CMT is trying to pull off a magic trick with its new drama series, "Sun Records": to convince viewers, if only for a moment, that they're really seeing those legends perform in their early days — instead of a cast of musically gifted actors.
Sounds like an impossible task. But on the other hand, they had Chuck Mead in their corner.
The Nashville musician — who previously fronted throwback country favorites BR549 — served as musical director on the show and essentially put its young stars through "band camp." It's not an entirely new gig for him: he also oversaw the music for "Million Dollar Quartet," the stage musical on which "Sun Records" is based.
"They all just really worked at it," Mead says of the TV cast. "It's at the point now where I would have all of those guys in the (stage show)."
In terms of musical experience, the "Sun Records" cast ran the gamut. 18-year-old Drake Milligan has been impersonating Elvis on stage since he was 9. He sets a high bar for his cast mates in the show's opening scene, in which a teenage Elvis strums a guitar in his kitchen and croons "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
"You get a guy like that, and you don't have to give that much insight, you just give references," Mead says. "'Hey, why don't you do this like he did it on the Dorsey (Brothers Stage) Show?' They'll know exactly what I'm talking about."
Meanwhile, the show's Johnny Cash (Kevin Fonteyne) had to learn to play guitar for his role. He also delved into Cash's character behind the legend. Mead had him watch the home movie footage from Cowboy Jack Clement's documentary "Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan."
"He went in and studied who he was, especially in the early years, because in our TV show, Cash has just gotten out of the Air Force."
It sounds like some characters are quicker studies than others, too.
"The first thing that I make any new guy that's coming in to play Jerry Lee (Lewis) do is look at his performance of 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" on 'The Steve Allen Show,'" Mead says. "That cuts right to it. But you also get him as a person, because there's no difference."
"Sun Records" premieres February 23 and airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m. CT on CMT, after new episodes of "Nashville."