In the ’90s through the mid ’00s, Chuck Mead led the (alt-)country band BR5-49, which placed several albums into the country charts, despite minimal radio airplay. Following the band’s hiatus, Chuck became the musical director for the Broadway show Million Dollar Quartet and its TV spin-off, Sun Records. Chuck has also released four solo records including, just this June, Close to Home.
This coming Tuesday, July 23, Chuck will appear in the Cosmic Honky Tonky Revue at The Hamilton Live with Jason Ringenberg and Jim Lauderdale. Mark Engleson of Parklife DC caught up with him before the show.
Mark Engleson: Hi, this is Mark Engleson with Parklife DC.
Chuck Mead: Hey, how you doing Mark?
ME: Good. Good to talk to you, Chuck. You’re in Spain?
CM: Yeah, I am. We’re at the hotel. We’re getting ready to go out to the festival venue and see what that’s like, and see my good buddy Will Hoge play tonight. And, I guess, the biggest country music star in Spain, he’s playing there.
ME: I just saw Will a couple weeks ago. He did a double bill with Band of Heathens at the same venue where you’re playing [in DC].
CM: Oh, right.
ME: I understand you’re from the Kansas City, Missouri area.
CM: No, I’m from Lawrence, Kansas. I was only born in Missouri. But I grew up in Lawrence.
ME: I was born in the Kansas City suburbs.
CM: Which one?
ME: I was born in the Overland Park Hospital.
CM: When I was really young that’s where I lived, is Overland Park. We moved to Lawrence in 1970.
ME: I’m a little younger. I was born in 1980. I lived in Kansas for five years, and then my dad had a great job opportunity in Akron, Ohio, and that’s where I grew up. I’m a Midwesterner, too.
CM: People are nice, for the most part. They used to be.
ME: Everyone’s getting a little rougher around the edges these days.
CM: Well, you know, yeah. I’m hoping it stops soon.
Chuck Mead released Close to Home, his latest solo album, on June 28 via Plowboy Records. Stream Close to Home by Chuck Mead on Spotify:
ME: Why don’t you tell me about the new album, Chuck?
CM: Oh, man, I found myself — I don’t know if you know this, but my straight job is in musical theater. Do you know about this?
ME: I read that you’re involved with the Million Dollar Quartet musical.
CM: I was the music director, the original one, all the way through, until they started going into smaller markets. Then somebody else took over. I parlayed that into doing the music for the TV version, which is called Sun Records, and it was on CMT. I did the music for that. I stayed in Memphis while we shot; we shot in Memphis. I stayed there for three months. I got to know the music community, and it was really great. My buddy Matt Ross-Spang, who used to be the engineer at the old Sun Studios, is now the manager at Sam Phillips Recording Service, the studio that Sam built in 1962, which recorded a lot of great music in there, too. But it was like Sam had enough money to do what he wanted in a studio.
ME: Is that the studio that has all the rounded walls and stuff like that?
CM: It has all the different baffling you can take in and out. It’s crazy. But it has a sound of its own. I decided that it would be a cool thing to do — as opposed to just doing another record where I record usually in Nashville — just to get a different flavor, and to get a different vibe, just to go in there and cut some sides with Matt Ross-Spang. That’s what we did. The result was this record. We did it in three or four days. Then we did some additional things in the studio in Nashville, but the lion’s share of it, the basic tracks, were recorded on tape, really, and we dumped them over to ProTools. We definitely got the vibe of that studio. It was really something else. It was like being in the room with the spirit of Sam Phillips.
ME: Very cool.
CM: It was really great, because Jerry Phillips was there, Sam Phillips’s son. I’ve been friends with him for quite a while. I loved it that he came down while I tracked. It really meant that I had a lot of support from one of them, because they got that I was trying to capture Sam’s spirt in all the musicals and all the TV. Haille and him — Haille is Sam’s granddaughter, Jerry’s daughter — she’s kind of running the studio now, they got it really dialed in. They’re doing great work there.
