Behind the Music: Chuck Mead

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

In the mid-1980s, Chuck Mead became a significant part of a robust music scene in his adopted hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. He started a band called the Homestead Grays, named after the Negro Leagues baseball team (and originally called Cool Papa Bell & the Homestead Grays) that joined an independent, underground music community percolating with energy and adventure—a vibe that stimulated creativity and ambition.

The Grays played music that would be branded “Americana,” but was more specifically a genuine mix of the sounds Mead fell in love with growing up: classic country and early rock ‘n’ roll. 

After the Grays hung up their spikes in the early 1990s, Mead moved to Nashville, where he continued to express his affinity for his favorite kinds of music, as a solo performer and then as a member of BR5-49, a name pulled from a skit on the 1970s comedy/music show Hee-Haw. 

BR-5 played originals and covers in a firebrand style that mixed honky-tonk, rockabilly, and Western swing with various flavors of vintage country. And they dressed the part: in slick, period haberdashery.

Their recordings and high-energy live shows were embraced by Nashville, by a population of music fans thirsting for the sounds they weren’t getting from mainstream music and radio, and by music heroes who appreciated the band’s intentions and their sincere execution, including Bob Dylan, who would take them on tour.

After several lineup changes, BR5-49 went on an extended “hiatus” in 2006, minus a brief reunion in 2012. Since then, Mead has started his own band, the Grassy Knoll Boys, and signed up for several other music projects, including music director of Million Dollar Quartet, a Broadway “jukebox musical” that celebrates the legendary Sun Studio sessions that comprised producer Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It was nominated for three 2010 Tony Awards; Levi Kreis won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Lewis.

Mead recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about his upbringing in Lawrence, his 30-year-plus tenure in Nashville, his first performance at the Grand Ole Opry, and the time the Homestead Grays played in a prison yard.

What was your childhood like?
My childhood was pretty Leave It to Beaver. My younger sister and I are still pretty close. My dad was a teacher, and my mom worked at a bank. We weren’t rich, but we never wanted for anything. As I got older, I appreciated more being brought up in a loving, supportive household.

You were born in Nevada, Mo., and raised in Lawrence. Do you have recollections of Nevada?
I never actually lived there; it was my mom’s hometown. She’s the Missourian; the rest of us are Kansans. But all of us cousins rotated spending a week with my grandma and grandpa down there every summer. I’m sure they liked having us around, but we also provided a little garden and canning labor for them. 

It was good though. The White Grill is like Mecca to me. I still go there whenever I am near there. It’s a combination of Town Topic and Mel’s Drive-In of Nevada. John Huston was born in Nevada, too. But he didn’t know how to pronounce it properly because he never spent any time there.

Why the move to Lawrence and what do you remember about growing up there?
We lived in Overland Park when it was still a lot of farmland, like before they built Metcalf South Mall. We moved to Lawrence in 1970, when my dad got a teaching gig there, just in time to see a picture in the paper of Abby Hoffman blowing his nose into the flag. 

Growing up in Lawrence was pretty idyllic, really—the perfect mix of farmers, hicks, hippies, and intelligentsia. I grew up thinking everybody pretty much got along. We lived out in the country, but I remember riding my banana-seat bike—no gears—five miles into town to go to the public pool where all my friends who lived in town were. Even though I have made a home for 30 years in Nashville, I still consider Lawrence my hometown and the center of the universe.

When did music become a significant part of your life?
When my mother was young, her family—my two uncles and grandparents—had a family outfit that had a radio show on KNEM in Nevada. They were the Wynes Family and were part of a little barn-dance type show called The Hayloft Gang. A little later, they got their own 15-minute show where they sang hillbilly, western, and gospel songs. They would play at county fairs and things like that, too. 

When the kids started getting older, they stopped singing professionally and did after-school stuff, you know, basketball, cheerleading, hot-rodding. They always played music, though, whenever the whole family got together the guitars would come out, and the singing would start. I seriously thought my grandpa and uncle wrote those Hank Williams songs when I was really small. 

In the early ’70s, they decided to get a dance band together and play gigs live. In the ’50s they never had a drummer, but you had to have one in the ’70s if you wanted to have a dance band. For my 12th birthday, I got a set of drums, and I became the guy. The band was my mother, my uncle, my grandpa, and my father. It was cool having your own money in junior high. 

I spent every Friday and Saturday night of my teen years at an Elks or Eagles or VFW or Knights of Columbus club. We’d also played honky-tonks, small fairs, rodeos, and Rural Electric Association meetings. We played the country music of the day—Merle Haggard, Don Williams, Tammy Wynette. oldies like Hank Williams and Ray Price, but also Carl Perkins, Elvis, Billy Swan, and Chuck Berry. I still play a bunch of those songs in my band now.

