US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Listen: Free State Serenade

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Chuck Mead (Plowboy Records, 2014)

Chuck Mead began his musical life as a punk rocker in his native Lawrence, Kansas; then he got the itch to play country and couldn’t stop scratching. But this, his third solo album, combines bright, catchy country and rockabilly musical settings with dark, bone-chilling lyrical themes worthy of Johnny Rotten himself.

Free State Serenade is, as its title suggests, a loosely organized concept album about Mead’s native Kansas. The anchor tracks starkly render true stories of nihilistic violence on the open plains. “The Devil By Their Side” is a joyously swinging number about the 1863 raid that pro-Confederate outlaw William Quantrill carried out in Mead’s abolitionist hometown. As Mead sings it, “They left chaos and murder in their wake. They took everything that they could take.”

Further into the collection, “Evil Wind” flashes forward to 1959 for a harder-edged, ominous romp sung in the voice of Dick Hickock, one of the pair, immortalized by Truman Capote, who killed the Clutter family “In Cold Blood” and, as Mead puts it, “went blowing through the prairie on an
evil wind.”

Then there’s “Little Ivy.” It’s an old-time Appalachian-style ballad, featuring clawhammer banjo and moaning fiddle, which tells of a little girl who meets a brutal death at the hands of an “evil cousin.”

It’s stuff like this that made a journalist at the Great Falls Tribune dub Mead “The Quentin Tarantino of rockabilly.” But Free State Serenade is not all blood, gore, and bop. There are also celebrations of nature (“Knee Deep In The Wakarusa River”), love (“Neosho Valley Sue”), and the freedom of the open road (“A Short Goodbye”). In fact, Mead turns his home state into a microcosm of the human condition, and then he makes it dance.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 6, page 42).