BR549's Chuck Mead: The Cream Interview

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  • Photo: Raeanne Rubenstein
Reunions — seems like they’re the thing to do these days for bands launched in the ‘90s. You can often smell the money-making, nostalgia-fueled agenda a mile away — especially when it’s obvious nothing short of a big payday could get the feuding band members onstage together once again. But BR549 is an entirely different animal. After more than a decade apart, the original lineup of Lower Broad’s legendary, party-starting honky-tonk band is reconvening just for the warm-hearted fun of it. They’ll be opening for a band that earned its first Opry slot the very same year BR’s original five guys played their final one together, that band being Old Crow Medicine Show. Chuck Mead — BR’s class act of a co-front man — called from his tour van somewhere in Kentucky to talk about how reunions, and rumors of reunions, get started, and to spread his excitement about Saturday’s show at the Woods at Fontanel. Be forewarned — it’s catching.

Nashville Cream: How did this come about?

Chuck Mead: I guess it’s just kind of in the air, you know? The Mavericks are getting back together, Old Crow kind of reassembled.

NC: Is that the life cycle of a band — that’d you want to revisit the heady days a decade or more later?

CM: There was a certain chemistry that went along with those five guys, irreplaceable for any of us. Once you have that kind of chemistry and have big things happen to you … I’m not trying to recreate it, anyway. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I don’t think they are either. Because you can’t. All the things that, I guess, made us part ways in the first place, [it’s] like the Bob Wills song says, time changes everything. We never ever thought it would happen, but it looks like it’s happening. And it all happened so quickly, too. It was like this rumor and then all the sudden Donnie [Herron] and I are talking on Skype. To be honest with you, I’m really not sure how it happened. But we’re all in a good spot for it. We’re all really looking forward to it. We’re actually gonna rehearse, which is something. It’ll be the first time in almost 11 years that all five of us have been in the same room together.

NC: Wow.

CM:I mean, we’ve all talked to each other plenty of times and been together — just not all five of us.

NC: How did that rumor get started?

CM: Well, earlier in the year Donnie called me up, and there was some guy that wanted us to do some recording session. I’m still not quite sure what that was all about. There was the possibility that it was gonna happen. I was on the road promoting my record like I am. And then Donnie went out with Bob [Dylan], you know, because he’s playing in Dylan’s band. Shaw [Wilson] lives way out in Phoenix. So it’s kinda hard logistically. At the beginning of the year there was a little rumbling of it. And I didn’t hear anything about it until I got a call from Ketch [Secor] and [Old Crow Medicine Show manager] Norm Parenteau saying, "Hey, I heard a rumor that BR was getting back together." I’m like, "What? Where did you hear that?" It was the first I ever heard of it. Then phone calls were made, and suddenly it’s happening. I think it’s great. I feel really good about it. I can’t speak for the other guys, but it seems like everybody’s feeling really good about it. Shaw’s flying in from Phoenix. Donnie’s coming home from a Dylan tour and coming into a rehearsal. Gary [Bennett], you know — everybody’s in a good spot for it. Now we have to remember our songs. [Laughs]

NC: Are you considering this a one-off?

CM: I think right now I just consider it a one-off. We’re all really honored that it’s with the Old Crow guys, because they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps too on this and made a great record. All those guys are fantastic. We’re all just tickled that it could be with them at a venue that big. Who knows if it’ll go any further? We have no way of knowing. Donnie still has more road trips with Bob. I’m on the road the rest of the summer. I discounted that it would ever happen in the first place, so who am I to discount that something else could happen?

NC: It’s fitting that it’s with Old Crow. Both bands are completely unapologetic about the fact that you’re out there to entertain.

CM: That’s absolutely right. And your point-of-view gets across because you are being compelling. I feel the same way about Old Crow as I did with BR. We write songs, so obviously we have a point-of-view about some things. But that gets across in an entertaining way, so that you don’t even know that you’re getting somebody’s actual point-of-view.

Also, there was a big passing of the baton. We were the big dogs, and they were playing on the concrete at the Opry plaza. A little string band playing out in the street. And now they’re one of the bigger acts in show business, and that’s great and they worked real hard to get there. So I’m really happy that it could be with these guys. We do feel a kinship with them.

NC: So it’s been a decade or so since the five original guys have been in the room together. Were the last shows you played with that lineup at Opry at the Ryman in 2001?

