© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Free State Serenade': Chuck Mead’s Ode To The Dark Side Of Kansas

Frank Morris

Musician Chuck Mead has made a name for himself in Nashville, but his new album is all about his home state of Kansas. Mead describes the music in Free State Serenade as “Kansas Noir… true stories of love, murder, and a UFO."

“Nashville is where you go to make country music,” says Mead. “There’s a certain song vibration down here, there’s a whole song writing culture and playing culture that really doesn’t exist outside of New York, or Los Angeles or Chicago."

Mead’s written several songs, including two on the new album, about how he longed to bust out of Kansas. But he does love getting back.

“Both feet are in Nashville, but my heart is here,” says Mead.  “In this specific place, actually.”

Mead is talking about the place he grew up; 15 acres of gently rolling country side south of Lawrence. There’s a ranch-style house with a couple of old cars and a pole barn off to the side. His Uncle Larry’s place is just across the pasture.  

Mead is close to his family and the Lawrence community; old friends greet him all over downtown.   But, it took Mead two decades in Nashville before he got down to writing about home.

“I don’t know, I started thinking about Ivy Honeycutt,” remembers Mead. “This little girl, that was a year older than me in school, that I went to grade school with, out at the Kaw Valley Grade School, who got murdered by her cousin.”

Ivy Honeycutt’s death scared Mead, and he writes about it in some detail in one of the songs on the new record. Mead’s also written about the Clutter family murders, made famous by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  And there’s another song about the day Confederate guerillas slaughtered abolitionists in Lawrence who were here to make sure Kansas entered the Union a free state.

There’s a love song Mead wrote for his wife, a country girl from Reno County, Kan.  And one where Mead relives one of the crazy nights he experienced as a young musician in Lawrence in the early 1980s.

“We were having band practice, and you know, someone had a little LSD, and we took it,” recalls Mead. “And then I realized that I had to drive pizzas around from 6 to 8. So, I had a couple of guys in the car with me, and we saw this thing in the sky. It wasn’t a star. And then all of the sudden we realized we were looking at a UFO.” 

Mead says he and his buddies were pretty sure a Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy saw it, too. 

As Mead says, “Kansas can be scary." But, it but doesn’t show up much in popular song, according to Lawrence musician and music journalist, Steve Wilson.

“It happens,” says Wilson. “But not a lot, and particularly not in the rock era. We do have one of the more famous state songs, certainly.”

Wilson, says Mead knows what he’s doing, devoting an album to challenging the state’s uber-bland, Dorothy and Toto image.

“He grew up in the era of the concept album,” says Wilson with a chuckle.     

 “And, uh, he’s a smart enough student of the music, to know that this is kind of unusual, kind of a novel thing to do, and it will attract attention.”

Mead says he had to leave the orbit of Kansas to get a global view of the place.

“It’s a lot of years since I’ve really lived here. It’s all different perspective,” explains Mead. “I’m far enough away from it that I feel like I’m removed from people enough, that I cannot pull any punches, and get real.  And all these songs are real to me. And I feel like with that distance I can write those songs." 

So, Free State Serenade, is a record about Kansas that could never have happened without Nashville, and, of course, Chuck Mead, a guy uniquely qualified to mix the two.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.