Who were your first favorite bands/artists?
Hank Williams, the Beatles, Elvis, (I saw Elvis at Kemper Arena in 1976; it blew my mind) Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins. I was a weird kid that liked old music. But I also spent a lot of time listening to WHB and loved all the old Top 40 of that era. 

What was the first album you owned? You bought?
The first record I owned was the 45 (single) of Let It Be by The Beatles. The first album I bought with my own money was Three Dog Night’s Naturally. It’s still a killer record to me.

What is your formal music background? Any lessons, instrumental or vocal?
I took piano lessons for a while because they make you take piano if you want to play drums [because] technically the piano is in the percussion section. My grandpa and uncle taught me how to play guitar. Then I was in the Lawrence High Marching Lions, which was easily one of the greatest things I ever did in my life. I didn’t have vocal lessons, except when my mother taught me how to sing harmony, until my senior year in high school, when I quit basketball and started singing in the choir and doing theater.

What do you remember about your first public performance?
It was in the El Dorado Springs [Missouri] Community Building and my grandpa turned to me and said, “Use brushes on all the songs that have singing. Sticks on instrumentals only.”

What was your first band called, and what kind of music did it focus on?
I don’t know if we really had a name. It was in high school, and we played a friend’s party in a barn. I’m sure the material was heavy on Beatles, Chuck Berry, the Stones, probably Elvis and Hank, too. That was also the point where I was starting to get into Nick Lowe and the Jam—the late ’70s. 

I lived in Lawrence from January 1984 through July 1987 and its music scene became a vital part of my lifestyle. I saw the first-ever Pedaljets show there, saw the Embarrassment at Cogburn’s, before it became the Bottleneck, and became a loyal fan of bands like Steve Bob & Rich and your own Homestead Grays. What do you remember about that era? How did that scene and community contribute to your evolution as a performer and musician?
That was a real golden era for the Lawrence music scene. Before it was Cogburns, it was called Off The Wall Hall. I saw a bunch of great acts there—R.E.M. for a dollar. I was pissed when they came through a few months later and they played the Lawrence Opera House, now Liberty Hall, and it cost $5!

The whole town was on fire then. I mean it was really diverse. I saw the Buzzcocks, Iggy Pop, Riders In The Sky, Steel Pulse, Charlie Daniels Band, Third World, Mutabaruka, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Muddy Waters, the Police, the Go-Go’s, XTC, Koko Taylor, and, of course, Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, who changed my life. 

But the local bands were diverse, too. I mean, you had the above-mentioned bands but also Tofu Teddy, who did Grateful Dead- and Little Feat-type music and had killer players; the Poverty Wanks, a really cool reggae/ska band; Ricky Dean Sinatra, who defied category; Get Smart!, the Mahoots, Foodhead, the Lonesome Hound Dogs, and the incomparable Sin City Disciples.

I know I’m leaving tons out, but we all kind of knew each other and hung out in the same places. It was less compartmentalized back then, wide open. As a result, I think I have pretty diverse tastes, a lot of appreciation for things I didn’t when I was younger. That’s probably true for everybody, but that “anything goes” attitude from back then shaped how I think about music now. 

What are your favorite or proudest moments of the Homestead Grays?
I don’t know about proudest but one of my favorite Homestead Grays moments was when Bill Rich, who owns the Fresh Sounds record label, put out our first EP, produced by Fred Smith from Television—thanks, Mona Tipton—and booked us into a federal prison infirmary outside Springfield, Missouri. I think he even went with us for this gig just for the experience of “going inside.” 

So we get there and we’re met by prisoners that, I guess, were trustees to help us with our gear—rough-, rough-looking biker prisoners. There were guards too—armed and watching closely. Now this was a prison infirmary so even though they’re in federal prison, these were sick or injured prisoners. It was also for “misfits”—even for prison—or ones that could pay someone to be there. So the biker guys were alright and seemed to like us but were also kind of giving us the stink eye. I mean, we weren’t Johnny Cash or anything.

We set up and get ready to play, and the crowd in the yard started to gather. A set of bleachers in front of us started to fill up a bit and the ball field behind that. It really looked like a B-grade prison movie. 

Then we started playing, and we went for it, like we always did—ripping through our numbers and throwing it out there. But we could tell our band wasn’t quite the crowd’s cup of tea. I’m sure it felt good for them to be outside on a nice day, but: “What the hell is this?” 

The applause was not all that enthusiastic, but we kept churning through it. We started noticing characters in the crowd, like one little guy with a pompadour. The Homestead Grays always had a large Elvis beach towel displayed onstage—Elvis from the ’68 comeback era. I think I taped it to a mic stand that day. In between numbers we noticed that everyone was yelling “Let Elvis sing!”  “Elvis! We want Elvis!” 

