Curly Seckler's Mandolin Reunion
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
December 14, 2007 - 6:00 am
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
Curly Seckler can make you feel good just by watching him on stage.
It's his smile and easy-going nature.
They seem to say: "Bluegrass music is really fun and I'm having me some."
Seckler, 87, added another happy chapter recently, thanks to a reunion with this beloved 1914 Gibson F2 mandolin, made possible by David Grisman.
Back in the Golden Days of Radio, Seckler played the country music circuit. He took Bill Monroe's spot as tenor singer and musician opposite Charlie Monroe, after Bill left the Monroe Brothers.
"I played tenor banjo with Charlie Monroe," Seckler said. "But that thing was heavy to carry around and loud, loud, loud."
But in 1941, he was working with another group at a radio station in Anderson, South Carolina, when he bought the F2 and switched to mandolin.
"I bought from a fellow working there by the name of Lonesome Luke," Seckler said. "I paid $42 for it."
He performed with numerous big-name bluegrass artists over the years.
But Seckler and that mandolin are best known for their work with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. He joined in 1949 and was with them (with a few breaks in 1960s) until they broke up in the late 1960s.
"I was never a good mandolin picker to start with," Seckler said. "But Lester always said he liked the way I looked when I held it."
I've got a feeling he's used that line before.
However, you don't work for Lester and Earl that long with a mandolin in your hands without influencing the music.
Seckler started playing a Gibson F5 copy onstage in 1973 when he joined Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass.
Then, he said, Uncle Josh Graves started pestering him to sell the old F2 that he'd played onstage for 30 years. Graves was brokering it to another buyer.
He finally agreed to sell the F2, if he got a signed document saying he had first rights to buy it back.
"I let the mandolin go out, but I never got that paper back," Seckler said.
It disappeared into the bluegrass back roads.
A year ago, the mandolin surfaced in Roanoke, Vir., and a man brought it to Seckler to examine. It was his beloved F2, although a little worse for wear.
Grisman later bought it through the Mandolin Cafe Classifieds.
"The mandolin was refinished poorly after Curly sold it," the Dawg said.
So Grisman had luthier Gary Vessel re-finish it to a red sunburst typical of the period, "like it is pictured on the cover of the classic Mercury Flatt & Scruggs LP, 'Country Music.' "
Gibson apparently re-necked the mandolin in the early 1950s, Grisman said. It has a three-piece maple neck instead of the original mahogany, although the fingerboard appears to be original.
The tuners were replaced with fifties-style gold Klusons.
"It really is a great sounding F2," he said. "And of course it has the vibe of all those years of Curly's fine playing. I think the maple neck contributes a bit more solidity and definition to the tone. Mahogany tends to soften the sound, which may be more desirable in banjos than mandolins.
The F2 was customized in 1956 by Mike Longworth (of Martin guitar fame) with an F4 style inlay in the headstock. Longworth also inlayed "L4" in the peghead veneer beside the truss rod cover.
Also added was a pearl block inlay at the 12th fret with "Curly" engraved.
"The name was 99 percent gone when I acquired it," Grisman said. "I asked Dave Giullieti, an expert engraver and artist, to re-engrave the name to match the very faint 'Y' that still was visible."
Seckler gave the Dawg a call after he acquired the mandolin. They've played on each others albums over the years.
A date was made for him to join the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience on stage on Oct. 7 at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.
Grisman had luthiers rush to get the mandolin in shape, and they got it done.
Seckler was reunited with his restored F2 for another show.
"It sounds real good, although the action is up a little bit," he said. "It's great for me that somebody like that got it, someone who will treasure and take care of it. I think a lot of David."
Seckler, by the way, has a fairly recent solo album on the Copper Creek label called "Bluegrass Don't You Know." Information about him is available at www.curlyseckler.net. He lives in Hendersonville, Tenn.
A combined Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas salute is order.
Curly Seckler was born Dec. 25, 1919.
The Dawg brightened the season for him. Imagine playing an instrument almost daily for 30 years, and paying the bills with it, and then having it come back from lost. And make a stage appearance to boot.
"It was great to catch up with him," Grisman said. "We had a great time."