The Journeyman Comes Home
Lawrence, Kansas is the center of the universe! former
BR549 front man and Lawrence, Kansas local boy Chuck Mead
told a crowd of friends, relatives and fans at a packed (and sweltering)
Bottleneck on May 23. When I talked with Chuck a couple weeks before
the show he was in the midst of an exhaustive tour to support his
first solo release Journeymans Wager. With Wager,
Chuck proves that, in fact, one can go home again. The former (and
to hear the way he tells it, still) front man of the groundbreaking
retro swing country giants BR549, Mead combines elements picked up
on the road and from time spent playing in bands that started at twelve
with his family band, The Family Tree.
Miles of blacktop and appreciation for the masters of honky tonk,
swing and rock: Hank Williams, Sr. (he covered Lost Highway
at the show), Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Buddy Holly
and The Beatles (included on Wager is a hoppin
cover of Old Brown Shoe that BR549 devotees will turn
up to 11) make his first solo effort a work of genre excellence. Add
to that his stellar new backing group The Grassy Knoll Boys
and the album becomes a totally safe bet for country, rockabilly or
good time fans.
I caught up with Chuck via telephone and we talked about common acquaintances
(my in-laws are good friends with his cousin in St. Joseph, Missouri
Ed Nehlander), a history making election, the genre jumping
of the record and the fact that, even after several years on the road,
when you make the right turns it will always lead you home.
Hybrid Magazine: Im going to your May 23rd homecoming
show at The Bottleneck. Whats it like playing for the hometown
crowd as opposed to other shows?
Chuck Mead: Well, theres a whole lot more of my relatives
and people I went to school with in the audience
HM: Is it more stressful? Do you want to make sure you put
on a great show?
CM: You always want to put on a great show, but yeah, you
dont want anybody back home thinking youre a chump.
HM: Ok, Im going to ask you this question and Im
sure youre asked it every time youre interviewed but here
it is: Is BR549 done or just taking a break?
CM: Well, ya know Donnie (Herron) is playing
with Bob and Shaw (Wilson) is livin out
in Arizona so its not done, people are just doing different
things right now that dont involve BR. We can still do it, were
not broken up. Shaw and I just decided we wouldnt do any BR
gigs unless Donnie and Chris could be there as well.
HM: So, theres no animosity? Nothin heavy?
CM: No, No. In fact, just a few weeks ago Gary Bennett
(the original lead singer of BR549 with Mead) and I sang together
at a benefit for a friend of ours. So, ya know theres no animosity.
Its just tough to keep bands together.
HM: Why did you decide on the title Journeymans Wager?
CM: Characteristically, musicians, while they are artists,
they are journeyman artists, right? You kinda go from job to job.
Im taking a big chance with this record, its the first
solo album Ive ever done so we kinda coined the phrase one night
on a long drive. Its just seemed like a good thing to call the
record because thats where Im at right now.
HM: Theres a song on the record called She Got
The Ring (I Got The Finger). Is that an autobiographical tale
or is it a nod to the late Jerry Reed?
CM: Well, the guy that wrote the song youre referring
to, She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft) was the guy that
signed us (BR549) to Arista, Tim DuBois. So, when I first recorded
Ring before I put it out I played it for him just to make
sure I had his blessing on that. Its just something that John
Tivin and I came up with. Its not biographical for either
of us. It sounds funny though, doesnt it?
HM: Have you always played in country bands?
CM: Well, I started out when I was a kid playing in country
bands; I played in my Mom and Dads band all over Missouri and
Kansas. Then I had some rock and roll bands in my 20s but I pretty
much played a Hank Williams song in the set no matter what band I
was in. I always put a country flavor to whatever band I was in because,
well, because I couldnt help it.
HM: What was it about country that drew you to it initially?
CM: Its the first music I ever heard. The first things
I can ever remember hearing were Hank Williams and The Beatles, basically.
Thats kinda what this record is for me: half hillbilly, half
HM: Of all The Beatles songs, why pick Old Brown Shoe
to cover on the record?
CM: I dont know. I always really liked that song. It
was the flip side of The Ballad of John and Yoko which
I also liked and I always that Shoe could be done like
a shuffle. So we did and it sounded kinda cool so I put it on the
HM: What influences musically have stuck out more in your
life than others?
CM: The main two are Hank Williams and The Beatles. Then you
got Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Johnny
Cash, Carl Perkins, Carl Smith. Just all of them,
ya know. Rock and Roll, Jazz guys.
HM: So youre an all around music fan
CM: Well sure.
HM: What newer bands around now around keeping country in
the traditional sense alive?
CM: Well, I dont know. Theres a few country bands
around. Dale Watson, James Infeld, that's playing some
shows with me coming up in June. Im just a fan of something
with heart and soul. It doesnt have to be one thing or another.
