Chuck Mead and Paul Burch Revive Lower Broadway
Forty years ago, the streets of Nashville looked much like the streets of New York City, and the city planners of Music City, faced with the phenomenon that so affectionately became known as “urban decay,” decided to follow the lead of other big Southern cities and lead the flight of businesses to the suburbs. What was fine for Atlanta and Charlotte, though, didn’t work very well for Nashville. After all, music beat at the city’s heart, and to surgically remove that heart would lead to slow decline and death.
However, city planners and corporate architects don’t operate with the hands or hearts of surgeons, so they removed, if not the very heart, then the beating chambers of that vessel when they transplanted the Grand Ole Opry from the Ryman Auditorium in 1974 to the Opry House on Briley Parkway — still under construction in 1974; the Parkway remained under construction until about four years ago — far removed in those days from the pulse of Music City. Had the capital of country music drained its own life blood? Who would haunt the honky tonks and bars of lower Broadway if the toe-tapping, tune-humming tourists were being led like sheep to a fleecing away from the center of it all?
The move didn’t kill off country music, of course, and it hardly stopped its heart from beating. Hopeful tunesmiths continued to haunt Music Row, Studio A kept its doors open and the tapes rolling, and musicians kept open the honky tonks. Even so, with the doors of the Mother Church of country music closed, worshipers at altars of Kitty Wells and Hank Williams took their business elsewhere and lower Broadway in Nashville turned into a bit of a ghost town.
In the early 1990s, country music turned saccharine with the strains of Garth Brooks — even though he turned a whole new generation of listeners onto country music — whose music owed as much, and probably more, to AC/DC as it did to Hawkshaw Hawkins. At the same time that Brooks was filling the Opry House, a revival hit lower Broadway, with revivalists like Chuck Mead and Paul Burch leading the crusade to resurrect the more traditional country music they had come to Nashville to play. Mead fronted BR5-49, a band he formed Gary Bennett in 1993, that burned up the stage at Robert’s Western World Wednesday through Saturday nights. At the time, Mead told Jim Bessman of Billboard: “We were drawn to Lower Broadway because of the real honky-tonks — the real spirit of country music. We’re not interested in Music Row or Opryland, which is so fake and plastic.” At the other end of lower Broadway, Paul Burch and his band WPA Ballclub, threw out the ashes — after burning down the roadhouse — in the morning at the iconic Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. The late, great music journalist Chet Flippo covered the scene for Billboard and hailed Burch’s debut, “Pan American Flash,” as “extraordinary, establishing Burch as a leader in marrying country’s roots tradition with a modern sensibility.”
Together, Mead and BR5-49 and Burch and WPA Ballclub helped revitalize lower Broadway, bringing back classic country music awash in a flood of fiddles, steel guitars, and upright basses. Before long, lower Broadway heated up and the crowds returned to hear these two revivalists and their bands’ versions of country tunes but also the original country songs that Mead and Burch started turning out during these days.
In order to celebrate the now-famous lower Broadway revival of twenty years ago, Plowboy Records is releasing a double A-side single featuring the architects — or more accurately, the featured preachers — of this great re-awakening. Drop the needle on either side of this 45, and you’ll remember the reasons — or hear for the first time—that Mead and Burch delivered the gospel of rough-hewn, dance-hall, honky-tonkin’, get-up-out-of your-seats, country music to the crowds hungry for the full, hearty meal of country, and not the skimpy, paltry diet of it served up by Brooks and others. Charging off in a wash of Dick Dale-like guitar riffs, Mead’s rockabilly side, “Evil Wind,” from his album Free State Serenade, croons Eddie Cochran-style about one of the oldest subjects in the country canon: murder. Mead, with help from multi-instrumentalist Carco Clave, narrates the tale of the Clutter family murder in Holcomb, Kansas, a tale also told in a different manner by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood. The beauty of Mead’s tune, of course, is that his music has you rocketing out of your seat and scampering across the dance floor before you realize you’re dancing to a ballad about a murder. Classic rockabilly indeed. Fiddles a-skittering drive Burch’s side, a tale of woe and love gone south, “Couldn’t Get a Witness,” from his album Fevers. Burch weaves his sly, wry lyrics through this propulsive dance floor spinner that sounds like “Willie and the Hand Jive” on rockabilly overdrive. With brilliantly colorful art work from J.D. Wilkes adorning the sleeve of the 45, this little record is bound to start a new revival every time it drops on the turntable.