Since 2006, Nashville cat Chuck Mead, one of the founders of the expert 1990s honky-tonk revival band BR549, has been music director of Million Dollar Quartet, the touring Broadway show about the famed 1956 Sun Studios rockabilly jam session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

"It's not your conventional musical theater piece, and it's not a 'jukebox' musical," said Mead, who will play at MilkBoy in Center City on Friday night with his band the Grassy Knoll Boys.

"It's set in a recording studio, so it's not out of character for them to have a jam session," Mead said on the phone from a tour stop in Buffalo this week. "I did all the arrangements, and I learned a lot about working small songs into a larger story. I guess that's what led to the slightly conceptual Free State Serenade."

That's the title of the third solo album by the 53-year-old songwriter and guitarist, his first to contain original material since Journeyman's Wager in 2009.

Mead has lived in Nashville for two decades, but he was raised in Lawrence, Kan. And as he began to gather songs for the follow-up to 2012's country covers album Back at the Quonset Hut, he noticed the tunes all had a geographical locus. There was "Reno County Girl," which he wrote for his wife, Brenda Colladay, a curator at the Grand Ole Opry Museum; and "Little Ivy," about a girl a year ahead of him in elementary school who was kidnapped and killed.

"Those kind of things really leave an indelible mark on you," he said. "You read stories like that in the paper and you don't realize that it's happening to real people. It was just something that haunted me.

"Then I just thought I should make my next record be a lot of songs that are part of a longer narrative that'll all be about Kansas. Because it was interesting to me, and basically I had to get it off my chest."

Mead dug in with songs like "Evil Wind," sung from the perspective of Perry Smith, one of the two killers of a Kansas farm family in 1959 who are the focus of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

"That happened before I was born, but for Kansans of a certain age, it wasn't that long ago. And when the movie came out, it scared me. If you were a kid growing up in Kansas, Dick [Hickock, the other killer] and Perry were the bogeymen."

Free State Serenade also contains nonhistorical, light-hearted material, such as a cover of Mark Collie's over-the-moon character study "Ain't Nothing Like the Love of a Woman," and Mead's "The Light of the Day," a perfectly constructed honky-tonk gem that turns on the lines, "You can see things clearer in the light of the day / That's why they look better at night."

"I once lived at a house where there was a party for two years," Mead said with a laugh. "And by that I don't mean we had a lot of parties. I mean there was a party there for two years. That song is kind of about that, and also lying to yourself. Out of sight, and out of mind."