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  • Bluegrass MusicSounds and People in Motion
  • Lee Bidgood
Penny Parsons. Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 304 pp. 49 illus. ISBN: 9780252081590 (paper), $22.95.
Bill C. Malone. Bill Clifton: American Bluegrass Ambassador to the World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 184 pp. 35 illus. ISBN: 9780252082009 (paper), $19.95.

Bill Monroe's song "Heavy Traffic Ahead" is a glimpse of the working life of a musician in the mid-1940s, hinting at the kinds of work that filled the days and nights of culture workers in the still-forming country music industry. There is loading up on the run, driving from state to state, playing in town after town—and returning to a home base; in Monroe's case, Nashville, Tennessee, and weekend shows on the WSM radio station that were a mainstay of his career. In their recently released biographies of Curly Seckler and Bill Clifton, Penny Parsons and Bill C. Malone have added to this historical perspective, showing bluegrass as music on the move. One of the common threads running through Parson's and Malone's volumes is travel, mobility, and all kinds of movement—of people, media, sounds, and stories. They also push us to consider bluegrass as it has flourished in territories outside of its perceived "native" territory.

Born John Sechler in 1919 to a family of German descent in Rowan County, North Carolina, billed with key bluegrass bands as "Curly Seckler," known to prominent country music icons as their friend "Seck," the figure Penny Parsons illustrates in her volume seems always on the move, with complex and troubling aspects in addition to his noted achievements. In his portrait of the man born William Augustus Marburg, billed for decades to country, folk, and blue-grass audiences as Bill Clifton, Malone reveals similar issues and some differing successes.

Seckler's forbears (who immigrated to North America in the 1730s) typify the diversity of immigrants to the Piedmont area of the Carolinas, a region central to the development of hillbilly and bluegrass music. Curly's story quickly becomes similar to those of other early country music professionals; they sought work on radio, toured extensively, took recording opportunities when given the chance, barnstormed in schoolhouses and on the roofs of drive-in theaters. He is most remembered for his time as a Foggy Mountain Boy, singing tenor [End Page 83] harmony to Lester Flatt and layering his mandolin rhythm chop behind Earl Scruggs's banjo. Many will read this book to get more sidelong glances at Flatt and Scruggs through Seckler's story—and perhaps to learn more about the fallout from the split between the iconic duo at the end of the 1960s.

Curly's rejoining Lester Flatt in the Nashville Grass in 1973 brought two important voices of the Foggy Mountain Boys sound back together; Parsons highlights this moment, saying that in this move "Flatt had reclaimed the torch for traditional bluegrass"; it also indicates the generational layering in bluegrass, with younger traditionalists like Kenny Ingram and Marty Stuart accompanying foundational figures like Flatt and Seckler (160). Indeed, one of the book's greatest achievements is in highlighting Seckler's prominence as a core part of what some dub the first generation of bluegrass.

In addition to documentation of watershed moments, this volume is full of trivia. It is interesting to learn that, according to Gary Tullock, son of Flatt and Scruggs bassist Jake Tullock, "Lester would save the cardboard squares that were packaged with new dress shirts and write the set lists on them," but it is unclear what role this detail plays in Seckler's story (134). Herein lies one of the chief flaws of the volume—and, paradoxically, one of its key contributions. The thread of Parsons's narration links to many stories but doesn't use Seckler's story as a springboard to other narratives about bluegrass, early country music, and social and aesthetic changes after the second World War. The note about Lester's shirt-package set lists joins a flood of other details in the pages of this book; while sometimes they seem unconnected to a larger narrative...