It’s a pleasure to speak with Epiphone picker and singer Chuck Mead who has been a friend of mine for almost twenty years.
Mead came to Nashville from Kansas in 1994 with the goal of meeting the great Honky Tonk musicians from the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Finding no clubs in Music City USA that wanted 'real' country music, Mead started a new band, BR549 (named after Junior Samples’s skit from Hee Haw), and began performing at Robert’s Western World downtown on Lower Broadway. Robert’s was a combination bar, western shop, and short order grill, open from 10am to 2am, 7 days a week. Bands played for tips. The owner kept a boxing ring on the 2nd floor and trained pugilists when he wasn’t minding the bar.
Robert’s Western World was one of two bars in town that offered “hardcore country music.” No Garth or Shania--only Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, and Johnny Cash. The other was Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (on the same side of the street, “three doors down,”) the former hangout for Grand Ole Opry performers across the alley from the Ryman auditorium.
Lower Broadway had once been a hopping strip of all-night music honky tonks. But after the Grand Ole Opry moved out of town in the early ‘70s, all that remained of the neon glamour and late night glitter was the Ernest Tubb Record Store (the first mail-order record service originally created for World War II servicemen), Robert’s, Tootsie’s, and a few other broken down bars. Lower Broadway was a tough and dangerous place at night. It was not a place to start a career.
Greg Garing, a singer, guitarist and fiddler from Pennsylvania and myself had separately come to Nashville around the same time for the same reason—to meet the people who wrote and recorded Honky Tonk, the rich period of country music that produced Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Hank Williams, Carl Smith, the Louvin Brothers, and Webb Pierce among many others. We considered it the missing piece of rock and roll.
Inspired by the sudden community of fellow like-minded musicians, all three of us got to work downtown with the deadly serious intention of rescuing country music from itself. Chuck’s BR549 eventually grew to include Don Herron (now a member of Bob Dylan’s band) and Jay McDowell (from my hometown in Indiana) and settled into a residency at Robert’s that went Thursday-Sunday, 9pm-2am, with no breaks. Greg and I led a similar band line-up at Tootsie's on the weekends during the same time slot featuring Lambchop's Paul Niehaus on lap steel, guitarist Kenny Vaughn, and future Van Morrison guitarist Peter O'Hanlin.
Performing separately and occasionally together, each group churned out 100 or more 3-minute obscure classics a night. The unusual sight of two bands composed of 20-something fellows playing 50-year old country music while dressed in sharp suits and silk ties caught on quickly. Long lines of fans outside each bar on the weekends led to local news coverage which led to national features in Billboard, Rolling Stone, and as far away as the BBC. The "Lower Broadway Revival" lasted less than a year but it helped introduce and inspire a new genre that had recently been started by Gavin Radio—Americana.
The arrival of Americana (or alt-country) effectively split the country music audience in half. Though Americana got a big boost with the success of the O’Brother soundtrack, Nashville’s Music Row chose to consider the multi-million selling album featuring Ralph Stanley and Gillian Welch as an anomaly. (One radio programmer called it the country “Disco Duck.”) Mainstream country music radio instead gambled on programs like American Idol and CMT’s Trick My Truck to reach fans of “the country lifestyle.” Today, traditional country music fans look to Americana for their Buck, Hank, and Merle infused singers. The Americana Music Association struggles to reach rock, country, and blues fans--in other words, everyone left out by the mainstream. All that fuss for just a few guys who wanted to play some Hank Snow and Carl Perkins songs.
BR549 shows these days are rare but Chuck continues to perform plenty of Honky Tonk classics. His recent album, Free State Serenade, was recorded with his longtime band, the Grassy Knoll Boys. Mead is also the musical director for the hit musical, the Million Dollar Quartet. This fall during the Americana Music Conference, the Lower Broadway rockers reunite at the Country Music Hall of Fame during a special performance on September 20.
Great to see you, Chuck. So what's the story behind your vintage Epiphone?
: I used to work at this music store in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas called Richard's Music. I was one of Richard's lackeys there years ago. Anyway, they have a party there on Xmas Eve every year and we always have this huge jam session. Three years ago when I went home for Xmas, I saw this '47 Triumph hanging on the wall. It had a pressboard pickguard and a pickup somebody put on it in 1956. (I know this because the guy wrote his name, the wiring scheme and installation date on the back of the pick guard.) But I picked it up and it just barked. Fantastic archtop sound. I played it for three hours straight at the party and fell in love. I came home and all I could think of was that Epi. I had an occasion to return a couple of weeks later and sprang for it.