Matt Ross-Spang’s a genius. We had a great old time doing our songs and coming at it a little different way. The clock’s a little different in Memphis than it is in Nashville. You have time to chase stuff around the room a little bit, as I like to say. It was really great. It couldn’t have come out better. Well, it could’ve, if I was better. [Laughs]
Watch Chuck Mead perform the rockabilly murder ballad “Evil Wind” at the Nashville Boogie Vintage Weekender in 2017:
ME: You’re going to be on tour with Jim Lauderdale and Jason Ringenberg later this month. You’ll be coming through DC. Do you want to talk about that tour a little?
CM: We wanted to do it like a little revue. All three of us have a similar kind of music, but we’re all coming at it from a slightly different way. Somehow it all meshes. I’m really looking forward to it, because those guys are two of my favorite recording artists and people. Anything’s going to happen. We’re going to be coming in and out, off and on the stage. It’s not going to be this guy’s show, now this guy’s show. It’s going to be all mixed up, to give the people more value. It’s another one of those where, if it all works out, it’s a miracle. But that’s everything. [Laughs]
ME: I think you guys’ll make it work.
CM: I think it’s going to be great. The rehearsals were really cool. The songs are going to be great. It’ll be big bang for not so much big bucks.
ME: I haven’t seen you or Jason live, and for people who are interested in this type of music, you guys are definitely people to see. Jason is a foundational figure in alternative country/Americana. You made your splash a little later, but you’re definitely a figure in that milieu as well.
CM: Jason Ringenberg changed my life. I can tell you that right now. It sent me in a direction that, in my heart, I always knew I was going to go, at an early age. We’ve known each other for 40 years. He’s one of the all-time greats.
ME: How’d you meet Jason?
CM: I met Jason because I’d seen Jason & The Nashville Scorchers come through Lawrence. They were supposed to come through Lawrence again. Somehow, the promoter fell out. My best friend and I, who were in a band, decided we can promote this show. We’ll just take it over because they’ve got to come, and then we can open. So we did. We took a chance, and everybody got paid that night. It was a totally successful show. That’s where I met Jason and Warner and all those guys, real early on, in Lawrence. We’ve stayed friends ever since then.
ME: There was a great DIY ethos and energy in that era.
CM: Oh man, it still happens. When he comes up on stage, the energy level goes up about 85 percent. It’s really something. I’ve noticed that over the years. He used to come down and sit in with BR5-49 down at Robert’s [Western World]. We were doing four hours, and he’d get up there. We’d be doing our show, and it’s all happening, and it’s fun, and it’s got energy too, but then Jason’d sing a couple of songs, and immediately it became a fucking rock show. It was amazing. It still happens.
ME: How’d you meet Jim?
CM: I met Jim in Nashville. He was one of the most gifted songwriters they have in Nashville. I knew him from that, and I’d see him at different functions, like Americana-type. The Old Settler is where I actually met him. We’ve been friends and acquaintances and done a bunch of gigs together. There’s no more consummate showman than Jim Lauderdale. He just cracks me up, man, the way that he gets up there and captures everybody. And that voice, shit. One of the best singers in town, too. I’m actually kind of jealous. I’m actually trying to get them to make me look good. [Laughs]
ME: I did an interview with Jim, and he was just telling stories about his album and co-writing with people. We ran out of time. He made a point of calling me back and making extra time to go over more stuff.
CM: Yeah, he’s a good dude, man. That’s what country music’s all about, right?
ME: Do you identify yourself as being a country musician?
CM: I always say I’m a hillbilly singer, but my heart is in rock ’n’ roll. [Laughs] Because it’s not that far apart.
ME: Did you grow up as what you call a “hillbilly?”
CM: I grew up playing in my folks’ country-western band when since I was 13 years old. I was the drummer in my folks’ country band. I played on the weekends at the Elks, Eagles, Knights of Columbus, places like that, up until I was in my late teens, when I changed to guitar. I was playing that country music, but I wanted to be in a rock and roll band. I had rock and roll bands when I was growing up, in my era — the Clash, the Ramones, Nick Lowe, and all that. I was way into all that. And then, I saw Jason & The Nashville Scorchers, and that put that all together for me.
ME: So your parents were musicians, too.
