Meet the Man Who Taught Sun Records Cast How to Rock

Nashville’s Chuck Mead Calls Famous Label “the Part of America the World Loves”

by lauren tingle

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 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 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.”

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CMT's 'Sun Records' finds its groove with Chuck Mead

CMT is trying to pull off a magic trick with its new drama series, "Sun Records": to convince viewers, if only for a moment, that they're really seeing those legends perform in their early days — instead of a cast of musically gifted actors.

Sounds like an impossible task.  But on the other hand, they had Chuck Mead in their corner.

The Nashville musician — who previously fronted throwback country favorites BR549 — served as musical director on the show and essentially put its young stars through "band camp." It's not an entirely new gig for him: he also oversaw the music for "Million Dollar Quartet," the stage musical on which "Sun Records" is based.

"They all just really worked at it," Mead says of the TV cast. "It's at the point now where I would have all of those guys in the (stage show)."

In terms of musical experience, the "Sun Records" cast ran the gamut. 18-year-old Drake Milligan has been impersonating Elvis on stage since he was 9. He sets a high bar for his cast mates in the show's opening scene, in which a teenage Elvis strums a guitar in his kitchen and croons "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

"You get a guy like that, and you don't have to give that much insight, you just give references," Mead says. "'Hey, why don't you do this like he did it on the Dorsey (Brothers Stage) Show?' They'll know exactly what I'm talking about."

Meanwhile, the show's Johnny Cash (Kevin Fonteyne) had to learn to play guitar for his role. He also delved into Cash's character behind the legend. Mead had him watch the home movie footage from Cowboy Jack Clement's documentary "Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan."

"He went in and studied who he was, especially in the early years, because in our TV show, Cash has just gotten out of the Air Force."

It sounds like some characters are quicker studies than others, too.

"The first thing that I make any new guy that's coming in to play Jerry Lee (Lewis) do is look at his performance of 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" on 'The Steve Allen Show,'" Mead says. "That cuts right to it. But you also get him as a person, because there's no difference."

"Sun Records" premieres February 23 and airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m. CT on CMT, after new episodes of "Nashville."


CMT Debuts 1st Trailer from 'Sun Records' - Million Dollar Quartet TV Series

With music direction, on-set consulting and character acting by Chuck Mead!

The first promo for Sun Records is here. This is the upcoming CMT limited series (formerly known as Million Dollar Quartet) that’s based on the Tony Award-winning musical.

Sun Records tells the story of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll through legendary players like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Sun Records stars Chad Michael Murray as Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, Billy Gardell as Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, Drake Milligan as Presley, Kevin Fonteyne as Cash, Christian Lees as Lewis, and Kerry Holliday as Turner.

The show is set to premiere on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 10 p.m.

Check out the trailer here: