BR549 vet Chuck Mead helps re-create the Million Dollar Quartet, when four music titans made history by accident
From Lower Broad to Broadway
by Edd Hurt for The Nashville Scene
When Chuck Mead started his job as expert rock ‘n’ roll technician and all-purpose rockabilly-lick adviser to a Broadway musical — even one about a celebrated event in the annals of Sun Records, and one of the greatest footnotes in rock ‘n’ roll history — he encountered a cultural divide that he probably expected. Still, it reminded the Nashville singer, songwriter and guitarist of an inescapable fact: We approach culture from different vantage points.
As fans know, a vocalist named Elvis Presley dropped by the fabled Memphis studios on a December day in 1956, after Presley had become the kinetic embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll. With the tape rolling on what started out as a Carl Perkins session, Presley joined fellow Sun labelmates Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis in a spontaneous jam session filled with gospel glossolalia and rock ‘n’ roll cool — music gods captured at play.
That session forms the crux of Million Dollar Quartet, the Tony-winning musical that makes its Nashville debut at TPAC this week with a major assist from Mead. Written by Floyd Mutrux and historian Colin Escott, the musical re-creates a psychodrama of stardom and defeat, while Mead’s musical direction brings soul and authenticity to a work that attempts to immerse audiences in a formative moment in American music.
But early on, Mead figured out that possessing rock ‘n’ roll wisdom didn’t mean he knew how to help shape his passion for rockabilly into a tightly paced, narratively driven theater piece. And just because the show’s creative talents were wizards at stage machinery, that didn’t automatically make them aware just how remarkable the quartet’s lightning-in-a-bottle summit meeting was.
“The theater people, they knew Elvis, and they knew Johnny Cash, and they’re familiar with Jerry Lee Lewis,” Mead says of his early days working on Million Dollar Quartet. “But most of them were, like ‘Who’s Carl Perkins?’ And I was like, ‘Who’s Carl Perkins? Are you kidding me?’ ”
If you’ve spent any time talking with Chuck Mead, you know he expresses himself in the most affable, good-humored manner — his baritone voice is authoritative and down-home, and he laughs a lot while addressing the business at hand. As he describes his role in a musical about, well, the music he loves, he comes across as a quick study who has gleaned valuable lessons from his theater experience. If some of Mead’s collaborators have learned a little more about the rockabilly titan who wrote and performed such classics as “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Matchbox,” Mead says he’s learned what plays in the theater, where time and space can be compressed in many ways.
“The whole idea was to keep the thing small, because most musicals have a cast of 20, plus an orchestra,” says Mead of Million Dollar Quartet. “We have eight people, total, and all the music is made right there on the stage. Putting music in a situation that moves the clock along is something I’ve learned about. For example, the first song that Carl Perkins does has got to be ‘Matchbox,’ because that’s why they were there.”
Balancing the need for verisimilitude with the strictures of the theater is part of Mead’s role in Million Dollar Quartet, and he’s uniquely suited to perform that function. A student and performer of old-time country music, Western swing and rock ‘n’ roll, Mead has modernized his influences without diluting their idiosyncracies.
A Nashvillian since 1993, Mead helped focus attention on Music City’s legacy of honky-tonk country and oddball rock as singer and songwriter with the band BR549. In the mid-1990s, the group set up in the windowfront stage of Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway, following a long, gloomy stretch in the city’s once-proud honky-tonk district, during which the mighty Ryman Auditorium sat padlocked and unused.
Along with such equally forward- and backward-looking adepts of hardcore country as Greg Garing and Paul Burch, Mead and BR549 began to cast Nashville’s music history in a new light. Crowds started coming downtown again to experience how exciting and alive rockabilly is in the moment. It was a turning point in the revitalization of Lower Broad, and in part the musicians at Robert’s and Tootsie’s made it happen. They changed “honky-tonk” back into a verb.
Mead may have left Lower Broad, but he’s never left the music. He continues to rework classic American musical genres to his own ends on his new full-length, Free State Serenade, which shows off his immense songwriting and conceptual chops. He says the new record’s narratives reflect some of the theatrical wisdom he’s gleaned from working on Million Dollar Quartet.
“It’s weird, because it couldn’t help but influence what I was doin’,” Mead says. “I got this idea that I wanted to do something that was a whole lot of little stories to make up a big story, without making it some weird concept record, though it ended up kind of conceptual, in that all these songs on my new record are about Kansas — legends I grew up with, things that happened to me. My trippy Kansas, you know — in my mind.”
