When Maine Was Country

New England is the oldest region in the U.S. The six states that make up the amalgamated group known as the Northeast are foundational in the American story. Outside of Boston, the region’s largest city, and New Hampshire—which garners national political interest once every four years—our patch of geography is pretty much ignored by the elites in New York and Washington.

Maine’s closest thing to a city, Portland, gets written up incessantly about its amazing food scene, i.e. overpriced and pretentious dining for hipsters—but I’ll save that one for another day.

The New England region is one of the richest in the U.S. in terms of heritage and culture. This history dates back to our founding, and before. Yet history’s value is set pretty low these days. The category is just not sexy enough and doesn’t play well when considering Twitter’s truncation and Facebook’s emoting. Some, like Santayana and others, recognized history’s value.

I’ve been known to mine some of the history of the region, like baseball played in small towns, or distinctly-different soft drinks. There’s still plenty of it to discover and develop stories about.

Take country music.

Now I’m not talking the Nashville brand, or whatever’s being programmed on so-called country radio right now. Blake Shelton isn’t the kind of country music I’m talking about. Not to pick on Blake in this matter either, as the debate about “what’s country, and what’s not” has been bandied about for decades.

If you were born in the 1960s like I was, you probably vaguely remember Maine’s country music scene. If you are a bit older, your recollection is likely better that the Pine Tree State (and all of New England) was a country music hotbed for talent and a vibrant place to be a performer.

Country, or what was called “country & western” at the time in the early 20th century, was actually working class music in New England and elsewhere.  It’s also what sometimes is characterized as “traditional country music” by musicologists and others seeking to differentiate the music played in Maine and other states in the Northeast between 1925 and 1975.

The late Betty Cody, NE country royalty (from Lewiston, Maine)

The late Betty Cody, NE country royalty (from Lewiston, Maine)

There is a fascinating dissertation available online by Cliff Murphy that he ended up using at the basis of his book, Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England. I stumbled across Murphy’s original publication back in 2011 by accident, looking for information on the history of music in New England. I believe I was searching for something about Dick Curless, as I recall. More about Curless a bit later.

As for Murphy, I knew him as a member of one of the best alt-country bands to ever grace a stage in these parts, while also hailing from the region—Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Say ZuZu. If you ever saw them play and were a fan of the subgenre (which was often closer to trad country than anything bearing the label of “country” in these corporatized times), then you know that Murphy and the boys were the real deal.

Murphy actually cites his time roaming America’s highways and byways on the band’s tour bus, filled with “a steady diet of truck stop food,” for instilling in him a love of truck driving music, which he began collecting. This ultimately led him to go back to grad school and get a doctorate in Ethnomusicology from Brown University. Our history is in better hands because of that.

The dissertation is over 400 pages and is stuffed chock full of material. However, I’ll just briefly touch on a couple of points, so I don’t want to lose readers in the weeds. I also recognize that while I could lose myself in the document (and have several times), much of what I find fascinating doesn’t lend itself to the blogging equivalent of fast food that denizens of the interwebs desire.

Here’s part of the takeaway today, and this actually ties into what’s happening across the border in New Hampshire, also. The national TV types are all tethered to their satellite feeds and media mother ships in Manchester, seeking soundbites and Twitter content to post about the first-in-the-nation primary in the Granite State.

Much of New England’s previous economic vitality involves an “extraction” narrative. This extraction regularly involved rich resources, many of them natural, with outsiders mining them for greater economic gain than the locals, or natives received in return. Corporate country music certainly could fall under that umbrella.

This type of storytelling is becoming a rare commodity, much like manufacturing in New England. I’ve been quite intrigued watching how the national media hasn’t varied from their hackneyed style of reporting on the horserace while plunked down in the heart of what once was a major manufacturing economy in New Hampshire, as well as the rest of northern New England. Well, save for one small band of journalists, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. They bear watching, as their coverage in New Hampshire has been the only place where you could find someone flipping the script and writing about clear divisions and political dichotomies. I’d direct you to articles like this one that tell a different side of corporate “job deflators” like Carly Fiorina. Then there are articles that allow voters to get a glimpse and actually get to see coverage of a candidate from the fringes.

As an aside, isn’t it telling about where we’re at in terms of our politics when a billionaire candidate, like Donald Trump, is seen by many as an “outsider”?

Sixty years ago, New England’s country music culture was vibrant and one that was uniquely the region’s own. While it flourished in small towns, Grange Halls, as well as community centers, the music was also found in urban hubs, also. Boston’s Symphony Hall hosted the weekly “Hayloft Jamboree,” a live showcase of New England’s country music talent. Then there is that falsity that country music is southern music, especially in terms of origination, as “countrypolitan” music.

And speaking of talent that was known far beyond the region, Bangor, Maine’s Dick Curless was a star. As much as anybody and anything, Dick Curless embodies the changes that have occurred in Maine and elsewhere, between 1960 and today.

Gone are the days when AM blowtorches in Boston (WBZ) an Hartford (WTIC) blasted signals and country programming into the South, Midwest, and even Canada. During the 1950s (and before), country performers played live in the studio. This led to music being played live across the region and maybe more important—musicians actually could earn a full-time living playing live music. Dick Curless certainly did.

Also, unlike the homogenization taking places in Portland and Bangor, 50 to 60 years ago you could find beer halls and honky tonk dives that had country music being played live seven nights a week. Now both places are the domain of restaurants and high-end cocktail bars that few working class people can afford. Murphy’s research and interviews show great detail, and how Exchange Street in Bangor was as notorious a place as the Combat Zone in Boston, or Route 1 in Lynn, Mass. (“Lynn, Lynn, city of sin…). You’d never know it from a visit to downtown Bangor these days.

