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Curly Seckler, a bluegrass legend, remembered   Leave a comment

Curly-Seckler 1I don’t know when I first fully noticed Curly Seckler, but it may have been early in 2005 when he quipped, “Come here, you money-making thing!” to kick-off his penultimate album, Down In Caroline.

I had, of course, heard Curly Seckler prior to that. As a keen listener of bluegrass for more than a dozen years (at the time), it would have been impossible to have not heard his voice and mandolin playing.

Mr. Seckler was a long-time member of the Foggy Mountain Boys and The Nashville Grass, and I had frequently heard his mandolin and guitar playing and tenor vocals, including on the first Lester Flatt record I ‘owned’*, Lester Flatt Live! Bluegrass Festival, Lester(reissued and expanded years later by Bear Family as Live at Vanderbilt) which I acquired mostly because of the participation of a very young Marty Stuart. In hindsight, his recording of “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul” (from a CMH release, and collected on Once Upon A Time) with Stuart is definitive, but to 2005 I hadn’t even given it the attention it deserved. And while his distinctive voice graced three numbers on another of my early bluegrass purchases, I overlooked Mr. Seckler amongst the more prominent (to me) bluegrassers contained on David Grisman’s Home Is Where The Heart Is collection.Home is where

(*I say ‘owned’ because I ‘borrowed’ the album from a future in-law and never seemed to remember to return it!)

So, I had seen his name listed in credits, but hadn’t really paid attention. I think I knew he had played and recorded with Charlie Monroe, and had learned his “A Purple Heart” had been recorded with the McReynolds. When Down in Caroline came my way for review, I was given plenty of reason to concentrate on his voice, his playing, and to research his history and place in bluegrass music.

Within days, Mr. Seckler went from a vaguely familiar name on paper as a sideman to a personal favourite.

Curly Caroline

When Mr. Seckler passed at the end of 2017, two days past his 98th birthday, appropriate testaments were written in his honour in The Tennessean, at Bluegrass Today, and elsewhere. Others much more able have recounted his life and legacy; I simply share my personal reflections and perspective on the IBMA Hall of Fame member

I can’t locate my contemporaneous review of Down In Caroline in my archives, but listening to it again these past weeks I know I am even more impressed by it now than I was a dozen years ago.

Released on Copper Creek, the album was produced when Mr. Seckler was 85 years old. I don’t know what I will be doing when I am 85—should I be fortunate enough to reach that milestone—but I know I won’t be singing as good as he was: few have. It is an outstanding album, full of choice moments—as when he and Dudley Connell come together at around the 30 second mark of “Valley Of Peace”, and when Josh McMurray’s banjo kicks off “He Took Your Place,” soon followed by Seckler and Larry Sparks bringing chills on the chorus—and historical moments, too. Through studio freshening, a 1971 tape of Mr. Seckler singing tenor with Bill Monroe on “Sitting On Top of The World” closes the set as a hidden chestnut, and Connell also leads the group through an impromptu take of “Dig A Hole in the Meadow.”

Rather than serving as a monument to a fading talent, Down In Caroline revealed Mr. Seckler as a vibrant bluegrass force in his ninth decade. The excellent liner notes from co-producer (and biographer) Penny Parsons share that Seckler continued writing up to the sessions, finishing “Letter to the Captain” just prior to recording it in 2004. Enough material was recorded to prompt a second volume, entitled Bluegrass, Don’t You Know, the following year. (More on that in a bit.)

When Seckler takes the lead vocal position, it is obvious that we are hearing a master: one listen to “Worries on My Mind” and “China Grove, My Home” serve as evidence. Couple all of this with a playful take of “Hold the Woodpile Down” lead by Doc Watson (culled from a previous session for a Larry Perkins album), and you have as memorable bluegrass album recorded by an octogenarian as I have encountered: across forty minutes, it never drags, sags, or fades.

Curly That Old Book

Around the same time, a collection on County Records assembled  material from an outstanding 1971 recording with the Shenandoah Cut-Ups titled Curly Seckler Sings Again.  On That Old Book of Mine, these eleven tracks were supplemented by five tunes recorded with Willis Spears in 1989, taken from the album Tribute to Lester Flatt.  The music, ranging from standards like ”Salty Dog Blues” and “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky” to less familiar fare such as Bill Monroe’s “Remember the Cross” and his own “What’s The Matter Now”, was of another era and yet timeless.

While Mr. Seckler was an appealing and certainly capable lead vocalist, he was best known as a superior tenor singer, something very much in evidence here.  For good reason, Stuart called him the greatest tenor singer of all time. On the 1971 numbers, Billy Edwards (banjo) takes the lead on many, with Seckler’s rich tenor soaring over the top.   Tater Tate (fiddle), Hershel Sizemore (mandolin)) and John Palmer (bass) provide the instrumental accompaniment alongside Seckler’s guitar.