CM: My mom played piano. My uncle played the lead guitar. My grandpa played rhythm guitar. My dad played bass. My mother’s family was musical. They had a whole hillbilly show in the late ’40s, early ’50s on the radio station in Nevada, Missouri. They did that a long time ago, before I was born. Then they stopped doing it. They decided to put the band back together in the early ‘70s, 1970-1971. For my 12th birthday, I got a set of drums. Then I’m the drummer, because they needed a drummer. Old-fashioned hillbilly music with no drums had gone out of style. [Laughs] To play a dance, you’ve got to have drums, right?
Watch Chuck Mead and Renae Truex performs at Hank Williams’ grave in Montgomery, Ala., on March 7, 2018:
ME: You ever have the urge to bang on the drums?
CM: Oh, I do. I have a kit, now, in a little shack out back where we rehearse. I pound around on the drums. I’m trying to get my chops back. If anybody needs a drummer, I can step in at the last minute.
ME: What’s your songwriting process like?
CM: It’s weird, I go in and out. The more you do it, the more you do it. Sometimes I get distracted when I’m working on other things, like I still have a couple of Million Dollar Quartet troupes that I work with for certain people. I’ll go away and do that. I’m always still writing. I’ll write when I run. You come up with an idea, you just write it down later on. I’ll have something going through my head and I’ll get that down. I’ll record it on my phone, which has become very hand for that. I’m trying to always work it. I’m always looking for something. I’m always listening for the next thing on the wind.
ME: Have you discovered anyone new and interesting that you’ve been listening to lately?
CM: They’re not very new discoveries, but I love Margo Price. I love Kacey Musgraves, too. I saw her, and that was fantastic. I listen to all kinds of different things, not just one thing, a whole bunch of different kinds of music. I like anything that has heart and soul.
ME: What do you like to when you’re taking time away from music?
CM: I never take time away from music. [Laughs] It’s always spinning around, right? Even if you go on vacation, or just hanging out. Watching TV, there’s things you’ve got to pay attention to.
ME: Have you binged any good series lately?
CM: I’m still a Walking Dead guy. That continues on. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I can’t wait for more of that. That’s a fantastic show. I have varied tastes. I watch this great British show called Peaky Blinders that’s got all these gangsters from Birmingham, England, right after the first World War. It’s kind of a family saga like the Corleones. It’s different.
ME: Only with worse teeth.
CM: [Laughs] They’re modern actors, so it’s better.
ME: What do you read?
CM: I read all sorts of things. I’m reading a Lightning Hopkins’ biography right now. I read different things. I’m really excited about the Sisters Brothers movie that’s coming out supposedly. I read that book a few years ago. It’s really, really great.
ME: That’s out. It’s on Hulu.
CM: Oh, it’s out? I might have to watch it.
ME: If you have Hulu or know someone with a subscription, it’s on there.
CM: Yeah, we have Hulu. We watch the Handmaid’s Tale, too, of course. That’s a fantastic show. A little too scary. My wife’s like, “Well that’s how my life is every day.” I never thought of it that way.
ME: I have a side joke in a short story about the government banning abortion when the mother’s heartbeat is detectable.
CM: [Laughs] Wow. It’s too weird, man. I feel so relaxed over here in Spain.
ME: I hear Spain is a very chill place.
CM: Every American should be able to come over to anywhere they want to go in the world besides the United States just for a rest. I think we reboot ourselves.
ME: Unplug us from America?
CM: Come back and see that yeah, people are nice to each other. Like, Scandinavia. People are really nice to each other! It would be great. They just need to be more happy, I guess.
ME: Although, curiously, the Scandinavians have a high suicide rate.
CM: That’s your winter months.
ME: I suppose so.
CM: If you live in Denmark, that’s pretty good. It’s beautiful.
ME: Well, Chuck, I’m going to let you get on with your day. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
CM: I sure appreciate it. When you come to the show, come up and say hey.
Catch Chuck Mead with Jason Ringenberg and Jim Lauderdale in the Cosmic Honky Tonk Revue at The Hamilton on July 23!
Cosmic Honky Tonk Revue
featuring Chuck Mead, Jim Lauderdale, and Jason Ringenberg
The Hamilton Live
Tuesday, July 23
Doors @ 6:30pm