Meade Skelton is a big boy.
Mostly because he’s a sucker for that rich, Southern comfort food you can smell a mile away: Lee’s Chicken, Bill’s Barbecue, Krispy Kreme.
But while his weakness for glazed doughnuts is typical, almost nothing else about the 26-year-old musician is.
In a local music scene better known for tattoos, monster riffs and cynical detachment, Skelton stands apart.
Honestly, he has no choice. In the city that spawned GWAR, Lamb of God and Avail, a husky piano player in a beige sports coat who uses words like “crummy” and “neat” doesn’t exactly blend in.
“I come across as campy, a little old-fashioned,” said Skelton, “but I always thought of myself as the Frank Sinatra type.”
Meade Skelton isn’t on the cover of any big-name music magazines. His latest album isn’t generating huge underground buzz, and his performances don’t pack the house. Skelton’s gigs are low-key, usually just him and his keyboard tucked into a coffeehouse, waiting in line at an open mike or singing for lunch patrons at the Farmers’ Market.
He isn’t even big in Japan.
So what’s the story?
The story is that in an age where everything from the car you drive to the gum you chew is supposed to define you, this guy says no thanks, I’ll do that myself.
The story is that a kid who was picked on in school for being fat and weird didn’t grow up, drop 40 pounds and fall in line with the crowd. He stayed strange, ate lots of spoon bread and then put on a hat and sang like the holy reincarnation of Hank Williams.
“There aren’t a lot of Meades around,” said Brooke Saunders, founder of the Floating Folk Festival. “He’s like Johnny Cash — a total original.”
Saunders met Skelton when the young musician handed him a demo tape. Saunders found the songs “rough but interesting” and invited Skelton to play with the musical collective in 2000.
“Two things he has going for him are an extraordinary voice and songwriting ability,” said Saunders. “It’s a rare combination.”
Skelton grew up the youngest of five children in rural Loudoun County. On the farm he listened to records by Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline and learned how to play music by ear.
“I never thought I had a lot of talent,” said Skelton. “I just like to be creative.”
His soft, lilting drawl sounds like Mister Rogers doing “Gone With the Wind.” He’s well-mannered, humble and endearingly optimistic.
“I play simple and sincere. I don’t know how to do it any other way,” said Skelton.
When pressed, he describes his style as “country-politan,” but not every composition calls for a cowboy hat.
Skelton shows range, switching from simple piano lounge love songs to more rollicking keyboard tunes that conjure Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. Every so often he slips in a spiritual.
But even though Skelton believes deeply in God, he isn’t out to convert anyone.
“I don’t like to force church on people,” said Skelton. “A lot of folks don’t even know I’m Christian.”
“Members just love him,” said Judy Fiske, minister of music and youth at Tabernacle Baptist Church. “He’s a very unique character.”
Tabernacle Baptist, on the corner of Meadow and Grove in the Fan, was one of the first stops for Skelton when his family moved to Richmond in 1998.
Just out of high school, he joined the choir. Soon after, he persuaded church members to let him play his own songs. Now, every few months, Skelton plays a mix of classical, gospel and country songs for the 11 a.m. Sunday congregation.
“If I don’t have him play, there is a list of people who tell me they want to see Meade,” said Fiske.
Since 2001, Skelton has self-released three albums. His debut, “Songs by Meade Skelton,” is a tribute to classic country crooners. The second, “They Can’t Keep Me Down,” is a mishmash of country-pop ditties and catchy personal anthems.
Skelton said that after rough days at school, he’d come straight home and sing karaoke in his garage.
One has to imagine that those moments spawned brutally honest tunes like “Proud to Be Square,” “They Called Me a Porker” and “What’s So Great About Rock and Roll?” Skelton’s simple songs capture teen angst just as well as any noisy grind from Linkin Park or System of a Down.
His latest, “Songs of Love,” is a sappy but sincere collection of covers and standards. One of the album’s two original cuts is “Nicole, Will You Marry Me?”, a modest musical proposal to actress Nicole Kidman. (She’s been his muse since he saw “Batman Forever.”)
On the off chance she says yes, the happy couple will have to move. There just isn’t enough space for a Hollywood entourage in Skelton’s Fan duplex.
He lives with his father, a retired accountant, on Floyd Avenue.
Skelton opened the door a crack and said, “Let me take the dog upstairs.”
When he came back down, we walked to the “music room,” a spare, almost empty, former dining room. A modest Baldwin piano sat tucked in the corner. Family photos crowded the fireplace mantel.
Skelton’s mother passed away 15 years ago, but her face is everywhere. The old black and whites keep her young, a vision with good bones and immaculate complexion.
Skelton pulled out the piano bench and sat down. He stretched his fingers and walked them across the keys.
Rocking back and forth, he eased out short melodies. He apologized for not singing.
“Allergies,” he said.
Above him, a gold-framed Jesus portrait hung on the wall. The top of the piano was bare, save for the small trophy Skelton won for his original classical piano composition, “Victory.” He was 10 years old.
Success for Meade Skelton means a song in the Top 20. And even though he knows what he wants, he’s in no hurry to get there.
“I realize that in Nashville I’d just be another wannabe,” he said. “So I’m trying to work out my flaws while I’m still here.”
For now, Skelton is content to shop his songs to small record labels and play all the local and regional gigs he can get.
“I don’t try too hard with my image,” he said, “I never try to be something I’m not.”
And even though Skelton said he’s given up Krispy Kreme . . . he’s not letting go of the coat.