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Peter Guralnick’s ‘real-life novella’ about Maine’s legendary Dick Curless

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Peter Guralnick is, arguably, America’s most substantial music writer. When I saw that the title of his first book in five years was called “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing,” the first thought that came to mind was that the title could not be more apt. Probably more than any other author of music-related books I’ve encountered, Guralnick has the ability to transport you from your present domain to the environs of his subjects where you can almost touch, see, smell, taste, and hear what they do. The reader gets lost in the best of ways when reading a Guralnick book or profile.

My bookcase at home is trembling from the weight of Guralnick’s work, including his first compendium of artist profiles, “Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues, Country and Rock and Roll,” released 50 years ago, his staggering and definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley (“Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love”), his methodical account of the life of a soul legend (“Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke”), the myth-busting “Searching for Robert Johnson” and his masterfully crafted bio on one of the true OGs, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Each book left a deep imprint on this reader, while also serving as literary companions to the musical dives they inspired while reading.

In “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing,” an anthology of profiles, old, new, and revised, Guralnick tells stories that no other writer could have told by going deep into the lives of his subjects to give us not a comprehensive summation of events but to ultimately reveal the truths that drew him, and quite possibly us, to their light.

Guralnick revisits some subjects in this book that he’d previously written about for publications like Rolling Stone (back when that byline was worth its weight in gold), including Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Colonel Tom Parker, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Each pulls back the curtain on another part of their story that we didn’t know or hadn’t considered. I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of Chuck Berry, but his chapter “Meeting Chuck Berry” made me feel that I was actually tagging along, first in 1967 and again 44 years later.

Guralnick’s interview with Eric Clapton contained in the book comes from a three-hour Q&A (possibly the only interview like this Peter has done) from 1990 that goes deep into the blues while managing some twists and turns that find Clapton uncorking areas I’ve never heard him discuss.

Among Guralnick’s newly written profiles in “Looking to Get Lost,” the chapter on Maine’s Dick Curless stands out not only for its scope (it is the longest in the book at 70 pages) but for the emotional impact left upon the reader at its conclusion. Guralnick came to know Dick Curless late in the singer’s life, and as the author reveals in his book, and again during my interview with him, Dick made an impression like no other.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more taken with anyone on first acquaintance than I was by Dick Curless,” Guralnick writes in the introduction to his profile “Dick Curless: The Return of the Tumbleweed Kid.”

People think they know the story of Dick Curless, the tall figure with that rich baritone and trademark eye-patch that burned up the national charts back in the 1960s with the truck-driving anthem about that lonesome stretch of road up in the Haynesville woods, “A Tombstone Every Mile.” It’s still a cool song but it was really a snapshot, a moment in time in the life of a Mainer who dared to stop being a big fish in a small pond by taking the risks necessary to get his bite of the apple. Along that path, he found triumph and deep pain, success and rejection, sin and redemption. And at the end, he knew what was most important.

Guralnick says he spent two or three years working on his Dick Curless profile. During my interview with Guralnick for this story, we spoke of a number of the artists profiled in his new book, but the lion’s share of the conversation dealt with Dick Curless, as does this Maine Edge cover story.

An conversation with Peter Guralnick about “Looking to Get Lost”

The Maine Edge: As you interviewed and wrote about some of the legends profiled in this book, or in some of your earlier work, did you have to overcome any suspicions they may have had about writers in general as a result of being burned by journalists in the past?

Peter Guralnick: That wasn’t a problem because most of these people hadn’t been written about. The suspicion came more of me as a person. I always felt I had to portray myself as honestly as I could. I couldn’t present myself as the ultimate hipster – I couldn’t carry it off – but I also didn’t want to masquerade as anything. I’m not talking about black and white, when I presented myself to Charlie Rich, or Waylon Jennings, or Merle Haggard, I had no more in common with them as far as background went, than I did with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, or Robert Pete Williams. I just had to present myself honestly. I was there out of my admiration for them and their work.

When I first met Charlie Rich in 1970, he was playing (Memphis jazz lounge) The Vapors, out by the airport. He played six sets a night that started with a tea dance and went late into the night. Charlie told me a tale of such sadness. He talked about his alcoholism, his guilt, about all these things. I didn’t do anything to bring this out of him except to listen and to ask him about things that were important to him. His wife, Margaret Anne, tried to modify what he was saying by sort of putting a glossier spin on it but he wouldn’t have any of it. When I wrote the chapter for “Feel Like Going Home,” I wanted to treat him as great of an artist as I felt he was and I wanted to deal with the story he told me with honesty.

It’s easy to show people up if that’s your inclination, there’s nothing good about it. I wanted to present Charlie honestly, but I thought at the time this is terrible, I like Charlie and Margaret Anne so much, I’ll never see them again because I have to write the truth.

I remember after the book came out, I got a call from Charlie, which was a very rare thing in the 25 years that I knew him, he just didn’t like the phone. He said “What you wrote, it was hard to read sometimes, but it was honest and that’s all that counts.” My publisher told me Charlie bought 30 copies to give out to family. It might not have ended up like that, but I was bound by two things: To show my respect for Charlie and my admiration for his art, but also to be true to the subject I was writing about.

Dick Curless: The Return of the Tumbleweed Kid

The Maine Edge: The section on Dick Curless will be of great interest to people in this area, it’s an incredible piece of work. What was it about Dick Curless that drew you to him?

Peter Guralnick: I’d been introduced to him earlier but really came to know him at the last session he did (1994 recordings for his last album “Traveling Through” issued in 1995 on Rounder Records). He was determined to make his statement for the world, for eternity. He didn’t know he was dying; he’d had various illnesses for a while, but he didn’t appear to be in any worse shape than he’d been for many years. He brought in the intention to make a statement that really said everything he could say about himself and his music. He was so composed, he was so inspiring, and had such a sure sense of himself. He was so welcoming to every single person involved in the project. My son, Jake, was producing the sessions, and he and Dick had talked about it a great deal ahead of time. He was as inclusive as anyone I’d ever met. Someone like Charlie Rich, for example, was a total loner, he was agoraphobic. Dick was somebody who reached out to people and he had so much to offer them. In the studio, he was an encapsulation of everything anyone could have hoped for, not just from a session, but from a gathering.

The Maine Edge: The descriptions of Dick’s early life up in Fort Fairfield really resonated with me. Did you do any research up in Aroostook County?

Peter Guralnick: Dick was my research captain and he described it so vividly. As I’ve said, I try to immerse myself totally. When he described going off into the woods, when he described his father, ‘big Phil’ and the way he could maneuver those big machines in the woods, the world they lived in, and the way he sang his first song standing up on a barrel or something, those are things that came to life for me from Dick’s description. I went up to Bangor to see Dick on the farm, and then (his wife) Pauline too.

I’ve never seen research as research per se. Research has always been a way of trying to get into the world, and any way I can get in, I’ll get in (laughs) but I’ll give you an example. With Elvis, I walked all around Memphis, trying to follow the same path Elvis had walked. In some respects it wasn’t possible because interstates had cut across the places he’d lived or the route he would take to school. With Sam Cooke, I went all over Chicago with Sam’s brother, L.C. looking for places where they had snuck in tripe sandwiches into the movie theatre (laughs) and where their father had ministered. In Dick’s case, that wasn’t the entry point.

The Maine Edge: During sessions for Dick’s last album, “Traveling Through,” what do you recall about how he interacted with the other musicians?

Peter Guralnick: People were just mesmerized by Dick, and they threw themselves into it. You can say ‘Oh, it was his voice,’ and his voice was absolutely beautiful, but the musicians would get so caught up in what he was conveying through his voice that they would lose their place in the song. These were great, professional musicians, all of whom had a great deal to say on their own. I wouldn’t blame you if you said ‘Peter, you must be exaggerating,’ but I went back to them and we talked about this very thing. It was as if Dick had a message to convey.

