TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Chuck Mead, who's best known as a member of the alternative country band BR549, has a new solo album. He recently was the musical director for the Broadway musical about the early days of rock and roll, "Million Dollar Quartet." Mead is from Kansas, which is the setting for much of his new album, recorded with his band The Grassy Knoll Boys.
The album is called "Free State Serenade." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
CHUCK MEAD: (Singing) I met her accidentally beneath that prairie sky. Every single move she made was perfect without trying. She was...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Chuck Mead, serenading us with a tale about a young woman his narrator fell in love with in Reno County, Kansas. It's a loping country song, Mead's version of cowboy music, but as its pretty melody unfurls, you realize that its scenario is bleak: Mead's character urged her to leave home, despite the objections of her father, and turns out daddy was right: This guy leaves her all by her lonesome much of the time.
She knows I'm the kind that likes to ramble around, he sings, noting that she, quote, "suffers through it all with country dignity." Mead hooks the listener, eager to show us the bleak side of what seemed like a bright scenario. That's the way he operates during much of this album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVIL WIND")
MEAD: (Singing) Got in a little trouble, 1959. When they let me out of prison, I didn't have a dime. I went to see my old cellmate. He had a brand-new plan that would lead us to riches in the Promised Land. Well, my daddy disowned me, and my mama's dead, but their voices still call me from inside my head. On a dark road in Kansas, me and my best friend blowing through the prairie in an evil wind.
TUCKER: That song, "Evil Wind," sounds initially like a rockabilly boasting song until its details begin to gather around the music. You realize Chuck Mead is singing in the voice of Dick Hickock, one of the two men who killed the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. That awful crime was, of course, made famous by Truman Capote's book "In Cold Blood."
What Chuck Mead brings to the tale is an unnervingly spirited, almost gleeful recitation of the crime. Indeed, much of the Kansas that Mead spotlights over the course of this album is the state as a site for wild, illicit or illegal behavior, tinged with humorous eccentricity. There's a song about a UFO sighting, as well as this very tidy piece of Western swing called "Neosho Valley Sue."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEOSHO VALLEY SUE")
MEAD: (Singing) Neosho Valley Sue, Neosho Valley Sue, I love you Neosho Valley Sue. I'm just a poor boy from Lorraine. Won't you let me be your man? You're my first love, Neosho Valley Sue. Well, I went out to a little fair to find myself a sweet. When I saw that girl by the tilt-a-whirl, well, my heart went flip and sent me on a little trip, took me to another galaxy. Well, she led me to the stars. She was Venus. I was Mars. I won't forget you, Neosho Valley Sue.
TUCKER: It may be that the song that summarizes this album best is its final one, "Sittin' on Top of the Bottom." Its barfly narrator howls about his comedown in life, a fall from grace for reasons that are left unspecified, but which have the ring of clanging inevitability. Chuck Mead knows how to give despair a good, wrenching twist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SITTIN' ON TOP OF THE BOTTOM")
MEAD: (Singing) I had the whole world in my hand, thought I was a happy man. I was standing a-tall high cotton, but now I'm sittin' on top of the bottom. I used to wear Italian shoes. A man in Gucci just can't lose. All my lady friends, I'd spoil them rotten, but now I'm sittin' on top of the bottom. What goes up must come down.
TUCKER: The range of Chuck Mead's country, blues and rock sounds here is impressively adroit. If he sometimes undermines his tragic themes with smart-aleck phrasing and the occasionally obvious rhyme, well, you could hear that as part of his strategy, as well. He wants to lull you into thinking you're experiencing the kind of songs you've heard before, only to leave you as surprised as his narrators about how their sorry lives turn out.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Chuck Mead's new album "Free State Serenade."
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