With his trademark mandolin style and unequaled tenor harmonies, Curly Seckler has carved out a seventy-seven-year career in bluegrass and country music. His foundational work in Flatt and Scruggs's Foggy Mountain Boys secured him a place in bluegrass history, while his role in The Nashville Grass made him an essential part of the music's triumphant 1970s revival. Written in close collaboration with Mr. Seckler and those who know him, Foggy Mountain Troubadour is the first full-length biography of an American original. Penny Parsons follows a journey from North Carolina schoolhouses to the Grand Ole Opry stage and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, from boarding houses to radio studios and traveling five to a car on two-lane roads to make the next show. Throughout, she captures the warm humor, hard choices, and vivid details of a brilliant artist's life as he crisscrosses a nation and a century making music.
About the Author
Music journalist Penny Parsons is Curly Seckler's manager and a regular contributor to bluegrass publications.
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Foggy Mountain Troubadour
The Life and Music of Curly Seckler
By Penny Parsons
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Down in Caroline
In the spring of 2001, after the funeral of fiddler Benny Martin at Forest Lawn cemetery near Nashville, a fan approached eighty-one-year-old Curly Seckler. "Mister Seckler," he said, "you have done so much. You started with the great Charlie Monroe, and then came to Nashville and helped create the Foggy Mountain sound. You've been just like a trademark in country music. There's nothing you haven't seen, nothing you haven't done. You continue to innovate, write new songs, make new records. What is your next career move?"
With a twinkle in his eye and a quiver of his lip, Curly replied, "Well, I guess Forest Lawn."
Though Seckler was joking, as he was prone to do, he had no idea how wrong he would turn out to be. For this pioneering bluegrass entertainer, who began his career a decade before the first note of bluegrass music was ever played, there was much still to come.
John Ray Sechler was born on a farm near China Grove, North Carolina, on Christmas Day in 1919. His baby pictures show that he was born bald, but once his hair finally began to grow in, his family just called him "Curly."
The name John is a derivative of the Hebrew name Yohanan, which means "Graced by God." Though he would rarely be known by his given name, John Sechler would indeed experience grace many times through his long and often challenging life. Curly Seckler, as he preferred to call himself, was a survivor.
Curly was proud of his rural heritage, and he never "got above his raising," although he would become a legendary figure in the music world. He enjoyed being affectionately known to bluegrass music fans as the Old Trapper from China Grove while readily admitting he knew virtually nothing about trapping. The dry, self-deprecating sense of humor that led him to accept and embrace that moniker, bestowed on him by Lester Flatt, would serve Seckler throughout his life, captivating a legion of family, friends, and fans. Seckler would reinvent himself many times during his eight-decade career, but he always stayed true to his roots and, as he would say, "kept it down to earth."
Curly's roots were planted deep in the fertile soil of Rowan County, in the heart of the North Carolina foothills. At Rowan's center, about halfway between the cities of Charlotte and Greensboro, lies the town of Salisbury. Established as the seat of Rowan County in 1755, Salisbury was the economic and political center of western North Carolina by the time Curly's ancestors arrived. In the mid-i8oos it became a hub on the newly built North Carolina Railroad line, which extended from Goldsboro to Charlotte. The railroad brought workers and visitors to the area and enabled local farmers and manufacturers to transport their goods to new markets, further boosting Salisbury's economy. By 1900 about 20 percent of the residents of Rowan County lived in Salisbury. The rest, many of whom were farmers like Curly's father, lived in small towns and hamlets that dotted the lush, rolling hills of this predominantly agrarian county.
Just eleven miles south of Salisbury, at the next train stop, sits the tiny town of China Grove. Named for the cluster of chinaberry trees that grew next to the depot, China Grove was incorporated in 1889. About that time it underwent a growth spurt, and businesses began to spring up. Among the first were a sawmill, a cotton gin, a chair factory, and the China Grove Roller Mill. One of the most successful was Patterson Manufacturing Company, a textile mill, which opened in 1893 on Main Street. In 1928 this facility became Plant #8 of the Cannon Mills textile empire, which employed thousands until its final demise in 2003.
Though cotton is no longer king in the southern United States, during the first half of the twentieth century it was the most important cash crop for farmers in Rowan County. Many of the farmers' sons and daughters of Curly's generation saw the cotton mills as their ticket out of the fields. By the late 1920s the North Carolina Piedmont was the world's foremost cotton textile manufacturing area, with over six hundred mills within a hundred-mile radius of Charlotte.
The other important sources of income for Rowan County farmers were grains such as wheat, oats, and corn, food crops like tomatoes and melons, and dairy cows. Most farm families like Curly's were essentially self-sufficient, since they could raise most of their own food and could trade for staples such as sugar and salt. Farmers tended to have large families, which meant a ready-made workforce. Workdays were long, and there was little time for socializing. The only regular gathering place for hard-working families in a tight-knit community such as China Grove was the church. For the Sechlers, it was Mount Zion, the church that had served them for five generations.
According to the Sechler family genealogy, the original John (Johannes) Sechler and his wife Anna Maria immigrated to Pennsylvania in about 1730, most likely coming from the part of Europe now known as Germany. They attended the German Reformed Church at New Goshenhoppen, near East Greenville. John and Anna Maria's son Frederic, born in 1743, married Mary Magdalena Fischer and, in 1767, their first son, Rudolph, was born.
In 1786 Frederic and Mary packed up their family and moved south. The Sechlers were part of a mass migration from Pennsylvania to the Southeast along what became known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. This path, which was originally created by the Iroquois Indians for hunting and trading, was traversed by vast numbers of English, Scots-Irish, and Germanic settlers. It ran through central Pennsylvania, western Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina to the Georgia coast.
The Sechlers settled in North Carolina along with many other Germanic colonists from the Moravian, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. In the early 1750s a group of Moravians had established the community of Wachovia in what is now Forsyth County, and a Lutheran congregation had settled in Salisbury. Soon there were three German Reformed congregations in Rowan County. A focal point of the early settlement that became China Grove was the Savits Meeting House, which served immigrants of Lutheran and Reformed faiths. Near the site of the old Savits church and cemetery, the Reformed congregation built Mount Zion Reformed Church in 1844.
Most of the early Germanic immigrants were farmers. They were thrifty, resourceful, and hard-working, and they thrived in the temperate climate of North Carolina. Many of them were skilled craftsmen as well, so they tended to be autonomous and for the most part remained sequestered within their own rural communities. They usually married within their own church group, so certain last names recurred often. Records showed that the last names of many German colonists were corrupted by the British clerks of the day, who spelled them phonetically. Thus Karriker became Corriher, Friess became Freeze, Bieber became Beaver, Nantz became Nance, and so on. In various records the Sechler name was spelled Segler, Sickler, Seckeler, Seekler, and Seeclear.
It is likely that Frederic Sechler decided to make the move to North Carolina after hearing reports from other successful settlers. Whatever the reason, he and Mary made the journey south and bought 256 acres of land on Grant's Creek in Rowan County. By 1790 their son Rudolph was married, and in 1792 he and his wife Barbara welcomed their first child, John, who was Curly Seckler's great-grandfather. In 1819 John Sechler married Tenny Correll. They had two daughters and one son, Curly's grandfather Enos.
Enos Sechler married Mary Ann Corriher in 1858. In August 1862 he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was captured at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, in May 1864 and confined at Point Lookout, Maryland, until June 1865. Following Enos's return home, his family grew to include eight children. When Enos Sechler died in 1911, three of his sons and one daughter were still living in China Grove. His obituary in the Reformed Church Standard stated that he had been a lifelong member of Mount Zion and that he "was an old Confederate veteran and a splendid citizen." The Sechler family in general seems to have been civic-minded. Enos's cousin General Andrew Jackson Sechler (his given name) was China Grove's first mayor and its second postmaster.
