WESTBROOK, Maine — Nashville is country music’s wallet, the center of the rhinestone-industrial complex where hit records are produced, stars manufactured and money made by the hay wagonload.
But that city is not the definitive source of the music’s heart or soul.
That honor belongs to countless, far-flung American towns where genuine artists sing for something deeper than a paycheck. They toil away, in relative obscurity, mining the depths of human experience in places like Bakersfield, California, Austin, Texas, and Westbrook, Maine.
That’s according to noted American music historian and critic Peter Guralnick. His new book “Looking to Get Lost” chronicles Guralnick’s personal pantheon of great American artists like Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Solomon Burke and Maine’s own Dick Curless.
Guralnick will help pay tribute to Curless and other pioneering Maine country music artists onstage at Lenny’s Pub in Westbrook on Saturday night.
The pub is the former home of Event Records, where many of the state’s early country artists such as Curless, Al Hawkes, Hal Lone Pine, Betty Cody and Lenny Breau made some of their first recordings, beginning in the 1950s. Nationally renowned guitarist Bill Kirchen and Maine music heroes Memphis Lightning and Sean Mencher will also perform.
“Maine had a country music scene before the Grand Ole Opry went on the air,” Guralnick said. “And the New England scene wasn’t just an aberration.”
Guralnick, who grew up in Massachusetts, knows what he’s talking about. He’s the author of a definitive, two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, as well as authoritative books about singer Sam Cooke, bluesman Robert Johnson and legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. In 1994, Guralnick won a Grammy Award for his liner notes accompanying the album “Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club.”
Guralnick dedicates over 80 pages in his latest book to Curless, covering his entire career, starting with his chance meeting with New England country music star Yodeling Slim Clark around 1949.
Curless’ father was one of Clark’s drinking buddies. After hearing the son’s singing talents, Clark took him under his wing. He got Curless a regular slot on local radio as “The Tumbleweed Kid” while still a senior in high school.
In the early 1950s, Curless started playing bass for Hal Lone Pine and his wife, Betty Cody who had a nationally syndicated radio show broadcasting from WABI in Bangor. Their oldest son, Lenny Breau, often appeared with them and would go on to become one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time. Another son, Denny Breau is still a well-respected guitarist and songwriter in Maine.
“For Dick, it was like having a whole new extended family,” Guralnick wrote.
Then Curless was drafted by the U.S. Army. While serving, he started performing on Armed Forces Radio as the “Rice Paddy Ranger” in Korea.
After his Army stint, Curless came back to Maine and began his recording career with Al Hawkes at Event Records in Westbrook. After another full decade of performing mostly in New England, Curless had his breakthrough hit, the one he’s still mostly remembered for today: “Tombstone Every Mile.”
Penned by WABI copywriter Dan Fulkerson, the song went to number five in 1965, warning potato-hauling truckers of an icy road in “up north in Maine that’s never, ever, ever seen a smile.”
That song is everything most country music fans know about Curless, who died in 1994 at the age of 63. Guralnick said he wants people to understand Curless was a deeper, more profound artist than his sole top 10 hit might indicate.
“I wanted the opportunity to do justice to Dick, to write about the breadth of his talent,” Guralnick said. “He’s really the centerpiece of the book.”
Guralnick also chronicles the rest of Curless’ life and career — which reflected a fair amount of personal and professional struggle. It’s that uncompromising realness that continues to impress Guralnick today.
“Dick was always reaching out for the soul of the music,” he said. “He insisted on the true facts of human existence.”
And he did it mostly in New England, outside the Nashville system.
Guitar wizard Kirchen is a ground-breaking musician who also worked outside the Nashville establishment. Kirchen helped set the stage for the outlaw country movement of the 1970s with his own band, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. He then went on to play alongside the likes of Elvis Costello, John Lennon and Stevie Wonder.
He’s also a big Dick Curless fan, recording an album titled “Tombstone Every Mile.”
“When he heard about Lenny’s being where Dick recorded, he got all excited and asked if he could see where it all happened,” said Bucky Mitchell, a former drummer and booking agent for Curless. “It snowballed from there.”
Kirchen, Mitchell and Guralnick, who all go way back, soon settled on a night to appear in Westbrook together.
“It all just kind of fell into place,” Mitchell said.
Expecting a large crowd, Mitchell said the show will be held on a new stage, outdoors.
Bill Umbel, owner of Lenny’s, couldn’t be happier. Umbel sees the special show as a continuation of Maine’s musical heritage — which is why he bought the old recording studio and turned it into a music venue in the first place.
“There’s a spiritual connection” he said, noting that Memphis Lightning’s front man is only in his 20s. “We’re trying to cultivate the next generation here.”
With Kirchen, Mencher and Memphis Lightning playing on the bill, Guralnick said he’s a little unsure of what his part will be, since he’s not a musician, but will think of something.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do or say. I just want to be there to celebrate the occasion,” Guralnick said. “And who wouldn’t want to come to Maine in the summertime?”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Bill Kirchen’s name.