Curly Seckler

Flashback to June of 2004. Curly Seckler graces the cover of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine and has his life story—and a fine one it is!—chronicled in a feature article. At 84 years of age, the time seemed right to reflect on a career of nearly seven decades, how he started playing music with his brothers back in 1935 and then got a job with one half of the famous Monroe Brothers duo (Charlie Monroe), and how he toured and recorded with early bluegrass legends Jim & Jesse, the Stanley Brothers, the Sauceman Brothers, and his most popular gig of all with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Then there were his years with Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass and how Curly carried the torch after his friend and boss’s passing. And the article even touched on Curly’s supposed “retirement.”

The ink was barely dry from the printing of the magazine that Curly was off blazing new trails in bluegrass. He had “one more album” left in him that he wanted to do. Penny Parsons, his manager, and longtime friend and producer Larry Perkins teamed up to assemble a stellar cast of pickers and singers to assist Curly with his new endeavor. What could rightfully be described as the bluegrass Ateam—Dudley Connell, Tater Tate, Herschel Sizemore, Chris Sharp, George Buckner, Kevin Sluder, and Larry Perkins—descended on the studios at Flat Five Press & Recording in Salem, Va., to play some bluegrass with one of their heroes. Curly was in fine form. His keen trademark tenor harmonies were virtually undiminished from his glory days of fifty years earlier, and he and Connell glided effortlessly through several Seckler classics. But, this was far from a rehashing of old standards. Curly wrote a batch of new songs for the occasion, and as one tune led to another, to another, to another, it was soon apparent that Curly had more than “one more album” left in him.

In October, the International Bluegrass Music Association paid homage to Curly’s lifetime of achievements with his induction into the organization’s Hall Of Fame. WSM and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs presented the award to him. The genteel elder spokesman of bluegrass regaled the audience with a humble acceptance and a few anecdotes. No stranger to the microphone, he credits his old boss Lester Flatt for giving him the experience to relate to people from the stage. “I went to work with Lester and them and the first night we was on the stage, he just walks off and says, ’Sec, take it over,’ and there I was. I thought to myself, ’Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into? And from then on, I don’t care where we was at, I had to do half the show. That’s something else, but it’s a good thing that it happened. Now I can get up there and say a few words and get by with ’em.” Curly has definitely more than “gotten by” and he amply proved it by treating attendees of the ceremony to a rousing performance of “I’ll Go Stepping, Too,” complete with exquisite backing from J.D. Crowe and the New South. It was a memorable moment and one that brought the house to its feet.

2005

April saw the re-release of a project that Curly recorded back in 1994 with the addition of previously unissued tracks and bonus selections. At the time, it heralded a milestone: 60 Years Of Bluegrass With My Friends. His friends just happened to include notables such as Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse, Josh Graves, Doyle Lawson, Benny Martin, Willis Spears, Tater Tate, Benny Sims, and—if it seems possible—more!

In June, Curly visited the Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro for the official unveiling of his Hall Of Fame plaque. In connection with the ceremony, the museum debuted a film about Curly’s life. An evening concert found Curly on stage with the backing of fellow Hall Of Fame inductee Tom Gray and Friends. The show also allowed for an onstage reunion with his former partner, Willis Spears, and longtime friend, Gerald McCormick.

September proved to be an eventful month for Curly. At the Bass Mountain Bluegrass Festival near Burlington, N.C., he received a plaque commemorating his seventy years as a professional musician. He also performed with able backing from David Parmley and Continental Divide. Guest artists throughout the set included such notables as Larry Sparks, Rob Ickes, and Josh McMurray as well as Willis Spears. Fans at the festival were more than appreciative and responded with three resounding ovations. The same month also saw the release of Down In Caroline. In addition to the artists who recorded earlier on the project at Flat Five, special guests included Larry Sparks, Russell Moore, Rob Ickes, John Carter Cash, Laura Weber Cash, Doc Watson, Leroy Troy, Josh McMurray, and Andrea Roberts.

