From Love To Murder To UFOs, A Dark 'Serenade' To Kansas

Mar 29, 2014
Originally published on March 29, 2014 11:27 am

"Nashville is where you go to make country music," Chuck Mead says. "There's a certain song vibration down here. There's a whole songwriting culture and playing culture that really doesn't exist outside of New York, or Los Angeles or Chicago."

Mead arrived in Nashville 20 years ago and fit right in: He co-founded the Grammy-nominated alt-country group BR549, and has made his name as a singer, songwriter and musician in his own right. His latest album, however, is all about his home state of Kansas. It's called Free State Serenade, and it includes true stories of love, murder, and — Mead swears — UFOs on the high plains, from a perspective the artist could never have captured had he stayed home. He calls the music "Kansas noir." Hear the full story at the audio link.

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Chuck Mead has made a name for himself as a country music singer, songwriter and musician. He lives in Nashville, but every song on his new album is about Kansas, his home state. It's called "Free State Serenade," and it includes true stories of love, murder and UFOs. He calls the music "Kansas Noir." Frank Morris of member station KCUR takes a listen.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Chuck Mead fits right in at the bar at Robert's Western World...

CHUCK MEAD: Boys, let's step down to the bar a little bit.

MORRIS: ...a storied Nashville honkytonk.

MEAD: What's this kid's name, the guitar player?


MEAD: Nashville's where you go to make country music. And there's a certain vibration down here. There's a whole songwriting culture and playing culture that really doesn't exist outside of maybe New York or Los Angles or Chicago.

MORRIS: Mead left Kansas 20-some years back to go pro. He formed the group BR-549. First thing you know, they're on David Letterman, touring the globe.

MEAD: But when they introduce me on stage they always say from Lawrence Kansas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentleman, the pride of Lawrence, Kansas. Please put your hands together for Chuck Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys.


MORRIS: Mead's written several songs about how he longed to bust out of Kansas, but he loves coming back.

MEAD: Both feet are in Nashville, but my heart is still back here, in this specific place, actually.

MORRIS: The place he grew up, 15 acres of gently rolling country side south of Lawrence, Kansas - a ranch-style house, with a couple of old cars and a pole barn off to the side.

MEAD: Yeah, I saw one of our colts born in this stall named Tasha.

MORRIS: That your old bike?

MEAD: It is.

MORRIS: His folks still live here. Uncle Larry's place is just across the pasture, and old friends greet him all over Lawrence, but it took Mead two decades in Nashville before he finally got down to writing about home.

MEAD: I don't know, I started thinking about Ivy Honeycutt, this little girl that was a year older than me in school, that I went to grade school with out here at the Kaw Valley Grade School, who got murdered by her cousin. And it was one of those things that kind of scarred all of us for life.


MORRIS: Little Ivy's killing was young Mead's first brush with evil, but not the state's. Mead's written about that Clutter family murders, made famous by Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." There's another song about the day Confederate guerillas slaughtered abolitionists in Lawrence who were here to make sure Kansas entered the union a Free State.


MORRIS: As Mead says, Kansas can be scary, but it but doesn't show up much in popular song, according to music journalist Steve Wilson.

STEVE WILSON: It happens, it happens, but not a lot, and particularly not in the rock era. We do have one of the more famous state songs, certainly.

MORRIS: Can you sing a little of it?

WILSON: (Singing) Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play.

MORRIS: Right, but Wilson says Mead knows what he's doing, devoting an album to challenging the state's uber-bland Dorothy and Toto image.

WILSON: Yeah, he grew up in the era of the concept album. So, you know, he's a smart enough student of the music to know that this is kind of unusual, kind of a novel thing to do, and it will attract attention.


MORRIS: The Bottleneck in Lawrence is just about empty late in the afternoon, as Mead and the Grassy Knoll Boys do their sound check. Mead's mom, Lois Fay Mead, leans on one of the tables.

LOIS FAY MEAD: Chuck has never forgotten where he came from. That's one of the things I'm so proud of him about, is that he's always been a Kansan.

MORRIS: But growing up Kansan was kind of a wild ride for Mead.


MORRIS: Out in the alley, in back of the bar, he recalls a close encounter in his 20s.

MEAD: We were having band practice, and you know, someone had a little LSD, and we took it. And then I realized that I had to drive pizzas around from 6 to 8. So, I had a couple of guys in the car with me, and we saw this thing in the sky. It wasn't a star. And then it kept getting bigger and bigger. And then all of the sudden we realized we were looking at a UFO.


MORRIS: Mead says he had to leave the orbit of Kansas to get a global view of the place.

MEAD: Since it's a lot of years really since I've really lived here, it's all, you know, different perspective. I'm far enough away from it that I feel like I'm removed from people enough that I cannot pull any punches and get real. And all these songs are real to me. And I feel like with that distance I can write those songs.

MORRIS: So, this new record, "Free State Serenade," is about Kansas, but it could never have happened without Nashville. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.