Chuck Mead Serenades His Native Sunflower State

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It made headline-grabbing, trend piece-inspiring news in the ‘90s when Chuck Mead and the rest of BR549 started drawing crowds by playing sets that lit a youthful punk fire beneath shuffling ‘40s and ‘50s country. A quarter-century on, he’s captured the rip-roaring attack of his current country trio, the Grassy Knoll Boys, on his third solo album, Free State Serenade.

It’s the state of Kansas Mead is serenading with memories and legends from his misspent Midwestern youth. And even the psychedelic-sounding “sunflower alarm clock” song lyric has its basis in his small-town experience — as in “the sensation that you feel when you’ve passed out and you’ve driven into the ditch, and the flowers are beating on your windshield.” Suffice it to say, the storytelling’s as vivid as the sound.

CMT Edge: This album was released on Plowboy Records. Last year, you cut “Anytime” for Plowboy’s Eddy Arnold tribute album. Did you ever cover Eddy Arnold with BR549?

Mead: Oh, yeah. I did “Cattle Call” a lot. And, actually, I did “Anytime” before. Every once in a while, somebody in the audience would say, “Hey, play Eddy Arnold.”

People remember him best for his real smooth ‘50s and ’60s sound. But, man, back in the ‘40s when he was the Tennessee Plowboy, there were some great songs that he had. … For me, being on this label run by Shannon [Pollard], Eddy Arnold’s grandson, and … Cheetah Chrome from [punk band] the Dead Boys, it’s totally the two sides of me.

What inspired you to focus your songwriting on your native Kansas?

When I had two or three of ‘em, I realized, “These are all songs about Kansas.” Then I just went ahead and went for it. I just think that I’m at a point in my life that there are some stories that I haven’t told, some stuff that I wanted to purge from my head. You know, my home state is a lot more interesting than people give it credit for.

Since the sources of song play a prominent role in this project, would you mind speaking to where “Little Ivy” and “Evil Wind” came from?

To a Kansan of a certain age — and I guess that would be me, although it happened before me — the murder down in Holcomb, Kan., of a family called the Clutter Family [was a huge deal].

The murder was made famous in a book by Truman Capote called In Cold Blood. … There’s a line in the book and the movie where the killers just walked into the house because the door was unlocked. It’s like, “People don’t lock their doors around here.” And the detective goes, “Tonight they will.” After that happened, it kind of changed. …

“Little Ivy” is a different story because it’s much more personal. When I was in fifth grade, there was a girl that was a year older than me in school that was murdered by her cousin — and raped. We went to this little school out in the country. … Anybody that went to school out there at that time that I still see when I go back home to Lawrence, invariably Ivy comes up. It just left such a mark on everybody.

After listening to your song “Ten Million Light Years Away,” I Googled “UFO” and “Kansas” to see what would come up. The first thing I found was the Kansas page of the National UFO Reporting Center, which suggested that there are either a lot of healthy imaginations out there or a plethora of intergalactic activity — or both.

It’s a little of both. And I actually did see a UFO one night with my friends out by Clinton Lake. It wasn’t just the drugs. We saw a sheriff that saw it, too.

How could you tell?

As soon as it shot across the sky, like, fast as you can believe, he got in his car like he was gonna chase the UFO. He’s law enforcement, and he’s gotta go take care of it.

There’s a long tradition of answer songs, a well-known example being Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” responding to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” Was that the spirit in which you wrote “Sittin’ on Top of the Bottom”?

“Sittin’ on Top of the Bottom” was from when I had a writing deal, a publishing deal here in town. One of the [writing] appointments I had was with Will Rambeaux, who I’d known for a long time. … They put us together in a room, and we were like, “Hey, let’s write an old stroll, bluesy number.” We weren’t consciously going for “Sittin’ on top of the World,” but it kinda is an answer song, now that you say it.

You once told me your mother came from a musical family and mentioned the Hayloft Gang. That’s a name associated with performers on the National Barn Dance in Chicago. Did you have any kin on that show?

That’s ironic that you say that. The first time that my grandpa ever got out of Missouri … was on account of the Civilian Conservation Corps. He went up and chopped a bunch of wood in Minnesota. But he spent some time in Chicago because he had a family, and he was just looking for work wherever he’d go. …And he went to the WLS Barn Dance, saw Lulu Belle & Scotty and Hoosier Hot Shots and everything.

The Hayloft Gang was just the name of the little radio show they had on KNEM down there in Aveda, Mo. It was my grandpa and my grandma and my mom and her two brothers … and a few other musicians and singers. It was a little barn dance on a little radio station, like they used to have everywhere. Later on, they had their own 15-minute show.

Do you identify any of the songwriting idioms on this album — the murder ballad, the ballads of crime sprees and exploits — with the musical education you got growing up in Kansas?

I guess it’d have to be. Because I grew up in my folks’ band, playing country music and listening to rock ‘n’ roll radio. I reached a point in my life where I started thinkin’ about all that and still not thinkin’ about it. I didn’t [consciously] channel those things … because I don’t know any better, quite honestly.

I just want people to listen to this record and take a little trip with me, [revisit] all the things that happened to me, all the things that happened in Kansas that I thought about quite frequently and still do.

 

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