By 1989, Seckler was singing only tenor, with Spears’ powerful voice in the lead position.  Seckler played mandolin on these tunes with Spears handling guitar, and Seckler’s vocal contributions were again flawless.  Rounding out these sessions were Ron Stewart (fiddle), Perkins (banjo), and Phillip Staff (bass).

All instrumentation on this volume was well-recorded and of the quality most often associated with classic, traditional bluegrass music of the era.  No one got too flashy, with the focus on the melding of voices with smooth harmony.  This was especially evident on “Give Me The Roses While I Live” and “No Mother In This World.”

Curly Bluegrass Dont

A final album, Bluegrass, Don’t You Know and also on Copper Creek, followed in 2006 and was just as powerful as the preceding Down In Caroline. This set—again a mix of classic songs made fresh, and fresh material certifiably classic—was highlighted by one of Larry Cordle’s finest vocal turns, taking the lead on the title track, a new Seckler composition. Lyrically adroit and instrumentally noteworthy, the song encapsulates sixty years of bluegrass evolution charged by an electrifying tenor performance from Mr. Seckler. “Honey, don’t you know,” he sings as a vocal refrain as instrumentalists, including some of bluegrass music’s finest—Perkins, Rob Ickes (Dobro), Brent Truitt (mandolin), Laura Weber Cash (fiddle), Chris Sharp (guitar), and Kent Blanton (bass)—drop in allusions to Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker and others who made the music what it always should be. “They say it ain’t country, but it’s bluegrass don’t you know,” indeed!

Mr. Seckler’s signature song “A Purple Heart” appears. Also included is “That Old Book of Mine” which dates from his time with Flatt & Scruggs, as do “Bouquet in Heaven,” “What’s the Matter With You Darlin’,” “Why Did You Wander,” “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go,” and “Why Can’t We Be Darlings Anymore,” all faithfully executed with exceptional performances from those who were selected to support Mr. Seckler on these sessions. Noteworthy is “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go” performed by the trio of Larry Sparks, Larry Perkins, and Mr. Seckler, with Sparks taking the lead position instrumentally (a stunning example of his signature guitar style) and vocally.

The autobiographical “The Way It Was” features twin fiddles from Sharp and Tater Tate, and like every song on this collection, its melody lingers long after it is heard. Appropriately for an album that showcases Mr. Seckler’s talents as a lead vocalist, the album closes with another new number, the vocally challenging “The Old Man Has Retired.” Perhaps not the smoothest performance amongst those captured in the 2004 sessions, the honesty of a well-lived life is on display as Mr. Seckler sings the song exactly as he wanted.

In the fall of 2005, I had the pleasure and honour of hearing the (by then) 86-year old’s still powerful tenor in Nashville at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass. I don’t recall what he sang, or with whom, but I do remember that I got to shake the man’s hand, and he signed my copies of Down in Caroline and That Old Book of Mine. I cherish my brief encounter with Mr. Seckler, and these mentioned recordings are testament to the man’s talent and legacy.

Since then I’ve sought out recordings featuring Mr. Seckler; of course, here in central Alberta, one doesn’t come across them often. There are the dozens of recordings he made with Flatt & Scruggs, and I am fully entertained when I slip my Best of Flatt & Scruggs TV Show DVDs into my player. Somewhere on the internet, I found a homey recording he made with banjoist Cranford Nix including memorable takes of “Do You Wonder Why” and “Shady Grove.”

LESTER_FLATT_FLATT+GOSPEL-461535

A couple summers ago, while vacationing on Vancouver Island, I came across a copy of Flatt Gospel, an album by Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass on the Canaan label, hidden away in a roadside cafe/record shop, and while the asking price was undoubtedly too dear by half, I haven’t regretted the purchase. Hearing Mr. Seckler on “I’m Going That Way,” “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go,” “Awaiting the Boatman,” and other gospel songs is truly priceless.

His recordings as the leader of The Nashville Grass are not groundbreaking, but are fine examples of his traditional bluegrass style; I can listen to he and Kenny Ingram, Stuart, Paul Warren and the rest any time. Three years ago, his final recorded sessions were included on Sparks’ ideally titled Lonesome and Then Some album, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” and “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.” I feel Mr. Seckler’s voice added just the right dimension to the choruses of these songs, and again connecting bluegrass’ past to its present.

When I hear a bluegrass album featuring Curly Seckler—whether as part of Flatt & Scruggs, with Flatt in the Nashville Grass, or later as the leader of that band, or on one of these solo recordings or in a guest appearance—I lean in close because I know what I am going to experience is perfect bluegrass.

With Mr. Seckler’s death, another link to the ‘first generation’ of bluegrass is severed. Fortunately, there are many recordings featuring Mr. Secker available, if not readily, and decades of vinyl to uncover while perusing dusty bins on Saturday afternoons. I’ll continue to seek out his recordings, and to listen to his voice and his mandolin and guitar playing—I hope—until I’m 98.

{Thank you to Penny Parsons for her timely sharing of the notes to Bluegrass, Don’t You Know and her obituary for Mr. Seckler: much appreciated.}

 

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