Lonesome Highway, August 2006
Interview with Chuck Mead
Chuck Mead founded BR549 in the early 1990s after moving to Nashville and being involved with the revival of the music in the Lower Broadway honky-tonks. He initially played solo in the front window in Tootsies and famously took $750 in tips from John Michael Montgomery who said that he'd pay $25 for every Hank Williams Snr song Chuck could play. The money ran out before Chuck did. That story serves to illustrate the deep love that Mead and his contemporaries had for traditional country music, something very out of favour in those Hot New Country times. He gathered together a group of like-minded players, including fellow songwriter and singer Gary Bennett, under the name BR5-49. They gained a reputation, including making the pages of Billboard magazine, in Robert's Western Wear in 1993. They then signed with Arista and began a career that went through major labels to their current album Dog Days released on Dualtone Records. Along the way, they have toured the world, supported the likes of Bob Dylan, and made a strong reputation as a live act. Since then, they have lost some founder members, but have continued to develop their particular take on country music. Chuck spoke to us backstage at the Midlands Festival.
Does your involvement with the Hillbilly All-stars mean that BR549 are on hold for the moment?
Well, we had put a record out at the beginning of this year, Dog Days, and we were out touring that for two and a half months. We also made one trip to Europe and were going to do a couple more shows, but as Donnie is still playing with Bob (Dylan) we're just laying low on BR right now. We will wait until Donnie can come and do dates with us, it just doesn't make sense to do them without him. So, I've been working on my own project. I've been writing a bunch of new songs. I'm trying to do something a little different than BR. Then of course I'm working with the Hillbilly All-stars, which is an autonomous collective. Hey, two big words (laughs). You can kinda be yourself in this band, and be in another band at the same time.
It's a great line-up, but maybe not a obvious one?
Well, we've been friends with these guys for a long time. We had done tons of shows with the Mavericks. I've written songs with Raul. Robert called me a year or so ago and said 'Hey, let's try and put something together.' It was something of a conceptual thing like we have so that we could go around and pick up certain people as we go along, a loose idea, and it sounded great. He had a private gig lined up in Abilene, Texas and we brought Collie along and it became full-flowered retardation. And it was great because Mark is so full of heart and soul, he writes great songs and is a great performer. Charisma out the ass. You just know he's a star, you only have to look at him. He and I ended up writing a couple of songs together. And we’re talking about writing some with Robert. At first we felt it was great as we didn't need a record deal, we didn't need a manager. We didn't need any of that crap. Our collective notoriety will carry the show and it has been doing, but now we're thinking that we might end up doing a record of some kind, because we've written songs together. That wouldn't take away from our own solo careers. You need to diversify in this business.
You have been using other singers on this project?
Oh yeah, we have had Gail Davies, Elizabeth Cook and Joy Lynn White. We like to round it out with the female perspective, because it's a little like a Grand Ole Opry style thing.
What direction will your own solo project take?
I'm not sure how to explain it, but what I want to do now is something that is still me, but I come from a lot of other places, and I want some of that to come out too. So it would be ridiculous for me to do something that sounded like BR549, because we still have that, so I want to do something that sounds a little bit different. Push it in a different direction. I got some cool songs, and I've been writing with a bunch of different people. So I'm pretty excited about it really.
You have a song written with Guy Clark that’s on his new album...
Yeah, I love Guy Clark. He and I have written a couple of songs together. He recorded Cinco De Mayo In Memphis, and he wrote Lower Broad Street Blues with me. He's one of those people that you can really learn a lot from. He would never say that right out, like 'Pay attention', but he commands it in his own way. I'm just happy that he passed a little of it on to me. That I don't just settle for letting something be normal: say what you mean, what you want to say. If you need to give it a second thought then give it the time.
At this point Chuck heads to the main stage to catch Glen Campbell doing one of Chuck’s favourite songs, Wichita Lineman.
How was that?
He's not using an amp onstage! He has a direct box or something. I was all ready for that good Fender tremelo, but he is playing his ass off and he is singing great. Glen Campbell, I mean, how often do you get a chance to see him play?
Have you had a chance to hear Gary Bennett's album?
Yeah, it's great. In fact he and Chris Scruggs were playing a dual bill at the Exit/In last night in Nashville. But as we were on our way over here we didn't get to see it. We have actually played a couple of gigs together, some benefits, I was doing my solo thing and he was doing his. So we had a chance to talk and catch up backstage.
How about Smilin' Jay (former BR549 bass player)?