Down In Caroline had barely hit the streets when another Seckler release made its debut. This one was a County Records CD release of an album Curly recorded in 1971. It was his first solo album and was recorded with the help of one of the finest traditional bluegrass bands of the time, the Shenandoah CutUps (Tater Tate, Herschel Sizemore, Billy Edwards, and John Palmer). The rerelease benefited from the addition of five bonus tracks that were recorded in 1989 with Willis Spears, Larry Perkins, and Ron Stewart. The new package was renamed to pay homage to one of Curly’s best songs of the 1950s, That Old Book Of Mine. Armed with a sack full of new releases, Curly hit the Roots & Branches stage full force at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World Of Bluegrass convention. Backed by the Chris Sharp/David Long Band, and with special guest artists including Rob Ickes, Larry Perkins, Gerald McCormick, Doyle Lawson, Russell Moore, and Willis Spears, Curly delighted IBMA fans with his inimitable brand of bluegrass.

2006

A new career highlight was achieved in April with Curly’s appearance at MerleFest. The event paired him with one of the top upandcoming bands on the bluegrass scene, the Steep Canyon Rangers. For Curly, it was a treat to work with a young group that was so dedicated to the roots of bluegrass. The band received a set list ahead of time, but only had one opportunity to rehearse prior to the show. Much to Curly’s surprise and pleasure, the Rangers nailed their parts on the first goaround! The chemistry was immediate and it set the stage for other Seckler/Rangers performances in the future. Dave Freeman, owner of the Rebel and County Records labels as well as the megamail-order outlet County Sales, noted, “The group amazed Curly and other onlookers with its command of and familiarity with the classic Flatt & Scruggs repertoire. In a preshow warm-up session, after the band sailed through more than a dozen of Seckler’s chosen favorites with hardly a hitch, Curly looked up and said quietly but with great respect, ’You boys can really pick.’ Not bad for a bunch of Carolina kids who grew up with the real thing!” Curly also made a special guest appearance with Larry Sparks and the two lovingly recreated several gems that Curly helped to popularize a half a century earlier.

In September, a highlight of the IBMA Fan Fest was a “legends” set that included Curly along with luminaries Everett Lilly (in the first time that these two great tenor singers ever sang together on stage) and J.D. Crowe. Curly’s bandmate of the 1950s, resonator guitar legend Josh Graves, was slated to be a part of the festivities. Although he had been in ill health for a number of years, the bluegrass community was shocked and saddened to learn of his passing on the morning of the event. Curly participated in a tribute to Josh that included Randy Kohrs, Rob Ickes, Leroy Mack, Phil Leadbetter, and others. Curly served as an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.

On a more festive note, Curly and Willis Spears, along with Marty Stuart, were reunited once again for an appearance at Lester Flatt Days in Sparta, Tenn., (Flatt’s hometown). Gladys Flatt, Lester’s widow, was in attendance for the event. The next week, another new recording appeared on the market, Curly’s Bluegrass, Don’t You Know. The title track was a recent Seckler composition that paid homage to Mr. Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Famed bluegrass composer and performer Larry Cordle sang the lead vocals on this selection. Other guests throughout the project included Larry Sparks, Dudley Connell, Russell Moore, Rob Ickes, Tater Tate, and a host of others. The Chicago Tribune hailed the disc as one of the Top 10 bluegrass releases of the year.

2007

In March and October, bluegrass fans were afforded a rare opportunity to view classic bluegrass from the past when Shanachie Records released four DVDs containing eight entire Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs television shows that were sponsored by Martha White Flour. The programs featured the definitive edition of the Foggy Mountain Boys: Paul Warren on fiddle, Jake Tullock on bass, and Curly Seckler, who chorded the mandolin and supplied tenor harmonies to Lester. For the release of the second batch of discs, a special program was held at the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. Curly was there along with Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Scruggs.

October afforded several reunions for Curly. At the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, he got to sit in for several numbers with the Steep Canyon Rangers. It was Curly’s first trip to the West Coast in over thirty years! The highlight though was Curly’s appearance with the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. Curly and David recorded several songs together nearly two decades earlier, as part of David’s Home Is Where The Heart Is two LP set on Rounder.

