I’m pretty sure my first exposure as a child to a live music simulcast of sorts – and public drunkenness – was the weekly “Curly O’Brien Show” which was broadcast on the old WEMT (Channel 7) out of Bangor, ME.
[Note to editor: Wait, Dean – don’t panic with visions of slander suits. Ol’ Curly and the gang didn’t try to be any more than what they were – as we shall talk about shortly. These folks just wanted to play some tunes … and if some adult beverages were consumed along the way, well, so be it. That’s just the way it was; and I don’t believe there was a soul in Downeast Maine who turned their TV set off because of it.]
To understand the popularity of Curly O’Brien (and other Maine-based performers like Yodelin’ Slim Clark, Dick Curless, and Hal “Lone” Pine), you need to understand the musical culture of the world I grew up in. Here was a place where all you had to do was go sit outside with a guitar for a few minutes and wait: someone would eventually come along lugging their own instrument and ask if you wanted to have a tune. It’s been like this for a long time, folks.
Call it a mix of traditional folk, bluegrass, and country-western (but don’t confuse it with the slick-produced stylings of today); call it Americana; call it anything you’d like: it really comes down to just wanting to play. Musicologists can go hog-wild tracing roots … around here, they’d tell you: don’t bother. Just sit down and let her rip – we can take the time to tune up afterwards.
When I was a kid, MTV didn’t exist – but the local stations out of Bangor (we could pick up Channels 2 and 5 without going out on the ledge and turning the antenna; a slight tweak to the no’theast would bring in 7) did a pretty decent job of getting Maine country artists on the air. There were a few of them that had regular weekly spots – but the undisputed king had to be Curly O’Brien & The Top Hands, who were on the air for 25 years. And on the road, too, folks … and that’s where our tale gets a bit rough around the edges – even at the regional level of fame, there were dues to pay and demons to wrestle … but regardless of how tough the rest of the week was for Curly and the band, you could always count on them making it to the studio on Sunday afternoon.
There they’d be, Curly & The Top Hands, including his wife, Jackie King, on bass; his younger brother Bob on lead guitar (known as, well, “Brother Bob”, believe it or not); good ol’ Doc on rhythm guitar and vocals; and Fiddlin’ Harold – as close as the state of Maine ever got to having a Vassar Clements of its own.
Almost always, the show would start off with an apology to the residents of some town east of Bangor: “We’d like to let the fine folks that was hopin’ to see us at the VFW Hall down in Steuben that we’re sorry we couldn’t make it last Tuesday night. We broke the universal on the van and … well … you know how it goes.” (Sometimes at this point you’d hear some off-mike guffaws) “But we’ll be back down that way real soon!” You never actually knew if the universal joint had broken – or if three tires out of four had really gone flat – or if it truly was a savage patch of black ice that had put them off the road … but, by God, if they said they’d make the show up, they’d make it up, no doubt.
During Curly’s opening monologue, you might hear the wails of instruments being yanked into tune. One of the beauties of Curly’s show was that it was completely live – no retakes for tuning problems, broken strings, missed chords, or blown lyrics (or clinking bottles or wracking cigarette coughs by someone with a live microphone.) What you got was what you got. That applied to the ad spots, as well.
I have to assume there was a limited production budget for ad work on Curly’s show back then, as I remember a tri-legged easel standing off to one side with ads written on poster board. Curly would peel off the signs periodically, based on how much ad time an advertiser had purchased.