Carco, the man who plays pedal steel guitar, electric mandolin and a host of other instruments in the Grassy Knoll Boys is also a pretty good all around guitar repair and electronics guy. He made a great imitation tortoise shell pick guard off of a picture of a real pick guard and wired that thing up and got it up and running. It was probably two years before I played any other guitar at my shows. I keep the bronze strings on it but I still play it through an amp and somehow it sounds great. I can back the volume way off and get that percussive sock rhythm sound then turn it up and get a knarly rock n roll twang out of it too. I just love it.
Your album "Back at the Quonset Hut" reunited you with some old friends and also turned the lights back on at a very historic studio. What kind of record did you think you'd make there?
I knew I was going to make a record of all classic country songs, most of which I had been doing down on Lower Broad over the years. At first I was going to do it with just me and my band at some small place pretty much as we have been doing them live and then go back and fill in in with a few overdubs. Not too many. I wanted to have something else to sell at live shows. That changed when I got the opportunity to record at the Hut. From then on I was going to bring in some other guys to fill out the sound so we could do it all live. Mike Janas, the man who turned the lights back on there as you say, suggested Wes Langlois because he had worked some other session with him thought he was a great player and right for the music. The guy I knew could really understand what I was trying to do, which was to make a classic sounding record without it sounding like some sort of lame note for note, boring reproduction of these songs, was Chris Scruggs so I asked him to be a Grassy Knoll Boy for a few sessions too.
Did you hear 'the sound' of the room once you started playing or did you have to use your imagination?
Well, I really didn't have any idea how it was going to sound because the room had changed a lot since it's heyday. But during a pre-production trial and error session, we found that by referencing photos and recordings, everything sounded right the way they always used to set it up so we when with that. Mike did a great job getting enough separation with baffles and yet all the instruments sounded like the room which is really open. So even though it wasn't exactly like the old place, it was still a good place. I mean listen to Marty's drums on the record. Now a lot has to do with his playing, which is fantastic, but between the room sound and Mike's knowledge of the room, helped to make not only the drums but all of the instruments sound natural.
How did you become aware of the history of the studio?
I don't know. It's like I've known these places most all of my life. The Quonset Hut, Studio B, The Memphis Recording Studio (Sun), Abbey Road. Then the more you get into it the more you learn. I just a fan you know.
What's the difference between honky tonk music and rockabilly?
Gee, do you have time for a whole book? To me the difference is geographic and time specific. Now this is just my opinion, but the original honky tonkers were playing rockabilly and the rockabilly guys were just playing their version of honky tonk. The guys in Memphis played it different from the guys who played it in Texas and Nashville. But there were some folks from Alabama in the forties who were playing rockabilly, only they didn't have drums and they called it honky tonk music.
The most obvious difference is instrumentation. Honky Tonk music usually will have a fiddle and/or steel guitar where rockabilly typically has just guitars. But that's still an over simplification. I think a lot of it has to do with progressive popular culture movements in the 50s as well.
Was it always easy for you to 'hear' older music or did you have a moment where the perception of 'older'ness went away and you started to 'feel' older recordings
When my friends in high school were listening to Boston, and Styx and (expletive) like that, I was into Hank Williams, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. So I've always liked music that may have seems out of step, out of time. I liked a lot of things from my era too but older music didn't seem square to me. I still just listen to music that moves me from all eras.
I imagine Carl Perkins was an influence. How far have you moved away from the players that you wanted to sound like--or have you?
Carl was huge. I got into it because my uncle who graduated high school in 1959. He was into all that old rock n roll stuff and he used to sing a lot of Carl songs. I can never be as good as the guys I really love but I can try to tap into their originality and vibe because that is what makes it powerful. You can copy licks all day long but what's really meaningful is being able to express yourself in your own way - like all my heroes did.
Ok, you've been called into the studio to play 'hillbilly' music. What do you grab
It depends on what you're called in for. If I'm playing the open chord rhythm then it's my J-45. I got it new in 2002 and it sounds great plugged in or with a mic in front of it. If I'm playing the sock, I use the Triumph of course. Back that mic a ways off of it though - you know I like to hear it bark. Flatwound strings, too. But whatever circumstances require.
BR549 are still alive and well. Now that enough time has passed, do you feel like there are some things you can do in that environment that is harder for you to do on your own?
I think the main difference is that in BR549, there are five bosses and everybody has to play by those rules for it to really work. You can't recreate that combination of people playing and singing that way and we all know it. But I really feel more free playing with the guys I play with now. I've been singing with Mark Miller, the bass player and harmony singer in the GKB, for as long as I was with BR549. He knows my every move. We're a band and I don't tell anyone what to play, unless it's a specific hook or something but it's still got my name on it. I like to think my brain can handle both.