The youngest of Enos and Mary Ann Sechler's six sons was Curly's father, Calvin Burgess Sechler, born in 1877. He married Mary Beaver on December 28, 1904. They had three daughters, Myrtle, Ethel, and Clara, and one son, Roy Lee, who was born in March 1912. According to Curly's sister Mary, the doctor who delivered Roy Lee was prone to drinking on the job and was careless about sterilizing his instruments. On April 8, 1912, Mary Beaver Sechler died, apparently of an infection she contracted during childbirth.
Calvin soon found a new mother for his children in Carrie Melissa Fleming. They married on March 15, 1914. She was pregnant with their first child when three-year-old Roy Lee contracted diphtheria and died in July 1915.
Calvin and Carrie Sechler had eight children. The first, Marvin Richard, was born on October 2, 1915. Then came Emma Ruth on August 17, 1917, George Enos on October 5, 1918, and John Ray (Curly) on December 25, 1919. Mary May was born on February 21, 1921, followed by Floyd Lee on August 22, 1922, Duard Calvin on April 1, 1925, and Hugh Franklin on September 13, 1928.
The Sechlers lived several miles northwest of China Grove on 150 acres of land that Calvin had purchased after his first marriage. Like his Germanic ancestors, Calvin was a farmer with many skills. He cut timber from the land to build a two-story, nine-room house, a barn, and various outbuildings on the farm. He also provided timber to rebuild nearby Mount Zion Church after it burned in 1918. He grew cotton, wheat, corn, oats, barley, hay, and sweet potatoes and raised cows, hogs, and chickens. Calvin's older brother Jim, who never married, lived with the family and helped manage the farm.
Curly and his sister Mary, who was just fourteen months younger, had colorful memories of family life in the 1920s and 1930s. The Sechlers had no electricity or running water, so their cooking was done on a wood stove and the food was kept in an icebox on the back porch. They carried buckets of well water and heated it over a fire for bathing. Mary and her sisters washed clothes by hand with homemade soap made from lye, wood ashes, and hog fat. Later the family had a gas-powered washing machine, but Curly and his brothers still had to haul water, heat it in large pots over a fire, and then pour it into the washing machine.
There was always plenty to eat. "Myrtle baked pies all day on Saturday, and we'd eat them on Sunday," Mary said. She recalled that Curly would take an entire egg custard pie, fold it in half, sit on the porch steps, and eat it in one sitting. "And now I don't care for them!" Curly laughed. "Our mom cooked a big pan of biscuits every day," he added, "and she bought peanut butter in gallon buckets. We had two gardens. We always raised about three hogs every year, to kill along about Christmas so we'd have plenty of meat and lard." Mary recalled, "Sometimes my daddy would go and get a big mackerel on Saturday, and we would have it Sunday morning and go to church smelling like fish!"
Calvin needed two cars to transport his growing family. "He bought the second car, a T-model Ford, to get us all to church," Curly said. "All of us kids ran out to see that new car. I'll never forget, he said, 'Look, but don't touch!' And then he burst out laughing."
The Sechler children received what formal education they had at the two-room Deaton School, about a mile from the farm. Curly was always self-conscious about his sixth-grade education, but in those days his opportunities for learning were severely limited. In the 1920s Rowan County was divided into eighty school districts, each with one school comprising grades one through seven. Most of the schools were in rural farming communities, and often families within the community donated the land and materials to build the schools. The name of the school was the surname of the owner of the property on which the school was built. The teachers were frequently recruited from the community, and their qualifications were minimal.
"I just didn't learn nothing down there in that schoolhouse," Curly stated. Mary added, "It wasn't none of us kids' fault, it was the teachers." She recalled one lovesick teacher who "sat there and cried all day long," and another who told their brother Marvin "not to come back because he knew more than she did. We kept telling them that we wasn't learning nothing. We got all A's, but we wasn't learning nothing!"
