It’s easy to think of the late Dick Curless, Maine’s closest thing to an old-time country superstar, as a relic of another era. His iconic “Tombstone Every Mile” is approaching its sixtieth anniversary, after all, and the eye patch and embroidered suits that accompanied his late career are a kitsch that seems cartoonish today.
The brand-new collection “The Basement Tapes,” however, reveals a Curless who was ahead of his time in the early 1990s, pushing age 60, unafraid to explore his emotional relationships in songs largely recorded with only a guitar at his daughter’s request for a keepsake. In contrast to albums “Welcome to My World” and “Unplugged,” released in the 1980s, there’s no drenching reverb or pedal steel to emphasize the syrupy sweetness of his voice, but a naked intimacy that doubles down on his trademark sincerity. (The collection’s lead song, “Cottage in the Pines,” has even deeper Maine ties.)
In the album’s liner notes, compiled by daughter Terry Curless Chinnock and grandson William Chinnock to coincide with the Country Music Hall of Fame’s yearlong exhibit of Curless’ career, we’re told by writer Peter Guralnick that these are “demos.” That implies, though, an incompleteness, and nothing could be further from the truth.
The 21-song collection (available for now only on CD at Bull Moose and via download from DickCurless.net) comprises two sessions. The first 16 tracks stem from a self recording in Curless’ home Nashville studio in 1990, with the late Bill Chinnock (who started a rocker in Asbury Park, NJ, and ended up in Maine married to Dick’s daughter) as engineer. The last five are from 1993, recorded in Maine with Chinnock on harmonica, and released for the first time.
By 1995, Curless would be dead, at 63, of stomach cancer, having just recorded in Brookfield, Massachusetts, what many consider his masterpiece, “Traveling Through.”
Part of what makes that last album so strong is his vulnerability and self-awareness, apparent on a song like “Changing Times” — what can initially sound a bit like today’s men’s-rights types, pining for a past “where every cowboy could make his play” and “you could tell the good guys from the bad.” But in this 1990 “Basement Tapes” version, where the nostalgic pedal steel is stripped away, it becomes clear that Curless is mocking himself: “Maybe I’m holding on to the things I know/ Too stubborn to change, too scared to let go.”
“I’m just an old cowboy living in changing times,” he croons, his deep baritone a balm, and then he sort of talks to himself as in an aside, “I’m just an old cowboy,” and it feels like he’s just understood that for the first time.
Everything that made Curless so attractive — his resonant and pure vocals, his unapologetic appeals to faith and family, his playful turns of phrase — are ratcheted up on “The Basement Tapes.” Maybe that wouldn’t have played in the most-toys-wins ’80s or the irony-drenched ’90s, but in a contemporary moment where we’re barraged by artificial intelligence and deepfakes, this collection is a soothing antidote, a reminder of humanity’s power right in line with recent releases from fellow Mainers Kafari or Jonathan Balzano-Brookes.
When Curless brings it all to bear on “Remember Me,” a song he never recorded for anyone other than his daughter, it can be downright haunting: “I loved you madly/ I loved you badly/ Please/ Do you remember me.” And yet even in that direct appeal, there is a playfulness in that madly/badly couplet that shows Curless never takes himself too seriously.
We hear this, too, in the rollicking minute and 27 seconds of “Cupid’s Arrow” — “Well, if apes and bees can fall in love/ Then why should we stay single?” — and in the duets with Chinnock, which sound so much like the lo-fi efforts of string bands like the Dead South or Jamestown Revival, they could have been recorded last week.
Curless’s work on the well-known “Columbus Stockade Blues,” by Thomas Darby, is probably the pinnacle of the collection, from his a capella open on top of fingersnaps to the way his voice breaks with effort in the rousing verses. He sounds like a kid discovering the joy of acoustic blues for the first time, as though he’s breaking character, allowing himself to be vocally imperfect, just the once.
These peeks behind his well-polished veneer are the true treasure here, bringing Curless to life for a new generation of potential admirers. And, hey: That “Cupid’s Arrow” track has some very tiktokable clips.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed the wrong date for Curless’ album-release show. It is March 4.
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
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God.Damn.Chan – “flywimme” | With Bill Evans-style piano mixing with crisp snare beats, spacey keyboards, and clips of gospel vocals, Chan shows he’s a favorite producer of indie rappers for a reason, but doesn’t need their help on the full-length “DIRT!.”
Mike Maurice – “Forest Fire” | Hard not to hear some Dawes in the first single off the “Apartment Secrets” EP Maurice releases at Sun Tiki on March 3, a shimmering Americana.
Buck Edwards – “Hold My Beer” | How Buck hasn’t written a song with this title already, among his hundreds of releases, is sort of amazing, but this it’s right up his alley, a silly tale of backyard BBQ braggadocio.
Dylan Owen and Spose – “Take Care of Yourself” | Owen’s a small-town New York rapper finding a bit of success and here Spose gives him a lead verse that hits on one of his mantras: “You better help yourself cuz no one’s going to.”