One of my publicist connections sent me an email recently about a client of his who had written a book called “Looking To Get Lost” that contained a chapter concerning Dick Curless, whose song “Tombstone Every Mile” brought him national success and acclaim. I asked if the author, Peter Guralnick, was available for interviews. Even though I was nervous about chatting with the writer who had penned “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” (which Bob Dylan said was the, “unrivaled account of Elvis”), I was anxious to get his thoughts on Maine’s legendary country singer. On the 16th of last month, he called me from his West Newbury, Massachusetts home.

Peter Guralnick with Bill Monroe in 1980. Cover photo by by Russ Barnard

Q: I understand that you came into Dick Curless’ world courtesy of your son (Jake Guralnick) who produced his last album, “Traveling Through,” but normally how do you pick an artist to do this for?
Guralnick: It’s just by what I love and by who I love. I’ve never written on assignment, per se. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done because of my enthusiasm or my love for the music or the writing of the person I’m writing about. I mean, in this case I just wanted to be a part of it, because it was so exciting. After hearing the demo tapes that Dick sent in, it was so different from anything I’d previously known by Dick. It just knocked Jake out. I asked permission to write the liner notes to be part of the session, and once I was there at the session it was just one of the most enthralling and inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed or taken part in.

Q: How long have you been a music biographer?
Guralnick: Well, I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve written fiction; I’ve written about writers and authors. I started publishing as soon as there was any place to publish, which was around ’65, ’66 and ’67 when there were these underground outlets. I started writing for the Phoenix when it was Boston After Dark, just when it started in ’67. And just before that this kid I knew started Crawdaddy. He was a little younger than I was, Paul Williams, and he ran it off on a mimeograph originally. The thing was that anyone who knew me knew how crazy I was about the blues, so in both incidences, both with Paul and with Boston After Dark, they came to me and they said, “How would you like to write something about music?”. I said, “Yeah, sure, but what I want to write about is the blues. I want to write about Muddy Waters; I want to write about Howlin’ Wolf; I want to write about Bo Diddley and Skip James.” With a company like Crawdaddy, for example, this didn’t fit the format exactly. Their format was largely psychedelic rock, people like Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. And there I am writing about Skip James, Robert Pete Williams and eventually Buddy Guy. But it didn’t seem to bother anybody, so I just kept writing about the things I was passionate about. That’s what I’ve continued to do.

Q: What was it about the blues that caught your interest?
Guralnick: I just fell into the blues when I was 15 or 16. I can’t really describe what it was that turned me around, but it totally turned me around and remains the thing I go back to. … The blues led me to everything else: it led me to country; it led me to gospel; it led me to Dick Curless. I mean, it wasn’t that the form had to be the blues, it just had to be with the feeling that I was looking for, and I recognized it immediately in more and more things as I went along. I got such a kick out of Dick describing how he was turned on by Josh White; what he called his “mumbling guitar” was his attempt to approximate the finger-picking of Josh White. You can hear echoes of it in “Foggy, Foggy Dew.” His feelings for the blues ran through his music, but it wasn’t because it was the blues, it was (because it was) what he described as “heart music.” It was just a deep-feeling music, and that was what was really just so inspiring at the session that really introduced me to Dick. I had met him before, but I’d never heard anything like this — the depth of feeling and the breadth of his commitment to music, and his commitment to telling the realities of life. He was committed to telling the truth. That was the most challenging thing about writing this chapter.

Q: How much time went into it?
Guralnick: Well, it took me over 20 years to get to write the story I wanted to write about Dick. I can’t really say why exactly, but the moment that I started work on this new book, “Looking To Get Lost,” that was when I started working in earnest on the chapter on Dick that’s in the book. Up until then I just had this little truncated form that had been these liner notes with lots of plans and help-lines for something that I would do later. I’m glad (chuckle) I survived long enough to reach that “later.”

Q: What were the impressions that you got from Dick?
Guralnick: He had such a remarkable manner. I mean, I’ve never met anyone quite like him, because he had this ability to draw anybody he was talking to in. (That) indicated not simply his interest in them, but that he had so much to communicate to them. Watching this session over a period of three or four days, (I saw)  how the musicians were just lifted up by him and how he tried to give them something far beyond just an ordinary musical or session experience. He tried to give them something that reached deep into their own souls, and each of them talked about this when they talked among themselves. I didn’t have to dig for any of this, I was just hanging out with them. They would get lost in the music; they’d get lost in his stories as he told them the background for the songs or just the background of where he came from. Everybody was just lifted up by their contact with Dick, and Dick seemed to take so much from every single person he met. He took such a humanistic interest. He had such a breadth of vision and of feelings, so that never left me.

Q: What did you do when the session was over?
Guralnick: I went up to Bangor and spent two or three days with him, interviewing him at length, just a few months before he died. After he died, maybe eight or nine months later, I interviewed his wife, Pauline, and his daughter, Terry (Bill Chinnock’s widow) who has been a tremendous help all the way through. But I wanted to write something that was beyond the scope of just an ordinary, narrowly-defined profile. You felt it was a biography, and in a way it is, I suppose, but to me it’s almost like a real-life novella. The subject matter was not something I would have chosen, because the man I met and the man who inspired me had been through such hard times. But at every point when I was talking with him, he just kept saying to me, “Now tell the truth about this, I’m trusting you to tell the truth.” And I tried to stay true to his dictum. I’ve always tried to do that, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever written. I’m very proud of it.

NOTE: There are other chapters in this book, which was released Oct. 27, 2020, that deal with artists such as Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette and Chuck Berry, and the photos that Terry Curless Chinnock supplied really added a lot to the scope of Guralnick’s exploration of her father’s life. One of the band members in that session was Denny Breau, another Mainer of considerable talents. I strongly recommend this collection of essays, especially the one that concerns Dick Curless.

Lucky Clark has spent over 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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