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Thread: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

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    Default Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Richard “Dick” Nunneley
    December 26, 1953- October 23, 2010

    It is with deep sadness that I report the sudden death of my best friend and colleague, Dick Nunneley. Dick died from a freak accident in his home after entertaining out of town house guests. He was 56.

    Those of us who were fortunate enough to know Dick know of his incredible depth and genius far beyond his incredible mandolin and guitar playing. Dick’s style of mandolin playing was completely unique, innovative, and technically perfect. He was influenced not by the usual cast of characters, but by the likes of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, and, believe it or not, Claude Debussy. Dick would take a fiddle tune like Grey Eagle or Drunken Billy Goat, and by the time he was done with it, it was sprinkled with quotes from Debussy, that fit absolutely perfectly and, by the way, were serious finger twisters to play. His musical interests really had no boundaries that I know of. In one band that we were in together, String Theory, he brought in arrangements for everything from a Bach two part invention (He played his part on guitar and taught me the other part on mando.) to Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo ala Turk (in 9/8 time, no less). He had already recorded himself playing all the parts and had transcribed it when he came to practice.

    In the last 10 years or so, Dick had been playing bluegrass in a band he founded in the Midwest, called American Heifer. He was a total Jimmy Martin fan, and most of what they played was traditional or traditionally inspired music. Dick’s mandolin playing was impeccable, and like no other player I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard ‘em all). This was actually Dick’s roots. He was a bluegrasser, at heart. In his home state of Oklahoma, he was in a bluegrass group called, “The Sons of the Boutineers” (He named the band). From there along with his pal, Adam Granger, he discovered Django Reinhardt, and Benny Goodman. They formed a group in Minneapolis with bass player Gordie Able called the Eclectic Brothers. They were one of the hottest groups in the twin cities playing Goodman arrangements, Hot Club numbers, and tunes by John Hadley. Dick became an authority on Django, knew all the details of his life, every tune he had recorded, and could play Django’s breaks on the guitar perfectly. Maybe around the same time he discovered Scott Joplin and began to transcribe those rags for stringed instruments.

    Many mando players may know Dick or know of him from his co-founding and artistic contribution to the Mando Boys. Dick and Peter Ostroushko co-founded the group around 1984 and asked John Niemann and me to join. Dick and Peter wrote, arranged, and transcribed material that ranged from Bach to Benny Goodman to Scott Joplin (as well as several extraordinary compositions by Dick, like Waltz of the Nighthawks) for a traditional mandolin quartet: 2 mandos, a mandola, and a mandocello. It was a phenomenal body of work and rather ground breaking at the time. Dick played the straight man in the act (Yes, it was an “act”), made us all wear fezes, funny glasses, and take assumed names. On stage Peter played the leader, who spoke multiple languages, none of which were English, and Dick played the translator. It was a ton of fun, and for John and I a serious musical challenge keeping up with these two incredible musicians and trying to figure this stuff out from recordings and transcriptions. Dick would come to rehearsal with an idea for a new tune, but his “idea” had already been done by him. He had recorded all 4 parts (perfectly executed of course) and hand wrote beautiful transcriptions in musical notation and tab. It pushed John and me to our limits as musicians (We had previously played only bluegrass), but we both got much better because of it. This, as it turns out, was a theme throughout Dick’s life. He had amazing musical and intellectual skills, but he also was an inspiring teacher. I don’t know anyone who played with Dick who didn’t become a better player.

    His depth went well beyond music as shown by the numerous friends and relationships he had. Dick was a passionate educator. He earned his PhD from the University of Minnesota shortly after the Mando Boys split. From there he went on to the being one of the best professors the graduate education program at the U of M had ever seen. He always felt that the standards for education had been diluted, not by teachers (Teacher development; not teaching firing was his passion) but by the so-called “innovators” whose novelty curricula was more about promoting the theory of the day vs. getting to the point and actually teaching something. His quest led him to be the Executive Director of 2 different charter schools in Minneapolis. After returning to the U of M for another teaching post, he was recruited to be the Dean of Graduate Studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA. He had just begun that job around 4 months ago, but already had a plan in place for how to improve the program.