He has a film and video production company in Nashville, and he gets a lot of work. In fact I talked to him just the day before we came over here. I still see him a lot. We play golf together sometimes. And I go over to his house to have dinner. He showed up at my solo gig at the Opry plaza a couple of weeks ago.
So as well as the All-stars and BR549 are you actively working on a solo career?
Sure, I mean there's no reason not to do a whole bunch of different things. Where is it written that you have to limit yourself? In a certain sense I'm sure that those people who have been big BR549 fans will understand what I'm doing. I'm not going to totally shock them. I'm not going to be doing any thrash metal. Although I've nothing against that.
It works for Hank III...
Yeah, Shelton does it, and he makes a great job of it, and that's where he comes from.
How do you feel the Americana thing is faring now?
I really don't know. It's hard to tell because there are so many people doing so many different things, so many good people out there. They've been trying to get the Americana thing off the ground for 10 years now. The people that are involved with it are great, real music fans, but it just doesn't seem to hold the same weight to the regular Billboard Top 40. But I'm glad someone is out there doing it. And I'm glad the genre exists and those people work hard to spread the word.
You must have though about that if anyone was poised to have a good chance to make a breakthrough BR549 were it?
We had a good chance. I don't know exactly what happened. We did have a Top 40 album in the US on our first studio record. But through a series of things it never quite made it over the top. But we had a significent amount of success in the mainstream. They called it alternative country, but we were just plain country music, in our eyes anyway (laughs). We were just trying to carry on a tradition and put our own little spin on it like everyone else. It would have been nice if they had kept playing the Cherokee Boogie record, which a lot of people wanted to do, but for one reason or another it didn't happen.
Was radio resistant to it at that time?
Well, some stations were, and others wanted to keep playing it but they had to move on to something else, they're only geared to go on so long on a certain track. If it had been handled a little differently it just might have gone over the top. I'm not taking away from anybody, because everybody that was on our team then at the Arista family and our management busted their nuts twenty four hours a day to make it a success. We were too, we were the guys out there on the road 250 days a year, which is what you have to do, that’s what it takes. There's no explaining why it does or doesn't work. But ten years later I don't have a job so... (laughs) something must be going well. I'm doing something right!
Have you considered any new production projects?
I talked to Dave (Roe - Chuck's co-producer on two multi-artist tribute albums) and we'd like to do something with a single artist. We got to work with a whole bunch of different people on those albums. All our friends got to be involved, some great musicians, because we knew that they would want to be involved. But it would be nice to be focused on one artist, or group. Any ideas?
What do you intend to focus on next?
I got to focus on me. That's going to sound very crass as it would appear written down and I like to look out for other people, but I need to concentrate on my work so that I can leave a mark in this world. And I still feel that I can leave a different mark than I already have. You keep trying to get better, the whole reason you do this is to try to become a better songwriter, a better singer, a better musician and to try to do different things. You have to keep yourself interested. I still have that drive in me, that I really want to do something other than just to be that retro boy.
Is your songwriting something you can make a career out of in its own right?
Absolutely. I'd do that because the more you write the chances are that along with a lot of shit that you'd write, because everybody does, you will come up with two or three gems. You always set out to write a good song, I do anyway. I would love to have a gig like that where I had a publishing deal. I would go in there every day. If someone tells you that they are not trying to write a hit record they are lying their ass off. Hank Williams wanted hit records, Buck Owens wanted one. You know that they weren't writing a song just for it not to be heard.
Everyone wants to write a classic like Fairytale Of New York, a song that succeeds on all levels...
Exactly. I would love to be able that have a song that works like that. That's what you aspire to. It hits on so many emotional and true levels. That's a great example. I would love to have Tim McGraw cut one of my songs. It is ridiculous to say 'I don't want that'. How pretentious, to say something like that, in my eyes. Don't you want to get your point of view across? James Joyce didn't write just to read it himself. I love co-writing with different people. Hell, we started to work on two on the way over here. They can just fall out of you sometimes. I'm willing to try to work with just about anybody. I'd love to sit down and work with a very successful songwriter. In a sense you're picking their brain and you're learning, and maybe they are too, so what's the harm in that? I have writen a couple of songs with a woman called Angelina Presley and she is going to be big. She sings great and she writes these amazing songs, she comes from Kentucky, she’s the real deal, but it's not affected her. She went to college and she learned. She’s all heart and soul. People like that I'm really into. Give me a hit right away to show me how they do it. I'm learning all the time. Otherwise it’s going to be terribly boring if you don't progress. And I play golf. (laughs)
Interview by Steve Rapid
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