I also highly recommend Murphy’s article from 2014 as an introduction to his work. I’m planning on reading his book in short order.

I’ll leave you with probably Dick Curless’ most famous tune, if not one of the more popular country songs for Mainers of that era, and a great exemplar of the music I’ve tried to represent in this post.

10 thoughts on “When Maine Was Country

  1. I remember watching the Ken MacKenzie show. I wasn’t a big fan, but back in the day of 3 channel B&W TV, I’d watch anything with music in it. During my college years at Orono, Stacey’s Country Jamboree was broadcast from nearby Brewer, but by then there were many other music outlets (Remember one called MTV? They used to play music on that channel.)

  2. Modern country and jazz both owe even more to Lewiston, Maine, than does Cassius Clay.

    Betty Cody was the singin’ wife of Hal “Lone Pine” Breau, and they were the voice of country music from the top of Mt Washington in the days when AM radio ruled. Their airwaves reached nearly half the country and Canada, too. They had a son, the precocious Lenny Breau, who became maybe the most eye-watering jazz guitarist ever. Thrown out of the house for playing jazz instead of country on their radio show, he ventured north to Canada. There he met Randy Bachman, who claims everything he knows he learned from Breau. While he never gained the popularity of Wes Montgomery, in Breau’s short life he created a dazzling repertoire that no serious guitar player today–not country, not jazz, no exceptions–can avoid in trying to master the instrument.

    On a different note, there was a family from Lewiston, I think by the name of LeBlanc, who migrated to California in the 1950s. Their son, Clarence, changed his last name to White and turned traditional bluegrass on its head while playing guitar with the Kentucky Colonels. White turned to electric guitar, but then took a year off to study under Doc Watson, and brought the most amazing style back with him to join the Byrds and effectively invent “country rock.” Without White, there was no Bernie Leadon and the Eagles, to say the least.

    Breau died in 1984, found dead in a swimming pool. White was run over by a drunk in a parking lot in 1974. Both from Lewiston, and both changed country and jazz music indelibly.

    I miss old country music, man’s music, and unapologetic about it. “Around here we like both kinds of music: country AND western.”

  3. @Dave and @LP Working on this blog post got me to thinking about the amount of live music that was around Maine when we were in high school and shortly afterwards.

    Obviously, the late Bill Chinnock comes immediately to mind as someone who played out almost every night of the week. Then there was John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys, one of a handful of quintessential New England performers from that era. Wright died in 2012, with his drinking (cigarettes) basically doing him in, not uncommon for musicians playing C&W, although Wright and band couldn’t be pigeonholed as strictly country, given their propensity to rock, also. The Patriot Ledger out of Quincy had this excellent article on Wright and his career, which spanned nearly four decades.

    There was The Blend, Scott Folsom, J.B. Hutto would come up to Maine regularly, and play at The Cellar Door in Auburn.

    I could go on and on. Much like playing for the local town team is no longer something that’s done, regular guys playing live music is happening less often than ever.

    Other than a few places in Portland that books local acts, there are the spate of places to catch live music these days.

    Remember Sweet Potato? I was writing for an arts magazine briefly in the early 2000s called Face. We covered local music. Nothing like these pubs left, at least in print.

    Our cultural demise isn’t simply one thing—it’s a host of things that lead to a place where there’s very little that’s unique left about our town, our state, or our region.

    I thought that was one of the strongest points that Murphy made in his dissertation and I’m anxious to pick up his book and see how much of that got carried over.

    One local outfit that’s still carrying the torch as a touring band that plays out regularly is The Mallett Brothers Band (Dave Mallett’s two boys, and band mates). I need to make a point to get out an see them when they pass through southern Maine again.

  4. Ah, Mallett. What was that old theater at UMO? I saw Gordon Bok and Mallett together there. People down here are jealous of me for that. Near here is something called the Bok Tower and Gardens, a carillon in the middle of a lovely private park, and apparently owned by Gordon Bok’s family.

    I saw JB Hutto in that theater, too, and must have seen a young Ronnie Earl in that band.

    For that matter, I saw Doc and Merle Watson in that theater, too.

    Cripes, the Grateful Dead used to play Alfond Arena. Rankin’ Roger in the Pit. Orleans in the Pit.

    Anybody remember The Dogs? Playing at the Cellar Door in 1980, my first (and only) arrest! I saw them again in 1981, playing on the steps of that UMO theater. The cops showed up and told them to turn it down, or else.

    Devo, I’m related to a clan of Whites, and often wondered if that made me related to Clarence White. It was a bit of a disappointment to discover the truth.

    I forgot John Lincoln Wright, but have been remembering, from Boston, Pousette-Dart Band (they get a lot of airplay on WMNF down here).

    I played Devo’s bass in a country band back then. Good times

  5. Apparently, your interesting post had lulled blog commenters from their Pousette-Dart Band-like “Amnesia.” For what it’s worth, The Old Goat in Richmond features live music every weekend and while many times it’s “cover bands,” there is a wide variety featured, from blues to reggae to country to rock.

    I’m enjoying the “lost Maine” meme.

  6. @Mary Jane Funny, but when I was writing this, I thought about Ken McKenzie and your dad. I remember that live music on television was a regular occurrence when we were coming up during the late 1960s. I also recall you being on one of the shows, maybe when we were in first grade. We were all excited to see a classmate on television and thought you were quite the star.

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