Curly’s appearance with the Experience was a reunion within a reunion. He noted, “He’s got my old mandolin.” The same one that he purchased in 1941 for $42 and used to make all those classic recordings that he participated on throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Curly said, “A feller up in Roanoke, Va., sold it to him.” Curly’s wife, Eloise, picks up the story. “The fellow put it on eBay and that’s where David saw it and how he came to buy it. [He] found out it was Curly’s, [and] when we went to California he showed it to Curly, that he had refinished it and it was so pretty. He offered to let him bring it home and play it.” Curly, sensing the historical significance of the instrument and its appreciated value, politely declined.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival also put Curly before a half a million people. Eloise noted, “That’s one of the biggest crowds that we ever saw.” Curly concurred. “Just as far as you can see, this way and that way, is people. They just stood up—nobody could sit down, there wasn’t room I don’t reckon. It was the biggest crowd I ever got in front of and said, ’How do you do?’”

2008

The new year got off in a big way. Southwest Virginia has long been a hotbed of activity for bluegrass music, dating back to the late 1940s. The tradition continues today, and music of the region is broadcast nationally on a PBS program that originates from the Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Va. It was here that Curly teamed up once again with the Steep Canyon Rangers for an unforgettable taping for an episode of the Song Of The Mountains program. The show is hosted by Tim White, a longtime DJ and advocate for bluegrass. He cherishes his association with Curly and stated recently, “I have worked with Curly on many occasions over the years and I always am honored to just speak to the man. He is so genuine and down to earth. In every sense of the word he is a legend. Curly is never cocky, arrogant, egotistical, or conceited because of his historic status and success in the music business. He is and always has been a gentleman. It is no wonder to me that God has let us enjoy having Curly Seckler on this Earth for over ninety years. He is a blessing to everyone who has known him. I want to grow up to be like Curly Seckler!”

The following day just happened to be Curly Seckler Day at the Pickin’ Porch Stage of the Mountain Music Museum in Bristol, Va. Coincidence? Nah. Curly received a key to the city from Mayor David Helms. Penny Parsons and Curly reminisced about his 73year career in music, after which Tim White unveiled a Curly Seckler Exhibit that was to be on display at the museum. A concert by Curly and the Rangers followed. For fans of traditional bluegrass music—and of Curly Seckler in particular—it was a fabulous weekend in Virginia.

Curly was pleased to make several trips to the recording studio during the year. In January, along with Earl Scruggs, Charlie Cushman, Marty Stuart, and others, he helped his stepson Johnny Warren record an album in tribute to Paul Warren, the famed fiddle player who worked with Flatt & Scruggs. Later in the year, he helped a local North Carolina group, the Jones Brothers, record a collection of gospel material and Curly sang tenor on 11 of the songs.

June saw a return by Curly to Owensboro, KY., for a gathering of bluegrass legends hosted by the International Bluegrass Music Museum. The occasion afforded Curly an opportunity to visit with old friends and bandmates, including Tommy Scott, Jesse McReynolds, Curtis McPeake, and the McCormick Brothers. The museum acknowledged Curly’s presence with a repeat showing of the 2005 oral history video about his life and music.

August presented a welcome treat for Curly when he got to play once again at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Va. The venue—the site of the Carter Family homeplace—was started in the middle 1970s by Janette Carter as a way to honor her parents, A.P. and Sara Carter. Concerts are held each Saturday night at The Fold and a twoday festival is held on the first weekend in August. Situated in the shadow of Clinch Mountain, the festival is dripping with oldtime and bluegrass music history. There’s a museum—formerly A.P. Carter’s store—full of Carter memorabilia, and nearby is the Mt. Vernon church that the family attended and where A.P. and Sara are buried. The Stanley Brothers once played on a makeshift stage behind the store back in the early 1950s. It’s usually quite hot come festival time, and a multitude of makeshift fans attempt to cool festival goers as they listen to the music in the shade of the open-air theater. A concrete floor in front of the stage affords a multitude of dancers ample space to tap their feet to the rhythms of oldtime instrumentals. It was in this setting that Curly, along with Willis Spears, and with expert backing by Virginia’s Big Country Bluegrass, sailed through two sets of classic bluegrass. Playing banjo for the group that day was Lynwood Lunsford. He described Curly as “simply put, a piece of bluegrass history.” As the show progressed and the group launched into the Martha White theme song—a mainstay of the Flatt & Scruggs/Lester Flatt shows for many years, Lynwood got “the biggest goosebumps that you ever saw! It was the most magical moment that I have ever experienced in music.”

