The first time Sun Records founder Sam Phillips saw Chuck Mead play with BR-549 live in Memphis, he gave the Nashville honky-tonk rockers one of the greatest compliments any band could ever receive.
“He came backstage,” Mead recalled during our CMT.com interview, “and said, ’I like you guys. You guys are real different.’ Coming from a guy who based his whole life on difference, that’s the biggest compliment he could have said to us — that we were different.”
On Thursday’s (March 30) episode of CMT’s Sun Records, Phillips (Chad Michael Murray) will say exactly what he said to Mead that night to Elvis Presley (Drake Milligan) when they go into the studio for the first time to record. It’s a moment any Presley fan won’t want to miss.
Mead (BR-549) chats with Tommy Cash (Johnny Cash’s brother) at Sun Records auditions at Elvis Presley’s alma mater Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School on February 13, 2016
Mead is one of the main reasons why the actors on Sun Records rock like the music icons they portray for the show. He is Sun Records’ musical director and before joining the series, he oversaw the music for the stage production of Million Dollar Quartet, which inspired CMT’s TV adaptation.
Between shoots, Mead and the actors holed up at the Gibson guitar factory in downtown Memphis and they had band camp to learn their parts.
“All those guys got it going on,” he said. “Dustin Ingram, who plays Carl Perkins, and Kevin Fonteyne, who plays Johnny Cash, they were just actors, but now I would trust them to do the stage show because they studied up. Christian and Jonah Lees who play Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, they were musically inclined anyway because they come from a musical family, but they hadn’t played this kind of music before.
“And Drake, who plays Elvis, he’s fantastic. They really made it great. There was a feeling that everybody believed in this so much.”
Mead also hired real musicians to star in various cameos and guest appearances. He called Darius Rucker to play Johnny Bragg from the Prisonaires for episode five.
Keb’ Mo’ is featured in episode five as a live bluesman playing “Catfish Blues.” Americana mainstay Pokey LaFarge has a recurring role as Hank Snow. Later on in the series, Charlie Worsham and Ronnie McCoury will make guest appearances as Slim Whitman and Bill Monroe, respectively. Dom Flemons from Carolina Chocolate Drops was cast to play the one-man blues band Joe Hill Louis. Memphis musicians Jason D. Williams and John Paul Keith were also given side roles. Williams even taught Christian Lees how to play like Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Castro Coleman, who played B.B. King, he’s a real blues guy,” Mead said. “They call him Mr. Sipp because he’s from Mississippi. He knocked me out. He did such a good job. Kerry Holliday, who plays Ike Turner, he’s really a sax player. He doesn’t play piano, although he looked like it in the TV show, right?
“I wanted to make sure this music gets represented right because that’s important,” Mead added. “That’s the part of America the world loves. The music that they did is what really changed the world and how they did it. And I think we took care of that.
“All this music matters to the people who are on the show, and I think that’s the difference. It comes across on the screen because they’re so incredibly committed to it.”