Mead’s mental Kansas includes portraits of his hometown of Lawrence, where he played in local bands before making the move to Nashville. He had already made several pilgrimages to Music City before he settled in town. As Mead told me in 2009, when I interviewed him about a solo record he’d just released, Journeyman’s Wager, “I came here quite a few times in the ’80s, and got to be friends with Webb Wilder and those guys. We’d blow through town, and we’d play Elliston Square, it was then, and we’d always hang down on Lower Broadway.”
Although Free State Serenade has its share of gentle moments, it contains a lot of turmoil that Mead artfully recasts as tall-tale humor. He’s not presenting an idealized Kansas, though he acknowledges the pull of home territory.
“Being around my hometown in Lawrence, there — I don’t know,” Mead says. “I guess I’ve been gone long enough. I’ve been down here for over 20 years now, but I still think the light’s right back home in Kansas. I love being in Nashville, and it’s been real good to me, but the light is right where you come from, I think.”
Written and performed in the slightly ironic, post-Stiff Records style of Journeyman’s Wager, the songs on Free State Serenade reveal Mead as a masterful modern rock artist. His reworking of Memphis guitarist Sidney Manker’s famed “Raunchy” lick, on the record’s “The Devil by Their Side,” registers as an intelligently conceived homage to Sun Records. Mead uses folkish, modal banjo on “Neosho Valley Sue,” and pulls off a funny flying-saucer song called “Ten Light Years Away.”
An engaging live performer and excellent guitarist who can finesse Beatles-esque chord changes as easily as he can slip into rockabilly mode, Mead escapes Nashville’s gravity field of retro leanings throughout Free State. Meanwhile, his 2012 Back at the Quonset Hut tips its hat to Del Reeves, Charlie Rich and other country greats. The record combines the talents of young singers and instrumentalists, such as Elizabeth Cook and Chris Scruggs, with those of legendary session men Bob Moore and Hargus Robbins. The result is a rarity: a covers collection with a reason for being.
With Million Dollar Quartet, Mead does much the same thing: He keeps the music true to what that ad hoc group of rock ‘n’ roll, country, gospel and blues singers produced all those years ago. They really did it all, as you can hear from the recording Sam Phillips and Jack Clement made at Sun on that December afternoon. And it could be that the cultural artifact of the musical will be the way non-specialist, non-rock ‘n’ roll-fans will remember Phillips, Perkins and Sun Records itself — a point that raises interesting questions about culture, memory and commerce, not to mention the relationship between musical history and the Broadway musical.
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Fame is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstanding that can gather around a new name.” It could be that the old names the play celebrates — a Mount Rushmore of 20th century popular music — have been misunderstood for so long that we could use a new level of comprehension. That’s where Chuck Mead came in.
Having made history with the 1956 Sun single “Blue Suede Shoes” — a song that sold 1 million copies and made the country, pop and rhythm-and-blues charts — Perkins watched his chance to match Elvis’ success evaporate. In March that year, on their way to perform on television in New York City, Perkins and his band sustained injuries in an automobile accident. Meanwhile, Presley cut “Blue Suede Shoes,” and it’s his version that many rock ‘n’ roll fans, as well as many theater aficionados, now know.
As Mead says, the occasion for the gathering of Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins was the Perkins recording session that produced “Matchbox,” a 1957 Sun single. On that fateful date — Dec. 4, 1956 — Presley returned to the tiny Sun studio on Union Avenue to hang out and listen to Perkins’ new music. Having made the transition from Memphis anonymity to global fame via his association with RCA Records, Presley was on top of the world.
“Jerry Lee’s first record, which was ‘Crazy Arms,’ had been out for three days,” says Colin Escott, the English-born authority on Sun Records who wrote Million Dollar Quartet‘s book with American film director and screenwriter Floyd Mutrux. “He was trying to make a little money playing on the Perkins record. Then Elvis dropped by, and Phillips called to Johnny Cash’s house and brought Cash over. Elvis’ success was kind of the unspoken agenda in the room.”