    While many of us dabble in certain things (myself included), that word did not exist in Dick’s vocabulary. Over the years he developed many interests, but unlike most people, he devoted his whole being to mastering whatever he took up – and he always did. He discovered golf in the mid 80’s and, as usual, I followed in his footsteps. Practically every time he’d visit, it would involve a round or too, followed of course, by several “malted beverages”, as he called them. While the game was a source of occasional frustration for him (It was one of the few things that defies perfection, which he always had to have), he nevertheless became an incredible player. He became a wine expert, (He always sent me his picks.) had an incredible garden, figured out the perfect way to smoke meat, and was a sports aficionado to name just a few things that come to mind. Everything he did, he did 100%. Anytime he decided to launch a new endeavor, even if it was just losing a few pounds, he researched it and by the time he had executed on it, he had figured out all the intricate details. He was an avid reader and researcher. Of all the Dick Nunneley quotes, the one I like the best (you’d have to know Dick to know this wasn’t a brag), was, “I know all there is to know. And I’ve catalogued it with infinite patience.” He was being a wise guy, but in a way it was true.

    Dick strived for perfection in everything, a trait that might have made life difficult for him at times. Some people may say he expected perfection in others as well. I don’t think that’s true. Because he is a teacher by genetic makeup, whenever he saw someone not living up to their potential, I think it frustrated him. When he saw someone trying to get better, regardless of ability, it made him happy.

    The amazing thing to me, though, is that someone so talented and gifted could be so generous. He was a warm and caring person, had a fierce sense of fairness, and always was respectful of others’ abilities and shortcomings. He was truly larger than life, a force of nature, and all the other similar descriptions. But to me, he was the best friend I’ll ever have and I’ll miss him every day.

    Joe Trimbach
    Asheville, NC
    Last edited by Scott Tichenor; Oct-27-2010 at 8:56am. Reason: minor edit at OP's request

  2. #2
    Registered User wildpikr's Avatar
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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Condolences to his family and friends...and that was a wonderfully well-written tribute to your friend. May he find everlasting peace.
    Mike

    Those who think they should think, like they think others think they should think, need to think out their thinking, I think.

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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    RD was a great mandolin player and a good friend. My heart goes out to his family and friends.
    Shelby Eicher

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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    This is certainly heart breaking news. We crossed paths in the days I lived in the Minneapolis area. Great musician and brilliant man. He will be missed.
    Have a Great Day!
    Joe Vest

  5. #5

    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Dick's passing is very bad news. I had the pleasure of hearing Dick and Adam Granger play and jam on many afternoons at the Pickin' Parlour in Norman, Oklahoma in 1973-74. They set the bar high indeed with their charming and daunting combination of great picking and devastating wit. The mix became even more potent if Alan munde was in town and John Hadley was with him.
    I was a music store brat at the time, hanging around and trying to learn how to play. These guys were a combination music-boot-camp-and-intellectual-salon, but they also had an open and generous spirit, which allowed tyros like me and my friend Greg Henkle a chance to laugh and learn from them. I will never begin to repay their collective kindness, but I will continue to say thanks at every opportunity. Dick, thanks from the bottom of my heart.

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    Registered User DougC's Avatar
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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Thanks Joe. Dick will leave a big gap in our musical arena. We won't forget him.

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    garded
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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Sad news indeed. I only knew of Mr. Nunnely from the Mando Boys record. I was always impressed by what I heard, but sadly never heard anything else from him when the 'Boys broke up.

    Thanks Joe for filling me in on exactly who Dick Nunnely was. Condolences to his family and friends. Another great has left us.

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    Site founder Scott Tichenor's Avatar
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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Obituary from the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.

