Curly Seckler’s story is a front row seat to bluegrass history

N.C.-born mandolin player Curly Seckler.
N.C.-born mandolin player Curly Seckler. Courtesy of Copper Creek Records

Curly Seckler isn’t necessarily a household name, not like fellow bluegrassers Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Lester Flatt or Earl Scruggs. But at one point or another, Seckler, born near China Grove, in 1919, played with all those guys and many more, giving him a front-row seat to the entire history of bluegrass.

Durham author Penny Parsons ushers us to a seat right next to Seckler, letting readers watch it all unfold in her book “Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler,” published in May by the University of Illinois Press for its Music in American Life series.

With a distinctive, rhythmic style on mandolin and a clear tenor voice perfectly suited for the plainspoken and heartbroken songs of bluegrass, Seckler earned a living – and respect – as a musician with Charlie Monroe (brother of Bill), Flatt and Scruggs, and the Nashville Grass, a key band in the 1970s traditional bluegrass revival. Until he took the role of Nashville Grass frontman when guitarist Lester Flatt died in 1979, though, Seckler didn’t get much spotlight.

“Early in his career he was a sideman, and he was happy to be in that role,” said Parsons, who will be at Quail Ridge Books Sunday, July 31, to talk about the book and perform with her band. “His role was a supporting role, and that was fine with him.”

The early days of Seckler’s music career make today’s tours, with their luxury buses and well-stocked green rooms, seem like a cakewalk. Up and coming bands would luck into regular radio shows (unpaid) that anchored them in a town – at least for a little while, until the area was “played out” and the band had to pick up and move. In those days, radio “prime time” was when the farmers and their families had a chance to listen: early morning and lunchtime. That left the evenings free for paying gigs in schoolhouses, theaters, under tents, wherever would have them within a drivable radius so they could be back for their early morning radio show the next day.

Seckler’s first big break came when he was hired by Charlie Monroe for the band he was putting together as he moved on from a stint at Raleigh’s WPTF in 1939. As he learned more about music and all the hard work that comes with it, Seckler also got a lesson in fashion: “ ‘Don’t never let me catch you up here in the studio again without a white shirt and tie. That’s 50 percent of your show, is how you dress,’ ” Seckler recalls Monroe telling him after Seckler arrived at a gig at West Virginia’s WWVA in a sports shirt. “And I ain’t never forgot that.”

In 1949, Lester Flatt asked Seckler to join him and Earl Scruggs in the Foggy Mountain Boys, a band whose star was rising fast and that would soon make bluegrass history with its recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” (If you’ve only heard one bluegrass instrumental song, this is probably the one. Most famously, it was used extensively in the 1967 Warren Beatty film “Bonnie and Clyde.”) In the 1950s, brother-like duets sung by Flatt and Seckler became another hallmark of the iconic bluegrass band.

By the early 1960s, Flatt and Scruggs’ sound was taking a more pop direction, and the ever-changing lineup eventually shed its mandolin player. Seckler, with a family to feed, used his experience from shifts driving the tour bus to start his own trucking business. It was hard to lure him away from the good pay and steady work of truck driving, but eventually he started performing again and recorded an album that included songs he’d written over the years. In 1973, thanks in part to the persuasive powers of a teenaged Marty Stuart, Seckler joined the Nashville Grass, a band Flatt put together after splitting with Scruggs.

“There was just this oak-tree-like presence that Curly brought back to that band,” Stuart, who played mandolin and guitar with the Grass, recalls in the book. “ …He hadn’t lost an inch of ground musically. He just sounded rested and revved and charged up, ready to go.”

In 2004, Seckler was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame, but he wasn’t resting on that or any other laurel – at that time, at the age of 84, he was in the midst of recording a new album, “Down in Caroline.” He would perform on friends’ albums and at festivals and other venues for nearly another decade, until age and health problems kept him home.

Parsons’ book is rich with detail, as much from her own diligent research as from Seckler’s own sharp memories and stories from people who have known him.

Parsons, who set out to interview Seckler for a magazine article in 2003 and ended up embarking on a book project and working as his manager, had her subject’s help throughout the book’s writing. He shared stories from his assisted living apartment in Hendersonville, Tenn., near Nashville, where he lives with his wife, Eloise.

“He enjoys telling stories, and he’s good at it,” Parsons says. You can almost hear him laughing through some of the stories Parsons relates in the book. “He always had a sense of humor about things. He went through a lot of adversity in his life, and the way he coped with that was with his sense of humor.”

Parsons says she hopes people reading “Foggy Mountain Troubadour” will learn about Seckler, the man, as well as his music. But she sees value in his stories beyond that, too.

“I want people to realize what this generation of musicians went through to pave the way for folks who are doing it now. They were creating this music,” she says, pointing out that most people peg bluegrass’ birth to 1945, when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band. “Curly, of course, had already been playing music for about 10 years before that as a professional. He was there and saw all of this and can tell about it. Pretty soon there won’t be anybody left who can do that.”

Meet the author

Penny Parsons will read from “Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler” and perform songs from Seckler’s career with her band, Four County Grass, at 2 p.m., Sunday, July 31, at Quail Ridge Books, now in its new location at North Hills, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh.