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Foggy Mountain Troubadour

By By Penny Parsons

University of Illinois Press, 272 pages, $22.95 paperback

Reviewed by Fred Smith, June 2016

Find it on Amazon
Curly Seckler was a key contributor to one of the iconic "first generation" bluegrass groups - The Foggy Mountain Boys. The group, formed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, after their nasty split from Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys in the later 1940s, featured Seckler on and off for nearly 15 years. Seckler's tenor complimented Flatt's lead on countless recordings, live shows and television appearances during the years of the Flatt/Scruggs sound.

Seckler may seem an unlikely subject of a full biography, but this book shows more than the arc of his career. Author Penny Parsons has done a meticulous job cataloging gigs, radio and televisions appearances, personnel changes and the odd story from the road. Telling Seckler's story enables Parsons to revisit the barnstorming spirit of bluegrass music at its beginnings with astonishing detail.

Seckler (born John Ray Sechler) came from humble beginnings, to say the least. He was born on Christmas Day 1919 on a farm near China Grove, N.C. He played music with his brothers and first caught on with a touring band playing mountain music (as it was called then) when he met Charlie Monroe, who had recently stopped touring with his brother, Bill, in The Monroe Brothers. Seckler's tenor voice called to mind brother Bill's, and Charlie offered a job to Curly to emulate the Monroe Brothers sound.

From there, "Foggy Mountain Troubadour" embarks on a dense, detailed and ultimately fascinating recounting of Seckler's musical affiliations and performances over the next 75 years. Seckler, age 96 at the time of this book's publication, quite literally has been there, and done that, in the bluegrass industry for nearly a century, and Parson's narrative leaves few stones unturned.

The detail (if not minutiae) of Seckler's career is part of the appeal of this book. Parson's research included oral interviews with Seckler, his musical brethren (those that survive) and extended bluegrass family members. She also spent a great deal of time in old newspaper archives and other historical records of the day piecing together who played with who, and when and where. The why of all this is generally in the background, assumed to be, variously, the need to be paid, the need to promote the next show and the love of the music. These were hardworking fellows, who played a circuit extending from North Carolina, Virginia, East and Middle Tennessee and West Virginia. They played as many "schoolhouses" and "courthouses" as they could, played live radio (and later, television) shows to get the word out and travelled countless miles on the circuit.

Parsons can be forgiven for the density of her reporting: there is something revealing and comforting in the endless detail of her narrative:

"Since Curly was unable to rejoin (Charlie Monroe's) Kentucky Partners in Knoxville that winter (1946), Charlie replaced him, possibly with Lavelle Coy or Slim Martin, who was listed as the tenor signer on Charlie's next recording session, on March 24, 1947. By that time Ira Louvin had also joined the band on mandolin. Ira had moved from Knoxville from Chattanooga in the summer of 1945, after his brother Charlie's enlistment in the army interrupted their career as a singing duo. Not long after Ira recorded with Charlie Monroe, Charlie Louvin was discharged from the army, and the brothers reunited in Knoxville. Charlie Monroe apparently disbanded his group and returned to Beaver Dam at the end of March; at least he placed no more window card orders with Hatch Show Print until August."

And that's just one paragraph on page 51 of Parsons' book. It's not name-dropping if you were really there, and Seckler was. Parsons, through painstaking research, has reconstructed a life and time that was probably never intended to be recorded, Note the reference to "Hatch Show Print" in the quote above. Throughout "Foggy Mountain Troubadour" Parsons is able to confirm dates, shows, lineups and locations from where and when band leader ordered their window cards to promote each show.

What emerges from "Foggy Mountain Troubadour" is the echo chamber of radio shows and television shows performed live daily to promote the touring of the bands. A band would have a regular gig (say, the "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round" on WNOX in Knoxville, Tenn.), play shows within the signal of the station, and then, once an area was, in Parsons' words, "played out" go on to a station in Roanoke, Va. or Bristol, Va. or Raleigh. The performers weren't riding an Airstream or playing with symphonies: this was a road of station wagons, eating on the fly and driving all night from a gig to get back to do a live radio show.

Parsons, in doing this research, has contributed greatly to the ability to understand, or at least, appreciate the barnstormers of the first generation of bluegrass music. Seckler never played with Bill Monroe until later in life, but Monroe looms over this narrative as the progenitor of the bluegrass form and also as the force against which Flatt and Scruggs sought to expand its reach.

Parsons has a light touch on details of Seckler's personal life. His second wife was beset with physical and mental issues, according to "Foggy Mountain Troubadour," after a bout with diphtheria. Seckler's two children appear here and there, but there's little effort to tie together his personal life and the performer's life. But "Foggy Mountain Troubadour" does not suffer for these gaps. There is a wealth of facts, stories, tales of personnel changes, and recording projects to fill the biographies of several men in "Foggy Mountain Troubadour." Seckler just happens to have lived it all, and Parsons has admirably shared it with the rest of us.