My Good Friend Chuck Mead - A Career and Character Review

by Richie Plass

brick wallI was in Nashville, Tennessee for a conference in late summer, 1995. We were on Lower Broadway, downtown Nashville where all the honky-tonks are located. We were told that Nashville's best live band was across the street at a place called, Robert's Western World. When we walked in, I knew we were in the right place. The band was exactly what I had hoped to find—old time honky-tonk, some western swing and a real hot band. Plus, the band was named BR-549. How cool is that? Junior Samples lives!

We stayed for just over three hours and the band never took a break. I was there with about five other guys from the Menominee rez, and none of us wanted to leave. The band had a tip jar and would play requests. One of the announcements that the band's leader, Chuck Mead, told the crowd in between songs, "If you're waiting to hear a song past about 1968, you're in the wrong spot! We play all the old stuff and some of our own. We really hope you have a good time". Then the tide took a left turn.

As Chuck announced, one of the requested songs they were going to play was "Kaw Li Ga." All of us at our table thought, "Here we go." So we all pitched in and they told me, "Go ahead Plass, take it up to them and tell them NOT to play it!"

So, away I went. I walked up to the stage, waved a handful of money in front of Chuck and he bent down and told me, "Hey Chief, you don't need to put that much in."

I told him, "This is to NOT to play Kaw Li Ga. See all my buddies at that table over there? Just watch. When you start playing that song, the dance floor will fill up, all the white people will dance in a circle, do that stereotypical Indian chant and some of us don't really like that."

But, as he had announced, they did in fact play it. But! When the song was done and the dance floor cleared, Chuck told the crowd, "Ladies and gentleman, that is the LAST time we will ever perform that song. I will never disrespect my Native American friends again." And they never have.

Chuck grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. He grew up with a lot of Native friends and learned some of their culture. When that particular night was over, he came over to our table, introduced himself to everyone and our friendship began. This past March, Chuck and his new band, "The Grassy Knoll Boys" did a show at the Wittenberg High School. We went, with our normal way in to his show—my wife Lily's fry bread. When we met before the show, he greeted me and, as he has since we first met, offered me some tobacco. Yup, Chuck is the real deal.

Right before BR-549 released their first studio recording, Chuck called me. He said they were going to record an old Moon Muligan song, "Cherokee Boogie." But, he said, the original lyrics had the word, "squaw" in it, so they re-wrote it and said he was going to send me a copy and if I thought it was still offensive, they wouldn't include it on their release.

I told him, "Chuck... who am I? I'm just a chubby drummer from the rez with a big mouth." Well, he sent me the copy and that song became BR-549's signature song. Then on their "Dog Days" release, Chuck's song, "Bottom of Priority," was included. It’s a powerful song in honor of Chuck, all Natives across the country, and other people of color too. Again, great stuff.

BR-549 did one of their music videos on our rez back in about 1998. It's for their song, "Wild One". You can check it out on YouTube. Chuck is the music director of the award-winning play, "Million Dollar Quartet." He is a sought-after songwriter, top shelf performer, record producer, and great singer/guitarist. I could go on and on. But, after all these years of knowing him, sharing the stage with him and BR-549 and watching as he continues to delve into new things, I am truly honored by one very important thing: he calls me his friend.

Richie Plass is a Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee writer from Wisconsin. He has been writing and playing music since the 1960s.