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Chuck Mead: The story’s the thing

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When describing his latest album, Free State Serenade, Chuck Mead is pretty blunt when it comes to a collection that includes odes to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Quantrill’s Raid, and the tragic murder of schoolmate Ivy Honeycutt.

“There are some high points, but it’s not all roses,” said Mead, who revisits the sometimes sordid past of his home state of Kansas over 12 tracks that represent some of his strongest work yet.

“When you’re gone from a place for a certain amount of time, and it’s been over 20 years since I lived back there, you get a little perspective on the years,” he said. “It’s all part of getting older. It felt like it was time to tell that story and put a whole bunch of little stories into a larger thing that was real personal.”

And Mead doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life in the state, with his tales of true crime as fascinating to hear as they were to read about years ago.

“When it comes down to it, it happens to real people,” said Mead of the world’s fascination with the genre. “It may seem like movie or a news story or just something that you read in a magazine that’s a terrible thing that happened, but it happens to real people and I think that’s why people latch on to it, because there but for the grace of God go I. When you’ve been involved in something like that, it’s real people; it’s not just the news.”

The kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Ivy Honeycutt in 1971 hit particularly close to home for Mead, as he and Ivy attended the same school.

“I was in fifth grade and I went to this little country school outside of Lawrence called Valley Grade School and Ivy Honeycutt was a year older than me,” said Mead, who revisited the story in the song “Little Ivy.” “She was kidnapped and raped and murdered by her cousin over a weekend, and it was pretty traumatic. There were no such thing as grief counselors back then, and so the principal just came in and said ‘this is a terrible thing that happened, and be nice to her little brother and sister.’ That kind of sticks with you. And finally, I wrote the song about it.”

The bluesy, country tune is a fitting tribute to Ivy, yet even songs that contain topics not directly including Mead are just as compelling, a tribute to his storytelling as well as some solid research over the years.

“Certain details of Quantrill’s Raid on my hometown have always been with me since I was a kid because you learn that where we come from,” he said. “It’s history. Luckily, I grew up in a time when public schools took good field trips and there was enough cool stuff right around where I was from to make me interested in where we all came from. Plus it’s just a cool story, and I just took a little part of a bigger controversy that was “Bleeding Kansas,” and it was just that incident. With the “Evil Wind” song, that was always inside me, and ever since I saw the In Cold Blood movie when I was kid, and of course later on I read the book, it really was quite terrifying to me when I was little, and that was always inside me. Then I might have seen it televised again and I’m like yeah. I tried to figure out how to write that story and include a lot of the details. But it’s always something you hear about again.”

Recorded in Nashville for his new label, Plowboy Records, Free State Serenade gives us a glimpse back to a time when storytelling was a lot more prevalent then it is now, but Mead insists that in Nashville, the art is still alive and well.

“I think there are tons of people still doing it, especially in Nashville,” he said. “That’s why I went there, to latch on to these really great songwriters that really know what they’re doing, both the nuts and bolts of it and where they’re coming from psychologically. It’s in the air down there in Nashville, and maybe that’s why I had to move down there to write this about my home. That’s what roots music, country music, blues music is all about – telling a story - and so that’s what I was trying to do with all these.”

Mission accomplished, but even more important than having 12 more Chuck Mead songs to listen to, it’s comforting to know that he’s still finding new ways to keep things fresh. Even his time on the road isn’t the same as it used to be.

“You get older, it changes a little bit,” he laughs. “You start thinking about the cleanest restrooms and the most comfortable lodging that has the most cable TV instead of all the chicks and drugs and stuff.”

Chuck Mead plays Hill County in New York City on Thursday, April 10. For tickets, click here

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