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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 Journeyman’s 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: I’m going to your May 23rd homecoming show at The Bottleneck. What’s it like playing for the “hometown crowd” as opposed to other shows?

Chuck Mead: Well, there’s a whole lot more of my relatives and people I went to school with in the audience… hopefully anyway. (laughs)

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 don’t want anybody back home thinking you’re a chump.

HM: Ok, I’m going to ask you this question and I’m sure you’re asked it every time you’re 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 it’s not done, people are just doing different things right now that don’t involve BR. We can still do it, we’re not broken up. Shaw and I just decided we wouldn’t do any BR gigs unless Donnie and Chris could be there as well.

HM: So, there’s 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 there’s no animosity. It’s just tough to keep bands together.

HM: Why did you decide on the title Journeyman’s Wager?

CM: Characteristically, musicians, while they are artists, they are journeyman artists, right? You kinda go from job to job. I’m taking a big chance with this record, it’s the first solo album I’ve ever done so we kinda coined the phrase one night on a long drive. It’s just seemed like a good thing to call the record because that’s where I’m at right now.

HM: There’s 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 you’re 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. It’s just something that John Tivin and I came up with. It’s not biographical for either of us. It sounds funny though, doesn’t 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 Dad’s 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 couldn’t help it.

HM: What was it about country that drew you to it initially?

CM: It’s the first music I ever heard. The first things I can ever remember hearing were Hank Williams and The Beatles, basically. That’s kinda what this record is for me: half hillbilly, half pub rock.

HM: Of all The Beatles songs, why pick “Old Brown Shoe” to cover on the record?

CM: I don’t 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 record.

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 you’re 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 don’t know. There’s a few country bands around. Dale Watson, James Infeld, that's playing some shows with me coming up in June. I’m just a fan of something with heart and soul. It doesn’t have to be one thing or another. It doesn’t have to be categorized. There’s tons of good music out there, it’s just a matter of finding it.

HM: What’s it like going out on a solo tour as opposed to going out with BR549?

CM: I’m 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 I’ve been off the road for 3 years doing different things. Now I’m back on the road…. It’s 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 don’t 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 there’s a picture of you at the inauguration for President Obama. Here’s my question on politics because you know, all musicians have opinions on politics that everyone should pay attention to…

CM: (laughs)

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 he’s President, there is a sense that there is someone actually doing something. The guy is honest, cool, calm and collected. He’s 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. We’ve had 8 years of someone screwing up really bad now it’s 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 we’ve 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 we’ve 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? I’m going to Spokane right now, damnit! And I’m 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 we’ll see you in Lawrence.

CM: Great. Thanks a lot. I can’t 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 night’s 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 they’d not soon forget.
After saying his hellos, Chuck ripped through a nearly two hour set that included the entirety of Journeyman’s 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 Chuck’s 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. “ I’m 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. It’s 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 he’s not alone; he’s 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 came home.

-Danny R. Phillips

photo by Meredith Phillips

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