WESTBROOK, Maine – Nashville is the powerhouse of country music, the center of the rhinestone industrial complex where hit records are produced, stars made and money made by loading hay.
But this city is not the definitive source of the music’s heart or soul.
That honor belongs to countless faraway American cities where true artists sing for something deeper than a paycheck. They toil, in relative obscurity, exploring the depths of human experience in places like Bakersfield, California, Austin, Texas, and Westbrook, Maine.
So says American music historian and critic Peter Guralnick. His new book “Looking to Get Lost” chronicles Guralnick’s personal pantheon of great American artists like Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Solomon Burke and Maine’s Dick Curless.
Guralnick will help pay tribute to Curless and other pioneering Maine country music artists on stage at Lenny’s Pub in Westbrook on Saturday night.
The pub is the former home of Event Records, where many of the state’s early country artists such as Curless, Al Hawkes, Hal Lone Pine, Betty Cody and Lenny Breau made some of their early recordings, from the 1950s. Nationally acclaimed guitarist Bill Kirchen and Maine Memphis music heroes Lightning and Sean Mencher will also perform.
“Maine had a country music scene before the Grand Ole Opry aired,” Guralnick said. “And the New England scene wasn’t just an aberration.”
Guralnick, who grew up in Massachusetts, knows what he’s talking about. He is the author of a two-volume definitive biography of Elvis Presley, as well as authoritative books on singer Sam Cooke, bluesman Robert Johnson and legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. In 1994, Guralnick won a Grammy Award for his liner notes accompanying the album “Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club”.
Guralnick devotes more than 80 pages of his latest book to Curless, spanning his entire career, beginning with his chance encounter with New England country music star Yodeling Slim Clark around 1949.
Curless’ father was one of Clark’s drinking buddies. After hearing of the son’s singing talents, Clark takes him under his wing. He got Curless a regular spot on local radio as “The Tumbleweed Kid” while still a high school student.
In the early 1950s, Curless began playing bass for Hal Lone Pine and his wife, Betty Cody, who had a nationally broadcast radio show from WABI in Bangor. Their eldest son, Lenny Breau, often appeared with them and would go on to become one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time. Another son, Denny Breau is still a highly respected guitarist and songwriter in Maine.
“For Dick, it was like having a whole new extended family,” Guralnick wrote.
Curless was later drafted into the United States Army. While in service, he began performing on Armed Forces Radio as “Rice Paddy Ranger” in Korea.
After his stint in the military, Curless returned to Maine and began his recording career with Al Hawkes at Event Records in Westbrook. After another full decade of performing mostly in New England, Curless had his breakthrough hit, the one he still remembers today: “Tombstone Every Mile.”
Written by WABI editor Dan Fulkerson, the song peaked at number five in 1965, warning potato truckers of an icy road in “northern Maine that never, ever, ever saw a smile”.
This song is all most country music fans know about Curless, who died in 1994 at the age of 63. Guralnick said he wanted people to understand that Curless was a deeper, deeper performer than his top 10 alone might indicate.
“I wanted the opportunity to do Dick justice, to write about the extent of his talent,” Guralnick said. “He really is the centerpiece of the book.”
Guralnick also chronicles the rest of Curless’ life and career – which reflects a fair amount of personal and professional struggles. It is this uncompromising reality that continues to impress Guralnick today.
“Dick was always searching for the soul of the music,” he said. “He insisted on the real facts of human existence.”
And he did it mostly in New England, outside of the Nashville system.
Guitar wizard Kirchen is a groundbreaking musician who has also worked outside of the Nashville establishment. Kirchen helped set the stage for the outlaw country movement of the 1970s with his own band, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. He then played alongside Elvis Costello, John Lennon and Stevie Wonder.
He is also a big fan of Dick Curless, recording an album called “Tombstone Every Mile”.
“When he heard Lenny was where Dick recorded, he got excited and asked if he could see where it all happened,” said Bucky Mitchell, former drummer and booking agent for Curless. “It snowballed from there.”
Kirchen, Mitchell and Guralnick, who all date back a long way, quickly agreed on a night to appear together at Westbrook.
“It all kind of fell into place,” Mitchell said.
Expecting a large crowd, Mitchell said the show will be held on a new stage, outdoors.
Bill Umbel, owner of Lenny’s, couldn’t be happier. Umbel sees the special as a continuation of Maine’s musical heritage – which is why he bought the old recording studio and turned it into a music hall in the first place.
“There’s a spiritual connection,” he said, noting that the Memphis Lightning frontman is only 20 years old. “We are trying to cultivate the next generation here.”
With Kirchen, Mencher and Memphis Lightning on the bill, Guralnick says he’s not sure what his role will be, since he’s not a musician, but he’ll think of something.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do or say. I just want to be there to celebrate the occasion,” Guralnick said. “And who wouldn’t want to come to Maine in the summer?”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Bill Kirchen’s name.
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