Penny Parsons is a very precise person, the sort who notes that she was born the same year “The Flatt & Scruggs TV Show” went on the air (1955). So it’s entirely in character that she remembers the exact date of her big bluegrass conversion experience: Sept. 16, 1972, during her freshman year at Guilford College.
“That was the first time I saw Lester Flatt and Nashville Grass play,” Parsons said. “And it changed my life. I was just transfixed by the whole thing, students dancing in the aisles by the end. Marty Stuart had just joined the band, two weeks before his 14th birthday. Seeing him up there was inspiring because I wasn’t much older than he was.”
But rather than taking that inspiration into playing the music, Parsons became one of the unsung heroes of bluegrass nation. She has been to every single International Bluegrass Music Association convention dating back to the early years in Kentucky while working long stints at Sugar Hill Records and Merlefest, also becoming one of the top journalists in the field.
The latter capacity earned Parsons a nomination for one of IBMA’s Special Awards, which focus on people behind the scenes. Parsons is one of five nominees for Bluegrass Print/Media Person of the Year – mostly on the strength of her book, “Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler.” The award will be presented at Thursday’s Special Awards Luncheon.
Parsons has won an IBMA Award before, Recorded Event of the Year for co-producing the 1989 album “Classic Country Gents Reunion.” But she admits this one would mean a lot more to her because of her book’s subject, China Grove native Seckler, the IBMA Hall of Famer who became something like a surrogate father to Parsons over the decade-plus that she worked on the book.
The one I won before was a thrill and an honor, but this one is special because I feel like I’d be winning it for Curly.
Penny Parsons, who wrote a book about Curly Seckler
“The one I won before was a thrill and an honor, but this one is special because I feel like I’d be winning it for Curly,” Parsons said. “He’s an unsung hero, one of those guys who put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the music without getting a whole lot out of it. He quit for a lot of years to drive a truck and made three times as much money doing that as he had as a sideman.”
Even when Parsons was working in marketing, she was more inclined toward bluegrass history and writing about it.
“Penny was my first employee, and I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from her complete dedication and passion for bluegrass,” said Barry Poss, founder of then-Durham-based Sugar Hill Records. “She’s a wonderful fan and scholar of the music.”
Parsons had met Seckler a time or two over the years, usually at folk festivals. But their first substantive meeting came in 2003, when she went to Seckler’s home in Tennessee to interview him for a story in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.
Hearing all his stories about the Monroe Brothers and the early days of bluegrass made Parsons think he might be a good subject. And like any good fan, she was also overcome with emotion.
“After we met, I was driving away and listening to Curly’s first solo album in the car,” Parsons recalled. “And I had tears streaming down my face because I knew I’d been to the well – met the person who was the embodiment of bluegrass for me. Curly was playing music 10 years before there ever even was bluegrass.”
Parsons started researching and interviewing Seckler and his associates for the book, which wound up being a 12-year project. For all his colorful stories, Seckler had a difficult life that included multiple marriages, plus a stretch when his children were in an orphanage. Parsons sugarcoats none of this in “Foggy Mountain Troubadour.”
Nevertheless, that didn’t stop a close relationship from forming between writer and subject. Along the way, Parsons also came to serve as manager, booking agent and confidant for Seckler and his wife, who eventually came to feel like family – especially since Parsons’ own parents had died in a car accident when she was 18.
Seckler is 96 years old now and passes his days in an assisted-living facility. Even if Parsons doesn’t win her IBMA nomination, finishing the book in time for Seckler to see it was something of a victory.
“Without getting too philosophical about it, I think we were meant to hook up,” Parsons said. “It’s been good for both of us. Curly and his wife are like another set of parents. Eloise once told me I was just like one of her own. And Curly said, ‘I never had a daughter but if I had, I wish it’d been you.’”
For any author, closeness to the subject is a two-edged sword. But Parsons managed the neat trick of maintaining just enough writerly distance to make it work on the page.
“Penny did a huge amount of research with radio logs, newspapers of the time, travel schedules,” said Laurie Matheson, her editor at University of Illinois Press. “You can’t rely on anybody’s memory from years ago, whether they’re 90 or 50 or 20. So she was extremely thorough in corroborating what Curly and his associates told her. A win for this book would be huge, and very well-deserved.”
Special Awards Luncheon
11 a.m. Thursday in the Fourth Floor Ballroom of the Raleigh Convention Center. See ibma.org