Nostalgia, likewise, dominated an actionpacked weekend in October. Curly was interviewed in Durham, N.C., for WUNC’s program The State Of Things. Host Frank Stasio queried Curly about his career and connection to North Carolina. The program even permitted time for the performance of several songs with musical support provided by the Steep Canyon Rangers. Reflecting on the group’s association with Curly, Ranger Woody Platt observed, “What a treat it was. Not only did we get to play many of the classic Flatt & Scruggs tunes with Curly’s unmistakable tenor vocal—but we got to witness first-hand (from the stage) how great of an entertainer Curly Seckler was and continues to be. It was an honor that myself and the Rangers will never forget or take for granted. We are looking forward to the next time we get the opportunity.”

The following day, the ensemble journeyed to Crewe, Va., for an onair appearance at WSVS radio. The station was the headquarters for the Flatt & Scruggs show (with Curly) in 1954. It was here that the band recorded a number of Martha White radio shows that were sent to Nashville to be aired on WSM. The announcer at WSVS at the time was Jody Rainwater, a former member of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Jody was onhand for Curly’s 2008 appearance at the station; it was an epic reunion that was 54 years in the making. Sensing the importance of the station’s history in bluegrass, the owners have restored the studio to the way it was when Curly first appeared there in the early 1950s.

Capping the year was another trip to Owensboro where the Bluegrass Museum unveiled a Curly Seckler Exhibit. The display included photos, posters, recordings, stage clothing, and a guitar case. Afterwards, Curly delighted Museum officials with songs and tunes with Willis Spears and Larry Perkins.

2009

The Paramount Theatre in Bristol was the scene for numerous bluegrass performances during the 1950s. After a period of decline, the facility was returned to its original luster and has once again become a showplace for bluegrass in the area. In February, it was home for the 13th Annual Leon Kiser Memorial Tribute Show. The event honors the memory of Leon Kiser, a tireless and enthusiastic supporter of bluegrass music in the TriCities area of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City. It also serves as a fundraiser for a scholarship in his name at East Tennessee State University. At this particular event, tribute was paid to a number of people including Curly, Fey Rogers and Bob Smith (founders of legendary radio station WCYB in Bristol), and oldtime musician Clarence Ashley. Curly was onhand to perform and made friends with some new (to him) musicians including Kody Norris and Tom Isaacs.

May brought together two former Foggy Mountain Boys—Jim Shumate and Curly. Jim was a charter member of the group in 1948 and appeared on the band’s first recording session. The two weren’t in the group at the same time, with Curly having joined shortly after Jim’s departure. Nevertheless, Curly and Jim recreated two early Flatt & Scruggs favorites—“Cabin In Caroline” and “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart”—when they appeared at the Bluegrass In Wilkes Festival in Wilkesboro, N.C. Big Country Bluegrass was on hand once more to provide musical accompaniment for Curly.