Evidently, the little guy with the pompadour was known as Elvis. So we got him up to sing “Jailhouse Rock,” of course. I could see that this guy, who was about our age, had a mental disability so God knows what he had to endure in there. But right now this was his moment. He went for it with all the moves and gave it everything he had. And it blew the (bleeping) yard a mile high. The whole place went nuts.  He couldn’t sing a lick, but he sure pulled it off.  He was the big hit of the day. 

They gave us some dodge-y but good cheeseburgers, and we packed to leave before it got too dark. The same biker dudes helped us with our gear, and we were heading out when I heard someone call my name—a kid I went to school with who was a couple of years younger than me. I say, “What are you doing here?” and he said, “I’m in (bleeping) prison.” He seemed glad to see me and didn’t seem distressed at all. We visited for a moment, then a guard took him away. I never thought to ask him what he was in for. 

When we were loaded up and rolling down the road, we all, Bill Rich included, thought we had gotten our money’s worth in surreal experiences. We also got paid. I think. 

BR5-49. The name itself was something of a novelty, and you all dressed the parts perfectly. But you were an exciting, kinetic live band and the music was serious and legitimate—anything but tongue-in-cheek. Talk about the dynamics of that band: how they and your initial intentions evolved and changed.
I moved to Nashville to, what a friend calls, “go pro.” I wanted to know how to really write and play country music. My goal was to get a job at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, site of the Hillbilly Left Bank— the place across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry was for years and hosted all the great performers and writers of the golden era of country music. 

And I did get a gig [at Tootsie’s]: “picking” in the window and bar-backing. Three doors down was Robert’s, which at the time was a Western-wear store for tourists. A guy named Gary Bennett, who had come to town for the same reason as me, was playing there. One day he told me that Robert had set up a band for him on the weekends and that weekend the guitar player couldn’t make it and asked if I would sit in with them. 

At the time, all the pickers on Lower Broadway were into the Outlaw-era-and-after country and whatever was on the radio, along with originals, of course. Gary and I were the only ones doing Hank, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, and Faron Young—who was still hanging around Broadway back then and used to call me Jimmy Durante because of my hat with the bill turned up—but especially Johnny Horton. You’d go into Battle of New Orleans, and people immediately respond favorably.

That first night Gary and I could tell that we had an incredible singing chemistry. We would always get asked if we were brothers: We almost called the band The WeAint Brothers. 

In BR5-49 we were always having fun, but we took the music very seriously. A lot of people in Austin thought we were made up by Music Row, but it couldn’t have happened if they’d tried to invent some band like us. You can’t make up what happened to us. 

We learned a lot and traveled in some heavy circles for a while. When we started we played 4½ hours without a break. If you took a break, people left and then you’d make crap tips. We thought it was the last stop. It turned out it was just the beginning. The guy with the cigar came and signed us up. And we were on our way.

What are your fondest moments with that band? Anything you’d do different if you had a do-over?
There was really so much in the first couple of years: playing with and becoming friends of the Black Crowes; playing on a leg of a Bob Dylan tour; Playing on Letterman; singing on stage with George Jones; hanging out with Buck Owens; meeting Aretha Franklin. 

There are other road stories that could be a book. I’m sure our bass-man Smilin’ Jay McDowell will write it. 

I regret not taking full advantage of [the opportunity] to get up with more masters. At one point I could have asked someone to set up a songwriting session with Waylon Jennings or any number of guys who were still around. I did get up with quite a few but I still feel like I was an idiot for not doing more.

What did you take from that experience into your next projects?
Never let it slip by. Never settle for OK. Never do something you think you “should” unless it’s right. 

Your resume is decorated with many significant projects and endeavors. Let’s start with the tribute albums you worked on: to Johnny Cash and then Waylon Jennings. What were your roles and what did those projects teach you?
I co-produced those records with Dave Roe, who is one of the most sought-after bass players here in Nashville. He has played with Jerry Reed, Johnny Cash, Vern Gosdin, Dwight Yoakam, and on tons of records. He’s also my good friend. 

We got together a bunch of left-of-center country and rock ‘n’ roll people to sing Johnny Cash songs and pitched it to the Dualtone record label and they put it out. It turned out pretty well, and I learned how to work in the studio with different individuals and whole bunch of different personalities. It was all a really laid-back and fun atmosphere. Plus, I got to be in a band with some top pickers and singers. It went so well that a couple of years later they asked us to do a Waylon one, too. They’re both available on vinyl now.