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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    I only knew Dick through his work on the Mando Boys' "Holstein Lust" recording which was given to me a number of years ago because it wasn't bluegrassy enough. Well, it became one of my all-time favorite CDs of any genre because of its sterling musical quality and zany, urbane wit. I would have travelled hundreds of miles to see them but they were defunct by the time I became aware of them. This is a great loss, and I send out my utmost respect for Dick's musical contributions and my condolences to his family and personal friends.
    Thank you, Dick, you will be missed.
    ~~Joe Hannabach~~~~

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    Registered User Ronbo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    I was lucky enough to see him play a lot in the 70's and when I think of Dick Nunnely one word comes to mind to describe him....Excellance. In those days he played in a band from Oklahoma called Natural Grass, and it was always a special thing to hear him play. Back then he played an old Gibson F-4 that sounded great, but I'll never forget hearing him play an old F5 at the grand opening of Shir-Lin's House of Music in Springdale Arkansas in 1977 or 78'. They were playing in the back of the store and when he stepped up to the mic his mando tone was so huge that the you could feel the vibration through the floor. His was a mighty tone. Rest in peace Mr. Nunnely.
    Ron Pennington

  11. #11

    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Would folks be able to create a discography of recordings that featured Dick? I own a Natural Grass album from the 1970s, Its Only Natural, on which Dick plays some terrific breaks. Besides that and the Mando Boys albums, where else can one find his work on recordings?

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    Registered Mandolin User mandopete's Avatar
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    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Great tribute Joe!

    BTW - we miss you here in the Pacific Northwest.
    2015 Chevy Silverado
    2 bottles of Knob Creek bourbon
    1953 modified Kay string bass named "Bambi"

  13. #13

    Default Re: Dick Nunnely: 1953- 2010

    Nice write up, Joe. Nice to see you last night at the gathering for Dick too. You don't come around Minneapolis enough for my liking...Fix that, will ya...?

    Mary Henderson and I had Dick in the studio last year. What an experience watching him work. I'm pretty much a kitchen picker, and being around such superstars is a little daunting to me usually. He did some mandolin on 5 or 6 cuts, and it was all we could do to curb is apparently innate instincts to throw in Deep Purple and Chad and Jeremy signature licks on frailing banjo tunes. He'd come snickering into the booth after he got one down. We'd give him the sidelong look and wonder. He'd ask if we recognized the passage. Then we'd realize it was there, and send him back out to his perch to try to behave. He'd snicker all the way back out to the other room. What a treat. I don't think he played a single note that was either wrong, out of tune, or out of time. Not one.

    On one banjo tune, there was the usual arrangement thing - banjo, fiddle, mandolin, then a sort of everyone go to the zoo last time through. It got a little busy when the mandolin was added, so I asked Dick if he could sort of twin the fiddle part. He sat there and his eyes sort of glazed over for about 15 or 20 seconds. I remember wondering if he had just had a stroke or was having an out of body experience. Then came a soft melody he was humming. Apparently he had been sort of scrolling Tom's fiddle part on the last time through, sang it one time through to himself, and came back to earth and said 'OK..Let's give it a try'. Didn't even look for it on his fingerboard. Just came in cold and played an almost exact twin to the fiddle from memory of listening to it a few days prior. Nailed it on the first pass. Of course, we insisted we try it again, looking for magic ...you know..to kinda seem professional like I knew what I was doing. He gave me that look with one eyebrow sort of raised. We quickly agreed it was fine the way it was and exactly what I had asked for.

    His whole approach to the process of music was something to behold. I'll never get to that level with anything, except maybe remembering to breath. We are honored to have him on this next project, but even more impostant than that, honored to have had him at the dinner table and around the picnic table for adult beverages and telling lies. We are truely sad and missing him. And he almost never 'cept once or twice in twenty some years leaned over to me and said something like..'I really like what you were trying to do there' when we were picking around the table. What a wonderful wit and powerful force in the Minneapolis music community. His equal comes into ones life very rarely indeed.

    Geoff Shannon

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