Of all of Maine’s many country music artists, no one is more iconic than Dick Curless, from his trademark eye patch and embroidered suits to his 1965 hit record, “Tombstone Every Mile,” the title track of which has become a veritable standard well beyond Maine, an ode to the trucking life. While Curless never quite hit the national big time (though he did tour with Buck Owens and put 20 songs on the Billboard country lists), there are any number of country historians who recognize his voice and songwriting as right up there with the likes of Hank Williams, Elvis, and Bobby Blue Bland.
In January, his profile will get a significant bump with the opening of “Dick Curless: Hard Traveling Man from Maine,” a year-long exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Beginning January 13, the display will include everything from his suede jackets and leather boots to his D-28 Martin guitar, with his signature stenciled onto the pick guard. There will also be a talk and performance on Feb. 18. That will be led by music writer Peter Guralnick, one of Curless’ biggest promoters in books like “Looking To Get Lost,” along with his son Jake Guralnick (who produced Curless’ swan song, the gospel-tinged “Traveling Through,” while at Rounder Records in 1995 just before Curless’ death) and Chuck Mead, co-founder of BR549.
Even better, to coincide with the event, Curless’ daughter Terry Curless Chinnock and grandson William Chinnock have plans to release “The Basement Tapes,” a 21-track collection of living room recordings done with Jersey rocker Bill Chinnock, who moved to Maine in the 1970s after being an integral early part of the Asbury Park scene that launched Bruce Springsteen. Chinnock married Terry and in 1990 all of them were living in Nashville, where Chinnock engineered Curless in his home studio, just his velvet voice and a guitar, so an aging Curless could ensure his family had a record of some of his favorite songs. Bill Chinnock died in 2007.
The new album will feature 16 of these tracks — which once got released in slightly different form as part of a four-CD box set on the German label Bear Family Records — “and then there are four of Dick playing with Bill on harmonica,” says Charlie Gaylord, host of the “Greetings from Area Code 207” radio show. Gaylord is helping the Chinnocks produce the album, for which Terry “literally found the reel to reel tape a month ago.” Finally, there is a version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” pulled from a discovered cassette tape.
From an early listen, it’s clear country fans should be thrilled with the newly found and refurbished material; Curless’ voice is remarkably warm and present, and his unique guitar style is ripe for close examination. What a treasure.
There is still a bit of work to do, though. The family hasn’t quite pinned down the dates of the recordings and are finishing up the liner notes, and there’s some hope of a party of some kind locally to celebrate the album’s release and the Hall of Fame exhibit. Stay tuned.