CM: It was December of 2001, and it was the Grand Ole Opry. That was the last time all five of us played together. Just a few months earlier than that, we were playing on the Opry the same night that Old Crow made their debut.

NC: BR’s been the next big thing, done the major label country thing and found a home in the Americana world with the second version of the band. So what’s at stake when you do the first BR show with the original lineup after all this time?

CM: Well, the object of this gig is to not suck, is to try to remember our songs and get up there and have that old feeling. But you know what? A couple of years ago, I did a benefit and Gary Bennett was on the bill. We got up and sang together for the first time in 10 years. And it was like falling off a log. It was so easy. That thing came back, that chemistry, that undeniable weird factor that you can’t explain. So hopefully that’ll kick in. We’re already talking about what songs we want to do. We’re thinking about, you know, maybe doing all Pink Floyd songs. But I think people would be a little bit weirded out by that, so I think that idea kind of went by the wayside. It was Jay [McDowell’s] idea, by the way. [Laughs]

NC: So Donnie’s been on the road with Dylan. Doesn’t Jay do multimedia work?

CM: Yeah, he has his own production company at the Musicians Hall of Fame. And Gary’s put out a couple of solo records. Shaw is in the desert meditating. I don’t know what he’s gonna come back with.

NC: That was the big question mark. I had no idea what he’s been up to.

CM: Nobody knows what Shaw’s up to, and he likes it that way.

NC: A recent topic of conversation in this town has been the steady stream of outside publications covering our hip, non-country music scene. Does that feel familiar to you, since that sort of thing happened before, when people were writing about the revitalized downtown scene, and you were part of it?

CM: Well, when we first showed up on Broadway, it was just us and some European tourists who weren’t afraid to go down there and, you know, bums. ... It’s changed a lot. People didn’t come down there until we were playing. Suddenly all the townies were coming down, which was great. We took that as we made a little dent, because we got people downtown who were afraid to go downtown. ... It’s still a songwriting, artist town. No matter what you say about it, no matter what people think about the music, there are still talented people in Nashville making great music.

NC: It seems like a cyclical thing, people from the outside world rediscovering that anew every 10 years or so.

CM: That’s exactly it. There were tons of people who were kind of on that wave, or just before us. It just happened to be that we were in that little epicenter downtown. They were going to try to revitalize downtown anyway, I’m sure. I mean, they were building the arena. Back then, the word was that they were tearing down all these old honky-tonks, because it was just an eyesore. And now that’s a focal point. We’re proud to take people downtown when they come from out of town.

I don’t know if we get full credit for that, but we certainly brought some people down there that weren’t ordinarily coming down. We were just talking about how at one point there was a line to get into Robert’s that went all the way around Fourth Avenue, up to the old entrance of the Ryman. That happened a few times to us down there. And it was just some knuckleheads setting up in a bar and playing. We didn’t know what we were doing. There was no plan. [Laughs] It all happened so organically and weirdly that we couldn’t believe we were right in the middle of it.

NC: Didn’t you wind up in Peter Applebome’s book Dixie Rising?

CM: Yeah, we did.

NC: That’s a step above a newspaper article.

CM: Well, it’s just great to be part of the story. I feel like we have our little spot, and that’s fantastic. There’s no reason to feel bad about being part of the story, because that’s why we came down to Nashville. That’s why I came down, anyway. I’m just glad I got to talk to [Applebome] about the Kennedys, because he’d written a couple of Kennedy books.

NC: Aside from the Pink Floyd songs, do you have a sense of what you’re going to pull together in your set? There’s a storehouse of songs you know, and a storehouse of songs you’ve written.

CM: I don’t know. I think we’ll try to hit all the spots that people want us to hit. But at this point we haven’t really — other than discussing playing the entire Animals record by Pink Floyd — other than that we haven’t really talked about what we’re going to do. But I’m sure we’ll come up with something, and I hope people will like it. I hope we end up liking it. And I think we will.

NC: It might be appropriate to play “Me 'n' Opie,” since Andy Griffith just died and all.

CM: Well, I’m pretty sure that’s gonna be on the set list, because it’ll be 12 midnight somewhere. We got so many requests for that song, we were playing it two or three times a night. So we started saying, "OK, if you want to hear 'Opie,' we’re going to play it at midnight every night.’

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