Who was/is Dick Curless ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
When Dick Curless became an overnight sensation in 1965, he had already invested 15 years of hard work in the music business. All but lost in the hype and hoopla surrounding his hit record A Tombstone Every Mile were the formative years and nearly 100 previous recordings that yielded paydirt when Curless finally aligned his efforts to the public's taste.
The first 20 years of Dick Curless' career, including the earliest recordings by 'The Tumbleweed Kid,' are presented in detail in Bear Family's 5 CD boxed set (BCD 15882). This second box picks up where the first ended, and continues to the last of Curless' recordings for Capitol Records in 1973. It ends with an unexpected collection of home recordings that will be a revelation to Curless' fans, and a calling card for those who barely knew or understood his music.
With the facts of Dick Curless' life and career provided on BCD 15882, we have more latitude to reflect on the man himself, and his music. Curless' voice has always drawn attention. It was clear early on that he was more than just a country singer. For one thing, he was from Maine. That meant no country drawl; none of that familiar twang associated with country music. His voice, itself, was an invitation to critics who loved a challenge. "Think of Ray Price with a lot more soul," observed reviewer Matt Nozzolio. "Imagine Johnny Cash with Merle Haggard's control and range," suggested Jon Johnson. There were elements of truth in both comparisons, and others as well. In fact, the more deeply one dug into Curless' recorded work, the more obvious it became that this singer was not just a one-trick pony.
The music on this set begins in January, 1970, after Curless' recording contract had been transferred from Tower Records, the now-defunct subsidiary, to Capitol, the parent company. The search was on, indeed had been on since 1966, to repeat the magic of Curless' unexpected hit from a year earlier. Like most hit records, the process seemed effortless while it was happening. It was only after the dust had settled that the real work began - to recapture the success of A Tombstone Every Mile.
STUCK IN A TRUCK
In the five years between Curless' mega-hit and the final Tower session in 1969, it had become clear that Dick Curless was an artist trapped by a formula. He was almost universally perceived as a 'truck drivin', travelin' man.' That was his home territory, his road to success, and his most reliable payday.
In the movies, they call it type casting. Most artists caught up in such a force enjoy a love-hate relationship with their image, as well as the producers who enforce it. Curless was no different, and for good reason. Every session he did in 1970, and there were seven of them, contained at least one song with a direct reference to the road, trucks, or traveling. Though he might have sleepwalked his way through such material, Curless continued to comport himself like a professional, inspiring even the most mundane material with dignity. At the least, he knew that hit records were the lifeblood of his career. At this point, Curless was not writing or adapting his own material, so his revenue was confined to record sales and personal appearances. Both of those required having your name on the charts, and the best - or, at least, surest - way to the charts was by posing, yet again, as the hard traveling man, weary of the interstates and truckstops, yet slick in their ways.
And so Dick Curless continued to record in a familiar style. In turn, the public continued to do their part and buy his singles. Big Wheel Cannonball, from the first 1970 session, hit the charts and stayed there for 11 weeks, peaking at #27. Curless' next single (Hard, Hard Traveling Man), recorded three months later, also found the midrange of the charts (#31) and stayed there for 10 weeks. And, like clockwork, the very next record (Drag 'Em Off The Interstate, Sock It To 'Em, J.P. Blues) landed at #29 and stayed charted for 9 weeks. The pattern continued with his next single, Juke Box Man, recorded in November, 1970. It, too, stayed on the charts for 9 weeks, peaking at #41.
The pattern of middling success continued into the following year as well. 1971 began with Curless' next single Loser's Cocktail hitting the charts at #36 and staying around for 9 weeks. (The same session produced I Gave Up Getting Over You Today, a perfectly conventional piece of 1970s country music that anybody, without Curless' special gifts, might have recorded.) On the following day (February 4, 1971), Curless again indulged the ordinary with Old Ramblin' Alabama Me, yet on the very next track in the session (Sweeter Than Honey) turned his attention to material with a strong bluesy edge. Unfortunately, the material was released as album filler. Next, it was the old Joe Henderson R&B tune from 1962 Snap Your Fingers, charting at #40 and staying around for 10 weeks. (While the results may have been moderately successful for Curless, they were nothing compared to Randy Travis several years). The year continued with two more chart singles, January, April And Me hitting its peak at #34 and lasting for 11 weeks, and the easy going, but ultimately trite Stonin' Around, reaching #31 with a 9 week chart run.
By the end of 1971, the pattern of Curless' career had become pretty clear. He was a name everyone remembered from his one big hit. He still sold records in respectable but limited quantities to a core audience, and he still made a living on the road. But he was no longer a major artist. He had become a niche performer, guaranteed a certain degree of success, but unlikely to exceed it.
Dick Curless Hard, Hard Traveling Man (4-CD)
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