As it turned out, Curly actually learned one of the most important lessons of his life at Deaton School. "That's the first time I did any singing at all, was in that school," he said. "They always had plays at the end of the school year, and they got us up singing. I was singing some regular stuff, and decided I'd go up and hit a couple of high notes, and I said, 'Good Lord!' I didn't know I could do that!"
Curly was only nine years old when his father Calvin passed away on June 15, 1929. For several years Calvin Sechler had suffered with kidney problems, and he was being treated for Bright's disease. When Marvin Sechler had hurt his leg playing baseball in 1924, his father had taken him to Dr. Levi Gibson, a respected African American doctor in nearby Landis. The doctor had referred Marvin to a specialist, then had taken one look at Calvin and diagnosed kidney stones. Sure enough, when Calvin had gone for x-rays, they had shown large stones in both kidneys. Mary recalled that Calvin suffered terribly for the next five years. "He had spells of it, and he passed a lot of them, but this [last] one was too big, and he couldn't pass it. I wasn't very big, but I remember that day very well. I remember them coming and getting him. He was blue when he left our house, and they took him over to Winston, and they never did bring him back, until they called and told us that he'd passed away."
Calvin Sechler was only fifty-one years old. He left behind a wife and ten children at home (Curly's half-sister Ethel was married by this time), the youngest of whom was nine months old. Though Carrie encouraged Calvin's brother Jim to stay on with the family, he felt that it would be inappropriate to do so and moved to Miss Beaver's boarding house in Landis, five miles away. Luckily the farm was paid for. Curly's half-sisters, Myrtle and Clara, were in their twenties and could help with the cooking and other home chores. The older boys were responsible for supplying most of the family's meat. "In the evening my mom would say, 'Well, son, you'd better get your gun and see if you can get up a squirrel or two,'" Curly said. "And every chance we'd get, we'd go rabbit hunting. We had two beagle hounds, Spot and Brownie. You come out with that shotgun, boy, they was ready to go! We had the icebox plumb full of rabbit meat. My mom could make the best fried rabbit you ever eat."
Curly and his brothers were not yet old enough to manage the farm chores, so Carrie enlisted the help of some African American neighbors. "My mother would call Jim Pinkston," Curly said. "He had two sons, Robert and Thelma. She would get them to come and clean out the stables and shock the corn. They were just as nice as they could be to us kids. We had rows of peach trees, and we would take peaches to them and let them take a break so we could hear them sing. They'd sing some of them old songs. They'd say, 'Do you know what one bird would say to the other one? Bob White. Is your wheat ripe? Not quite, not quite.' And us kids would just eat that stuff up."
When it came time to pick cotton the whole family would help. "We'd raise about twenty acres of cotton, and you'd get about a bale and a half to the acre," Curly recalled. "We'd pick a bale or so in a day, with all of us in the cotton patch. My mom was the best cotton picker of the whole bunch. She picked with gloves on, and she'd have the fingers [cut] out of them. She'd get way up the row and she'd look back and see which young 'un was so far behind, and she'd go over and help him catch up."
Excerpted from Foggy Mountain Troubadour by Penny Parsons. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Eddie Stubbs, ix,
CHAPTER 1. Down in Caroline: 1919–1939, 1,
CHAPTER 2. The Adventures of Smilin' Bill: 1939–1944, 16,
CHAPTER 3. Don't This Road Look Rough and Rocky: 1945–1949, 43,
CHAPTER 4. Creating the Foggy Mountain Sound: 1949–1952, 71,
CHAPTER 5. Climbing the Ladder with Flatt and Scruggs: 1952–1954, 102,
CHAPTER 6. Goodness Gracious, It's Good: 1955–1962, 121,
CHAPTER 7. Traveling Down This Lonesome Road: 1962–1972, 143,
CHAPTER 8. The Nashville Grass: 1973–1994, 157,
CHAPTER 9. The Old Man Has (Not) Retired: 1995–2014, 185,
Selected Listening, 221,
List of Interviews, 227,
General Index, 229,
Song Index, 239,