Curly’s previous performance on the Song Of The Mountains program was so favorably received that he was asked to make a return appearance in June. Constant Change, a fine traditional band from North Carolina, ably assisted Curly on the show. Also on the show was the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, which included oldtime banjoist Leroy Troy. Curly’s been wellacquainted with Leroy for years. In fact, Curly knew “his mother and dad before he was born…yeah, he’s alright.” He had a few other phrases to describe Leroy, including “he’s a dandy” and “he’s a character,” but the one that seemed most important to Curly was, “He’s a good feller.” The young banjo player came out on stage and played on a number with his old friend. Two months later, at the Song Of The Mountains Festival that was held at the Davis Valley Winery in nearby Groseclose, Va., Curly appeared with Willis Spears and Big Country Bluegrass. The event also celebrated bluegrass veteran Jesse McReynolds’ eightieth birthday; Curly and Jesse delighted the audience by singing two songs together.

Curly had a birthday celebration of his own in December—a milestone of ninety years old on December 25. Two days later, at the home of Gerald McCormick, friends and family including Marty Stuart, John Conlee, James Monroe, Steve Sechler, Roland White, Willis Spears, Eddie Stubbs, Ronnie Reno, Wayne Lewis, Michael Cleveland, the McCormick Brothers, Charlie Cushman, and others gathered to celebrate. Portions of the event—which included a lot of music—were recorded by RFDTV.

2010

This past year marked yet another milestone in Curly Seckler’s career. He celebrated his 75th anniversary as a professional musician. The year got off to a busy start with appearances at the annual Jesse McReynolds benefit in Gallatin, Tenn., at the SPBGMA event in Nashville where he received a plaque in recognition of his birthday and anniversary, and a tribute concert to Mother Maybelle Carter at David Lipscomb University, also in Nashville. Curly only got to sing one song at the Carter event, a song he recorded called “Mother Maybelle.” Much to his amazement, he received a standing ovation and, as humbly as he could put it, “stole the show. Now that’s unreal. I couldn’t believe it, that I tore the house down.”

On April 3, the balance of Curly’s celebratory year seemed tenuous when he suffered a heart attack. Two days later, he underwent triple bypass surgery. Doctors were initially skeptical about operating on the ninetyyearold, but an examination prompted one of the medics to declare that Curly had the body of someone 15 years younger. A week long postop and he was released from Nashville’s Centennial Hospital. He was soon back into his regular walking routine at the mall and easing back into the spotlight, including a jaunt to Owensboro in June to participate in the Bluegrass Museum’s annual gathering of bluegrass pioneers. While there, he made guest appearances with The Whites and Mac Martin.

On October 7, Curly was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall Of Fame at a ceremony in the David H. Murdock Core Laboratory Building in Kannapolis, N.C. He joins other inductees including Doc Watson, Andy Griffith, George Hamilton IV, Arthur Smith, Donna Fargo, and Don Gibson. The evening was capped by performances by Curly on two of his trademark songs: “Moonlight On My Cabin” and “Mother Maybelle.”

On December 4th, the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville presented a program to honor Curly’s 91st birthday and 75th anniversary. Hosted by famed on-air personality Kyle Cantrell, the event provided a forum for Curly to reminisce about his lengthy musical career and perform a few selections with friends and special guests including Willis Spears, Johnny Warren, Larry Perkins, Tim Graves, Kent Blanton, Laura Cash, Roland White, and Jeff Hardin. At the conclusion of the interview portion of the event, Kyle presented Curly with a birthday greeting from The White House that was signed by Barack and Michelle Obama. The program was recorded and is available for viewing on the Hall Of Fame Web site, www.countrymusichalloffame.org.

To help with the celebratory mood of the year, 75th anniversary posters from Hatch Show Print were prepared. Perhaps buoyed by the significance of the milestone, Curly says once again that he still has one more album left in him. He’s been busy collection songs from a variety of sources and when the CD comes to fruition, it should make an interesting and enjoyable listening experience.

Although Curly retired from active touring in 1994, he certainly hasn’t been out of the public view. And he certainly hasn’t been idle either. While many performers are content to rest on the laurels of the golden days, Curly’s record of the past six years demonstrates that he remains a vibrant and creative artist working with new musicians, writing new songs, performing in new venues, and creating new recordings.

Gary Reid has been a bluegrass and old-time music writer, researcher, and producer for over 35 years. He is a three-time recipient of the IBMA award Best Liner Notes.

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