A collaboration between a seasoned stage and film professional and an equally accomplished writer on American vernacular music styles, Million Dollar Quartet came about as the result of a phone call. “Floyd had done a movie I’d really, really liked, called American Hot Wax,” Escott says. “He called out of the blue one day, about 2001, and said, ‘I read this book you wrote on Sun Records [1991's Good Rockin' Tonight, co-written with Martin Hawkins], and it had this little sidebar in there about the Million Dollar Quartet.’ He said, ‘You could spin a hell of a musical out of that. Do you want to help me put it together?’ ”
Born near Canterbury, England, in 1949, Escott became enamored of American blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll, and first visited the American South in 1970. As he says of that time, Americans had forgotten large parts of their musical history. He, on the other hand, was hooked on the kind of cultural resonance one can perceive only in the names of such locales as Rosedale and Greenville, Miss.
“I got to Memphis in 1970, and it was just a couple of years after the ’68 riots,” says Escott, a Tennessee resident for 15 years who now lives a couple of hours outside Nashville. “And it seemed like every bus route I took to Mississippi, there would be one resonant name after another, after another, after another. Now, it’s good to see the South embracing its heritage, which was certainly not the case when I got here in 1970.”
Million Dollar Quartet was first staged in 2006, and began its Chicago run in 2008 with director Eric Schaeffer. Moving to Broadway in 2010, the show proved its staying power, and it was nominated for three Tony Awards that year, with Tennessee native Levi Kreis winning in the Best Featured Actor category for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis. But Escott says Million Dollar Quartet began as an attempt to stretch the boundaries of the American musical, not reinforce them.
“We wanted to do a kind of anti-Broadway musical,” he says. “We didn’t want it all-singing or all-dancing. We wanted the group to play live, and we wanted mistakes. We started off thinking we’d do a totally unstructured musical. But then we kind of bowed to commercial necessity, really, and gave it a story arc.”
The story arc — visionary Christian-capitalist producer Sam Phillips discovers the century’s most emblematic pop music star, develops new talent, and the new talent inevitably measures itself against Elvis, thus ensuring tension — is archetypal. But it’s safe to say that few theatergoers, and perhaps few rock fans, truly understand the role of Sam Phillips in American culture.
“Carl Perkins is in my DNA, and I know that most people who are gonna come see this show know who Carl Perkins is,” Mead says. “He’s the one that more light is shed on. But when it comes down to it, it’s Sam Phillips’ story. He’s the guy who inspired all these guys to do what they did.”
The Alabama-born Phillips moved to Memphis in 1950, and became part of a metropolis that had sprung up, brand-new and ready to face the future, out of the disorder of the late 19th century, when yellow fever had decimated the once-thriving city. Optimistic and hard-working, Phillips possessed a fervent belief in individuality, and recorded such great blues performers as Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker and Rufus Thomas before he cut Presley’s first single in 1954.
“It was all about making your mark, and all about that ’50s era, where it was, ‘OK, now, we need to go into the future,’ ” Mead says of Phillips. “You sat in there and you found something: ‘Give me something different.’ That wouldn’t have necessarily been found here [in Nashville], because you’ve already found it by the time you get into a recording studio here.”
Million Dollar Quartet expresses what it means to find what you’ve been looking for, and Escott says the show also takes a look at the downside of fame.
“All the others were reacting to Elvis’ fame,” Escott says. “Perkins thought it should’ve been him — he’d had his moment with ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ but he could never get it together after that. Cash was looking on enviously: ‘Think what a major label could do for me.’ And Lewis was saying, ‘That’s where I’m gonna be a year from now.’ ”
Lewis predicted correctly, though he would run into his own problems down the road. Phillips would lose one of his most talented collaborators, songwriter and producer Jack Clement — according to Escott, both Clement and Phillips were present at the recording of the Million Dollar Quartet, though Clement is not portrayed in the musical — and would sell Sun Records in 1969 to Nashville record-label owner Shelby Singleton.
Mead says he even met Phillips a few times. “Sam showed up at a BR549 show one time years ago in Memphis,” he remembers. “He was diggin’ what we were doing, because we were just retarded and didn’t know what we were doing.”
In his role as musical director for the show, Mead has to make sure performances stay true to what you would have heard in Phillips’ tiny studio on that December day in 1956. “The guy who’s playing Carl Perkins starts playin’ a little more like himself, instead of the vernacular of rockabilly,” Mead says. “You can’t do that.”
You could say that employing Mead’s musical acuity — a sagacity that values the kind of originality and spirit Sam Phillips never stopped looking for — is a surefire way to keep the misunderstandings of fame that Rilke decried from ever accumulating so high that you can no longer see the people behind them.