Bluegrass Legend Curly Seckler, The Oldest Link to Country Music’s Past, Dies at 98

photo via Copper Creek Records

Maybe you know the name Curly Seckler, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re a fan of his contributions, or maybe this is the very first time you’re hearing the name. But it is the name of the man who held the distinction of being the oldest living legend in country music—a direct link to the very founding of the genre, and someone who witnessed country and bluegrass go from the back porches of Appalachia all the way to the big shows of today. And now like so many of the legendary artists who helped form country and bluegrass into a major American genre, he is gone.

John Ray Sechler was born on Christmas Day in 1919, and died on Wednesday, December 27th, 2017, two days after his 98th birthday. From China Grove, North Carolina, he was one of eight children living on a family farm with no running water or electricity. Curly’s father Calvin died when he was 9-years-old, and Curly only finished the sixth grade from having to work long days to keep the family farm going. In his moments of free time though, Curly learned the banjo from local musician Happy Trexler. At 16, Curly bought a banjo of his own from money he saved working at a cotton mill, and formed his first band in 1935 with his brothers called the Yodeling Rangers. Like so many of the early pioneers of country and bluegrass, their first gigs were playing music at the local radio station. 

But the Yodeling Rangers is not where Curly Seckler would make history. When the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, split from his brother Charlie in the Monroe Brothers, Charlie hired Curly Seckler to play in his band. It was 1939, and Curly was only 19-year-old. From his vantage in some of the earliest bluegrass outfits, Curly Seckler would personally witness the very formation of the bluegrass genre, and influence it greatly with his signature tenor singing.

It was in 1949 when Seckler would make his most important move, signing tenor and playing mandolin in the Foggy Mountain Boys behind Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. During the next 15 years, Seckler would appear on some of the most iconic bluegrass recordings ever cut—an estimated 130 recordings total—including a few songs that Seckler wrote himself. Though he would quit the band in 1962 and briefly worked other jobs including driving trucks, Seckler’s name became synonymous with the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs split in 1969, and in 1973, Seckler reunited with Flatt in his band Nashville Grass. When Lester Flatt passed away in 1979, Seckler took over the band, and led the band all the way up to his retirement in 1994. Even though he was officially retired, Seckler didn’t stay gone very long, or very well, constantly showing up in bluegrass circles, and celebrated as one of the very last links to the original formation of the genre. He performed at festivals such as MerleFest and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and made an appearance on The Marty Stuart Show in 2011 (Stuart’s calls Seckler the greatest bluegrass tenor singer in history).

Curly Seckler was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2016, Saving Country Music highlighted Curly Seckler as the last living legend in all of country music. Now that distinction falls to Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose.

Curly Seckler is survived by his wife of 19 years, Eloise Warren Seckler, along with brothers Floyd Sechler and Hugh Sechler, sons Ray Seckler and Monnie Sechler, grandchildren Jeffrey, Terry, John Robert, Sherry, Charity and Melissa, and his great-grandchildren.

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