Memphian in the Meantime: ‘Quartet’ music director Chuck Mead settles in for production, concerts
March 31, 2016
By Bob Mehr of The Commercial Appeal
As the musical director of the Tony-winning "Million Dollar Quartet" stage show, and now the CMT cable network series set to begin shooting locally this month, Chuck Mead has spent a decade focusing on Sun Records and Memphis music.
"The funny thing is, I never have had a chance to play here much, even though I've always felt a real connection with Memphis music," says the Nashville-based Mead, best known as the leader of Music City retro-revivalists BR5-49. "Even though I'm from Nashville, and I play country music, there's a lot of country music that came out of these parts too, and certainly rockabilly music — that's my meat and potatoes.
"I just feel like there should be more hands across the state between Nashville and Memphis," says Mead, who will be headlining a pair of shows in April at Lafayette's Music Room. "There's so many great musicians here and so many great musicians there. If we teamed up then nobody could beat Tennessee."
With BR5-49, Mead spearheaded the '90s alt/classic country movement, reminding Music City of its hillbilly roots, and helping make the Lower Broad area fashionable long before the cameras of "Nashville" started to roll.
In 2006, BR5-49 went on hiatus, and Mead launched a solo career. Around that time, Sun Records historian Colin Escott approached Mead about working on "Million Dollar Quartet," a stage musical about Sun, its founder Sam Phillips and the many iconic artists the label introduced to the world.
"Colin Escott called me up and asked me if I'd ever consider working in musical theater. I'd never done it before but I figured I'd try," says Mead. "We put together the 'Million Dollar Quartet' stage show. It played seven and half years in Chicago, we went on to Broadway and the West End in London, and they did four years of a national tour."
The rights to "Million Dollar Quartet" were eventually bought, with the Country Music Television network developing a miniseries based on the show. "But they liked the idea so much, they changed from a miniseries to a full-fledged seasonal series," says Mead.
Produced by Nashville cable channel Country Music Television and Los Angeles-based Thinkfactory Media, which specializes in historical dramas ("Hatfields & McCoys," "Texas Rising"), "Million Dollar Quartet" will be a scripted, fact-based drama. The focus will be on Sun Records founder Phillips and the artists — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Sam Phillips — whose paths connected on Dec. 4, 1956, for the so-called "Million Dollar Quartet" impromptu recording session at Sun.
"We're gonna be doing eight episodes, and filming it here in Memphis," says Mead. "I got tapped to recreate some of the music and consult on the production."
Though he'll be on set, making sure the actors in the show are doing things correctly, Mead doesn't anticipate playing a part on the program himself. "They might stick me in somewhere as an extra," he says, chuckling. "Just look for the old hillbilly in the background — that'll be me."
As for the music, Mead and coterie of musicians have already cut basic tracks, re-creating numerous Sun sides in Nashville, that will be used in the show. "We re-recorded songs by Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, along with B.B. King and Joe Hill Louis and Jackie Brenston. I tried to make it authentic, 'cause that's what I do. But we also tried to put something in there that taps into the modern sensibility of people now, without sacrificing the spirit of the original songs and artists.
"The show is not a museum piece. Neither is the music. You gotta get the signature licks in the songs, sure. But you're not trying to recreate it lick for lick. And you're not gonna be as good as the original Elvis records or 'Rocket 88,' because those things were spontaneous — that was Sam Phillips' whole philosophy. So we're trying to keep in that spirit."
Mead adds that additional vocals and even some new recordings will be done during production in the Bluff City. "The principals are gonna be singing on their own parts, and things will need to be changed and tweaked as we go along. So we'll be doing some of that work in Memphis. There's such great studios in town," says Mead, who hasn't finalized details on the local recording, but adds that "it'd be a dream" to cut at the Phillips family owned studio on Madison.
Working on the television show means that Mead will be spending a lot of time, living and working in Memphis. "I came here a few weeks back for the big open casting call, and I've been in town since last week getting the preproduction in place. I'm here now until we get done. It's great that I get to be a Memphian for a few months."
While Mead is here, he'll be playing gigs at Lafayette's on April 6 and 20, with this band the Grassy Knoll Boys.
"I figured I might as well make my guys drive in from Nashville and play a couple of gigs," he says, adding that various guest musicians from Memphis will also sit in. "And I'm sure some of the guys from the show will come up and play, too. We plan to blow off some steam, Memphis-style."