A year ago this May, and just a few months after recording his final album, Traveling Through, for Rounder Records, Dick Curless — often called “The Baron of Country Music” and known for his black eye patch and rich baritone voice — died of a rare and inoperable form of stomach cancer. What follows is a look back at his life and a brief account of his final recording sessions.
Born in Maine and raised in Gilbertville, Massachusetts, Curless was unique among the mostly Southern-bred country singers of the ’50s and ’60s. He was born into a musical family of blue-collar Acadian stock. His father was a construction worker who played guitar and listened to Ernest Tubb and Cowboy Copas records. By the mid-’40s, Curless was in his teens and had learned how to pick and sing well enough to work in clubs. Soon his father hooked him up with a local performer named Yodeling Slim Clark who got “The Tumbleweed Kid” his own WARE radio show. In 1950, Curless recorded his first single, a 78 titled “The Coast of Maine”.
By this time, Curless was so hooked on performing that he took $100 set aside for a class trip to New York to buy his first Western suit. His rising career was interrupted in 1952 when he got his draft notice and was shipped off to Korea He saw just enough action to mess him up pretty bad before the war ended in ’53. He finished his tour of duty entertaining the troops on Armed Forces Radio as the “Rice Paddy Ranger” and even had a hit song called “China Nights”.
Back in the States in ’57, Curless appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” TV show and began recording on the Tiffany label. His big break came in 1965 with the release of “Tombstone Every Mile”, a song he and Don Fulkerson wrote and recorded on their own Allagash label. This trucking song about a dangerous stretch of road running through the Hainesville Woods in Maine’s Aroostook County was successful enough to be picked up by Capitol Records’ Tower subsidiary, which took it to #5 on the national charts in the spring of 1965.
With the success of “Tombstone”, Curless was big enough to tour with the likes of Buck Owens on his Traveling Road Show and found himself working crowds all over the country. He made his mark in Las Vegas and California, where he almost became a movie star. Legend has it that on the day he was supposed to meet with a Hollywood bigwig, he got a call from his wife in Maine; she was telling him about some big storm when suddenly the line went dead. Fearing the worst, Curless forgot about his meeting and hopped the next plane home only to find that everything was fine.
By the early ’70s, Curless’ brush with stardom and his hard-traveling lifestyle were beginning to take their toll. He had started drinking during the Korean War, and throughout his touring years, he suffered periodic breakdowns and had to check into VA Hospitals to dry out. In ’75, his ulcers got so bad that the surgeons had to remove a large part of his stomach. Forced to stop drinking, Curless found Jesus as he lay restless in bed one night.
Throughout the ’80s, he occasionally performed as part of “Country Gold” package shows with other C&W veterans such as Bill Anderson and Melba Montgomery, but he spent most of his time on his farm just outside Bangor, Maine. It wasn’t until late 1994 that he found his way back to the studio. With producer Jake Guralnick and a group of New England musicians, Curless went into the Longview Farm Studio, just a few miles from the where he had played his first gig, to put down what would be his last recordings.
Perhaps he knew that he had little time left. In his extensive liner notes for “Traveling Through”, acclaimed author Peter Guralnick (Jake’s father) recalls there were a number of times during the December ’94 session that Curless would half-jokingly announce, “This may be my swan song.” The musicians — Duke Levine, Denny Breau, Billy Conway, and Mudcat Ward — were taken aback by the emotional atmosphere in the studio as Curless put all his ailing body could muster into the sessions, all the while encouraging them to do their personal best.
The songs he chose for the recording are an eclectic mix, including classic country tunes such as Don Gibson’s “Just One Time” and Hawkshaw Hawkins’ “Rattle Snakin’ Daddy”; a 1929 Guy Lombardo hit, “I Get the Blues When It Rains”; and an Ivory Joe Hunter R&B tune, “Ever Since I Met You Baby”, which he reworked into a spiritual titled “Ever Since I Met You Jesus”. One particular highlight is Curless’ version of Hank Williams’ “When God Comes And Gathers His Jewels”.
Curless chose the title for this record, Traveling Through — a phrase from the traditional song “I Am A Pilgrim” — just a few days before he died. He made about a dozen records in his career, most of them now hard-to-find collectibles; his final work, thankfully, is readily available.