Dick was born-again and he pointed to that as the turnaround in his life. That had occurred maybe 20 years earlier, sometime around the bicentennial. I should know off the top of my head because he would always state the date. But that isn’t what it was, he wasn’t trying to convert anybody. He was simply trying to convey a message of not just hope and change (laughs), it was a message of realism.

He saw the change in his life, his renunciation of pills, let’s say, as setting aside previous things he had done. On the other hand, he didn’t know if he might fall back into it. In Johnny Cash’s case, he always said ‘the pills just keep speaking to me.’ In Dick’s case, he was determined to sing songs and convey a message – even just in his conversations – about the world as it was. It wasn’t a fairy-tale world, it could be a hard world sometimes, and you did talk about it so could people could take a lesson or an example from it, so they wouldn’t think they were set apart by their own fears or concerns, that these were the common fears and concerns of all of us. That’s what was so inspiring about Dick.

I wrote the liner notes for the album “Traveling Through” which was emotionally difficult because it didn’t come out until after Dick died. He came up with the title for the album when he was at Togus, the VA hospital in Augusta. We were all sitting around weeping and moaning, wondering what name could we come up with that does justice to the greatness of the music, and the greatness of the spirit, and he just came up with that simple title, “Traveling Through,” from the song. That’s what he saw himself doing.

From that time, I absolutely had it in mind that I wanted to write about Dick but I couldn’t define what it was. I never wanted to go into writing a story or doing an interview with an idea of how it’s going to end up. I don’t know how it’s going to end up.

Dick died in the spring of 1995, and then I went and interviewed Pauline, his wife, maybe six months later. She was very generous, both with her time and with her insights. I had it in mind that I was going to write about it. I didn’t keep putting it off, but I wasn’t sure of its exact form. It wasn’t going to be a biography. It turned into, I think, a real-life novella but it went in directions that surprised me.

That was one of the things that most compelled me to do this collection. It’s similar in some ways to “Lost Highway” but I wanted it to be different from any of the other books. It was as if my involvement was the through-line. That’s why the title mentions adventures, because it involves the adventures of the particular people I’m writing about, and they were my adventures too.


Ryan Curless, Dick’s grandson, on Peter Guralnick's ‘Looking to Get Lost’

I reached out Ryan Curless, whom I know through his work as drummer for Chris Ross and The North, to guage his reaction to the chapter about his grandfather in Peter Guralnick’s book.

The Maine Edge: What went through your mind as you read this chapter about your grandfather?

Ryan Curless: It’s tough to pin down one feeling about it because it’s a lot to take in. It was emotional and strange to read a story about your family. Even knowing that the book was being written and would be released, it’s a little surreal to read stories that you know from inside your household. A lot of the information in that chapter was new to me. My grandfather passed away a week after my seventh birthday, so I didn’t get any of the stories while he was still with us. Most of what I know has been relayed to me by other people. Along with speaking with my grandfather in-depth, Peter had access to everything. My aunt has been working with him for a long time. This book has been 20 years in the making.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum came last year and collected about 1,800 pounds of memorabilia and material that belonged to my grandfather. It’s all being cataloged and archived at the moment. They said they had never seen such a comprehensive collection from the beginning to the end of an artist’s career.

The Maine Edge: What do you think drew Peter as a writer to Dick’s life and music?

Ryan Curless: For anybody that was in a room with my grandfather, he left a lasting impression, and it seems like whatever Peter takes on for a subject, he goes really in-depth and he succeeded with this book. This will be the go-to reference material for my grandfather’s life and career moving forward. There’s not much more the family could ask for in terms of telling the story.

Last modified on Wednesday, 17 February 2021 13:51


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