You toured with the Hillbilly All-Stars. Give us a synopsis of that experience.
Broken things in our wake. The Hillbilly All-Stars were Robert Reynolds and Paul Deakin from the Mavericks, country singer Mark Collie and me along with a rotating cast of players like Jerry Dale McFadden (Mavericks), Al Perkins (Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris), Joy Lynn White, Mark Andrew Miller, Chris Scruggs, and Elizabeth Cook to name some. 

Our collective notoriety got us (slightly) higher-profile gigs. It was pretty fun. In fact, it was a nonstop party. I loved it. I remember playing a festival in Ireland called the Midlands Festival a couple of years in a row. The first year we played the bill, our night was Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Hillbilly All-Stars, the Del McCoury Band, Don McLean, Glen Campbell, Dwight Yoakam, and Van Morrison. I would go see that show. 

You then stepped big time into musical theater, becoming the music director for Million Dollar Quartet. What prepared you for that project? How did it change you, professionally and personally?
I didn’t know anything about how to put music together for a theatrical piece. When I first got the gig, I didn’t even have an iPod. When we did the reading, I had a boom box and CDs trying to keep up. They hired me because they wanted real rockabilly music instead of some conventional musical supervisor/director’s interpretation of rock ‘n’ roll. 

That first production I was on trial, so I knew I had to adapt my experience to theater. The show is about Sam Phillips anyway, so I just did what I knew—that was produce a record. We made all the songs breathe but fit in with the repetitive nature of theater. We put together a pretty exciting hillbilly skit. The next thing I know I’m at the Tony Awards sitting right behind Tom Hulce. 

The show really works because nobody is in their comfort zones. The theater people aren’t used to the rock ‘n’ roll, and the musicians have to really buckle-down and remember where they’re supposed to stand. It’s the meeting of the discipline of the theater and the absolute lack of discipline of rock ‘n’ roll. I learned a lot working in the theater. It’s a whole different side of show business. I’d like to write a musical piece someday.

Your memory of performing at the Grand Ol’ Opry for the first time.
It was one of those, “Well here I am just like I wanted. What now?” moments. But we had a power, the five of us together in BR, and that really sustained us to not freak out and just kick ass when were in situations like that. It was most exhilarating. 

Jimmy C. Newman introduced us, and we did our two numbers and got such a response, Jimmy asked us to do another. Quite an honor. Our friends heard Grandpa Jones at the side of the stage holler, “Sign ’em up!” That’s a good feeling.

I have made a lot of friends at the Opry. I have always felt related to the Whites, who were there our first night. We call each other cousins. I still call Buck (White) “Uncle Buck.” I’m just glad I keep getting the call to play on the show.

What do you like most about living and working in Nashville? What would you most like to change?
Nashville is the heartbeat of the songwriting culture. If you’re not doing it, you’re talking about it. And everybody has a song. Even your plumber. 

I feel like this town has changed a lot even since I’ve been here. A lot of old-school Nashville is gone. Like just about everywhere else, it’s just one Condo Canyon after another. But it’s changing in good ways, too. For instance, while it’s still the “Home of Country Music,” it’s also the home of tons of great rock, hip-hop, and what I would call adult-contemporary music. It’s the creative vibe that draws artistic people here. 

What have you been doing to navigate/endure the pandemic?
It’s weird being home so much. I’m treating it like a re-set. I haven’t felt too creative during this period. At first, since my wife still had a job, I was in charge of tornado repair. The Nashville tornado of March 3 ripped right down my street. We had minimal damage compared to many of our neighbors who lost everything. Then the lockdown happened like a week later. So I spent days studying Spanish, playing guitar and piano, calling people just to ask them how their pandemic is going, and running. I’d be skinny if I didn’t also down a bunch of wine at night. 

But I have managed to do Zoom readings for two different new musicals and do a live-stream show every other Saturday from my Li’l Shack Out Back called The Li’l SOB Jamboree. Things are going to come around. We just have to see this part through.

How close in touch are you with the music communities in Lawrence and Kansas City? What is your perspective on each more than 20 years into the millennium?
I love Kansas City because it’s one of those cities that still looks like themselves. You drive in on I-35, I-70 or any other road, and you still recognize it as Kansas City. It has managed to modernize without ruining the look and vibe. 

I love playing there, usually Knuckleheads, and, whenever I can, I hit Arthur Bryant’s or Gates, and, if I’m late-night randy, Town Topic. I still know some of the older Kansas City players, though I haven’t connected with some like I’d like to.

I stay in touch with people in Lawrence. I come home at least twice a year, hang out at Richard’s Music, and watch the same parade of ne’er-do-wells walk into the place as when I worked there, plus a whole new crop of them.

I should probably tune in more just to see what’s up with the new crowd. Maybe somebody there can fill me in. But I’m sure there are house parties, and basement bands all over town, because that’s what Lawrence does.

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