturn of 1999/2000. They then signed with Sony’s indie-leaning imprint Lucky Dog, where they released one album. After that, they recorded two albums for Dualtone Records. Like the classic Tareyton cigarette ads, they’d rather fight than switch. Vintage, loud, proud, BR5-49 never lost the reverence for country’s true roots.
And when each phase was over, Mead noticed a pattern: Each time something had run its course, they’d return to Lower Broad, which had grown increasingly robust. There were bad realignments. There were supergroups. But mostly, it was about playing music and maintaining momentum.
“I wanna stay on the same vibe as Doug Sahm,” Mead offers. “I just wanna do what I wanna do and have fun.”
Mead became creatively restless. He loved his band — but there were other things. After producing the tributes to Jennings and Cash, he started thinking about solo records. He started wondering about taking his own music on the road. He pondered how to pay the bills.
In 2009, he released Journeyman’s Wager, a churning record that feels like Steve Earle with a bit more vintage country. He toured behind it. He also got a call from the noted music historian Colin Escott about a Broadway show he was trying to write. The idea centered on the so-called “Million Dollar Quartet,” which emerged from a spontaneous convergence of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins during a Perkins session at Sun Records. The result was a jam session for the ages.
Mead knew nothing about musicals, but he figured he knew the artists and the music. With that, he could figure it out. Shaking his head, he marvels, “I knew nothing, so I just acted like a record producer. Asked a lot of questions and trying to focus on what was being played.”
The Million Dollar Quartet was originally staged in Washington state, then Chicago. It currently plays Branson and Las Vegas. Its 2010 Broadway run at the Nederlander Theater earned four Tony nominations, including a win for Levi Kreis, who played Jerry Lee Lewis. The late “Cowboy” Jack Clement was one of the early sit-ins, as was Lesley Gore. Before it was over, everyone from Kathie Lee Gifford to Jerry Lee himself had been part of the show.
Given the entire play is eight people including the band, the challenges facing the creators to move story, integrate music, and honor what happened were inherent. The cast had to learn to play the music like they meant it. Mead had to understand the reality of “getting the story across” without losing the energy that made Cash, Lewis, Presley, and Perkins the firebrands of their day.
“It’s a whole different kind of show business, fitting little narratives inside larger narratives,” Mead says. “But at the same time, keeping people invested and being real.”
Then there’s Meade’s retro romp through Columbia’s legendary Studio B resulted in Back at the Quonset Hut with his Grassy Knoll Boys. The songs — a collection of country classics from the likes of Boudleaux Bryant, Charlie Rich, Johnny Paycheck, and Perkins — feature musical appearances by legendary studio players Bob Moore, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and Harold Bradley; top it all off with a vocal from Bobby Bare, alongside turns at the mic by Old Crow’s Ketch Secor, Jamey Johnson, and Elizabeth Cook.
What emerges is a perfect time capsule — or lapse — that pays homage to the kind of country coming out of tube radios in the ’50s and ’60s.
A niche from which to make it all work
But it was last year’s critically acclaimed Free State Serenade where all Mead’s lives converged. Straddling the line between stark roots rock and the timeless hillbilly music he’s known for, the man who’s now considered an influence created a record steeped in stories that unify across the setting of the heartland’s flatlands.
“If my first record was the result of songs I was writing to pitch to other artists because of my publishing deal, Free State took what I learned from the theater and all these songs from me growing up in Kansas,” Mead explains.
There’s a song about the In Cold Blood murders; another about UFOs. There are good girls abandoned, but ultimately, a sober-eyed look at fame’s abandonment in “Sittin’ on Top of the Bottom.” Previewed at USA Today and reviewed on NPR, it proved the man across the table is no less formidable than when he was burning down Lower Broadway two decades prior.
“It’s amazing to see all that he’s done,” says Scott Robinson, who owns Dualtone Records. “Whether it’s a solo record or a Broadway musical, he’s able to make them work. When he made (BR5-49’s) Tangled in the Pines for us, I thought it was the best BR record they’d made. … The band kept getting better. Who does that?
“Maybe it’s because he never compromises for the industry, for the Row,” Robinson continues. “When I think of Chuck, he’s a visionary curator of art. He’s an artist and his palette is huge — whether he’s moving forward or looking back. But he’s also been able to make it work, which so few artists are able to do.”
Practicality is part of it; so be it if the big dollar days of a major are behind him. He’s invested in a Mercedes Sprinter, put in bunks, and figured out how to make the road work for him. Getting the music in front of an audience is part of it. Just as many of his fans hit the age where kids at home make going out to see music a rarity instead of a raison d’être, Mead suddenly finds he’s an influence, often opening for Old Crow Medicine Show as an inspiration for their own archival country.
“You have to change and adapt,” he maintains. “It’s the old cliché, ‘If you don’t bend, you’ll break.’ Nobody’s just one thing, but I don’t want to have ‘a job,’ so when I go in, I go all in — sometimes to my detriment. But without a master plan, I’m doing OK.”
He smiles when he says this. It’s the kind of smile the smart kid in class gets when he finds the answer to the question nobody’s supposed to have.
“There are varying degrees of success — and I don’t mean monetarily or for recognition, but for self-expression. And I do that.”
“He forged a different musical identity as a solo artist, and that’s something to tip your cap to given how defined the band was,” asserts Oermann. “Songwriter-artists and revivalists in a place where country radio doesn’t go is hard, and he figured out how to do that — twice.
“When you look back at the roots of Americana, you have to talk about BR5-49,” he continues. “They’re the people who coalesced that identity in a lot of ways. Now there’s a culture that exists around this music, so he’s part of a movement. So Chuck, who follows his heart, now has a niche to start from in making it work.”
The second cup of coffee is now gone, the afternoon’s fading away. Back home there’s a dog who needs to go outside, and a trip to pack for. Mead knows in some ways making music is a crazy notion, but he also knows he has no real choice.
“To paraphrase George Clinton, ‘move their ass and their mind will follow’ — and it works,” he explains, trying to ground what and why he does. “I get people talking to me about lyrics, because that’s part of my angle of it. If you make them think, they’ll invest in what you’re doing.
“If you read, it’s gonna come out; I read to inspire myself. Lots of people think country music is dumb, filled with frivolous clichéd ideas. Well, Willie Nelson isn’t dumb. Hank Williams may’ve been a hillbilly, but he put complex thoughts in very simple terms.”
Mead pauses, runs a hands through his hair and looks off. “I think if you can bring all that together in the songs — whether it’s a Broadway play or just what you sing down on Lower Broad — that’s how enlightenment happens.”
December 2020 Update: Mead teamed with producer Matt Ross-Spang Sam Phillips Recording Studios for the sessions that would become Close To Home. This, his forth solo album, was released June 21, 2019 on Plowboy Records. He remained busy touring until the pandemic shut down the live music world.