It doesnt have to be categorized. Theres tons of good
music out there, its just a matter of finding it.
HM: Whats it like going out on a solo tour as opposed
to going out with BR549?
CM: Im having to start out on my own again. Everyone
knows BR549, they may not know my name but they know me from BR. You
gotta start from scratch really and Ive been off the road for
3 years doing different things. Now Im back on the road
Its something else.
HM: The band on the album, The Grassy Knoll Boys, sound like
a really tight group. How did you get them for your record?
CM: I hired them! (laughs)
HM: Money works I guess
CM: I dont pay that much, but I paid. The rhythm section
The Marks Brothers (Mark Miller and Mark Horn) played
their asses off and the other players were friends of mine and people
I really respected. I wanted the record to sound like what people
would expect from me but at the same time, not what people would expect.
A little different from BR, ya know.
HM: I was looking at your Myspace and theres a picture
of you at the inauguration for President Obama. Heres my question
on politics because you know, all musicians have opinions on politics
that everyone should pay attention to
HM: How do you think the world will change with Obama as our
Commander In Chief?
CM: I think we kinda broke the jinx. Now that hes President,
there is a sense that there is someone actually doing something. The
guy is honest, cool, calm and collected. Hes extremely smart
and articulate and I think no matter what people should give him a
chance to screw up at the very least. (chuckles)
HM: Well, he got my vote.
CM: Mine too. I was very excited to be part of it. It was
great to be there and seeing 2 million people smiling. Weve
had 8 years of someone screwing up really bad now its time to
tow the car out of the ditch.
HM: How did you get hooked up with Ray Kennedy to produce?
CM: Ray and I have been friends for a few years now. I meet
him at a guitar show years ago and weve been friends ever since.
He mixed down a couple records that Dave Rowe and I produced.
Ray mixed and mastered the Tangled In The Pines record and
weve always wanted to work together on something from start
to finish so this is what we came up with.
HM: My last question: Chuck, where do you go from here?
CM: Where do I go from here? Im going to Spokane right
now, damnit! And Im gonna make it all the way down the coast,
to the southwest, home to Lawrence and back to Nashville.
HM: Well, have some good shows and well see you in Lawrence.
CM: Great. Thanks a lot. I cant wait to get back home
And when Chuck rolled into Lawrence, he had on his shitkickers and
was ready to go. Excitement filled the humid air as the nights
opening band, Motorhome, took to the stage. Their blend of
outlaw country, Skynyrd southern rock and roll and mandolin
jams was a solid and spirited opener for the man of the hour.
Strolling to the spotlight in a gray fitted suit, well worn cowboy
hat and carrying an old Gibson electric guitar, it was obvious Mead
was ready to give 1000% of himself to his music and the people that
packed The Bottleneck to see him and The Grassy Knoll Boys ( Carlo
Clave - guitar/ lap steel/ mandolin/cornet, Marty Lynd
- drums and Mark Mille r- bass/ stand up bass) put on a show theyd
not soon forget.
After saying his hellos, Chuck ripped through a nearly two hour set
that included the entirety of Journeymans Wager, the
Hank Williams classic Lost Highway complete with a perfect
heartbreaking vocal that would make Hank flush with pride and several
of the wilder BR549 numbers including Little Ramona(Gone Hillbilly
Nuts), Cherokee Boogie and the crowd pleasing raucous
Hot Rod Lincoln"-style story song Uneasy Rider.
With Chucks Scotty Moore and Duane Eddy-style
guitar playing all ablaze and sweat soaked through his suit, Mead
transitioned smoothly from rockabilly king ("Gun Metal Grey")
to Beatles fan (breaking out the hyper-speed version of Old
Brown Shoe) to what he called the hillbilly portion of
the show, LarryVille Style where he played the slower Up
On Edge Hill. Mead and his band of Merry Men were all smiles
as people rushed the floor and shook their asses for the faster numbers,
either dancing with a partner or the imaginary friend proven by the
blonde in front of me with a little help from our good friends at
Budweiser. Im so glad to see everybody having a good
time and dancing Chuck commented from the stage. Last
night the crowd just sat and clapped. They were kind of assholes.
Its nice to be home were people know how to have a good time.
Long story short, everyone at the sweaty little bar in Lawrence was
proud and honored to be there baring witness to the homecoming of
her favorite son, Chuck Mead. He may be starting out again on his
own but hes not alone; hes got fans of his music, be it
solo, with his old local rock outfit The Homestead Grays, or
with BR549 and the people, like me and my beautiful wife, who were
lucky enough to be there on that night in Kansas when the Journeyman
-Danny R. Phillips
photo by Meredith Phillips
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