Please join me in celebrating the life and creative times of the amazing Curly Miller (1954 – 2013), largely known in traditional music circles as fiddler, classic rag banjoist, arranger, and leader of the old-time string band The Old 78’s. If you’ve attended old-time festivals in the last two or three decades, you probably crossed paths with Curly the “ragmeister” and his distinctive music, as he was a regular at music festivals such as Winfield, Clifftop, and Breaking Up Winter, as well as a featured teacher at music camps such as Swannanoa, Mars Hill, and Ashokan Southern Week.
Richard “Curly” Miller came from a musical family and illuminated a rainbow of musical passion throughout his life. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland, grew up in Penfield, New York, married and moved down to Kingston, Arkansas, in 1976, where he settled. He played classical violin as a child, rock-and-roll guitar as a teen, and three-finger Leo Kottke-style guitar in college. After moving to Arkansas to stay in the 1970s, he and wife Jeannie, their son Kerry and daughter Sara enjoyed farm life while he started raising Shiitake mushrooms. Curly regularly attended the festival in Winfield, Kansas, where Doc Watson and Norman Blake inspired him into flat-picking guitar — that is, until Frankie Gavin drew him headlong into Irish fiddling. In the early ‘80s, Curly found his way into old-time music, first bowing bass for the Skirtlifters, and then fiddling and playing mandolin with them. Through this association with Clarke Buehling and the Skirtlifters, Curly discovered his strong passion for early old-time string bands, as well as classic and minstrel banjo styles. Many assumed music was Curly’s profession. It’s just what he did for fun “after hours” when work was done for the day, and he wasn’t fishing.
Curly was a creative powerhouse of multiple dimensions, not just in music. He loved to dream, and then work like mad for however long it took to transform his challenging dreams into pristine realities. He was an imaginative inventor and very mechanically talented. The greater the challenge, the greater his zeal and commitment for sticking with the task until the job was well done. He left this distinctive fingerprint everywhere. Festival-goers can no doubt recall his highly-refined home-made campsites, that withstood even the worst rain and wind storms. They were his own innovative designs constructed from materials he had on the farm.
Curly was intensely passionate about fishing. He made his own flies and lures and knew exactly when, where, and how to fish. He loved taking friends and family out, and frequently returned with hundreds of keepers. Those were among his most cherished times in life.
No mention of Curly Miller would ever be complete without just recognition of his radiant dynamo wife, Carole Anne Rose. In 1985 she left her New Jersey life, work as an AT&T programmer/systems analyst, and a former marriage, pursuing the dream of raising organic herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers in the South, where the good climate, reasonably priced land, and good water were abundant. Turned out the farm she bought was next-door to Curly, who was fortuitously single again. Shortly thereafter, they charmed one another and their romance took off. She’s as dynamic and talented as Curly, in her own unique ways. They made great bookends, both in and out of music. She is very detail-oriented and he was very imaginative. She is great at planning and he was great at getting things done. They both seemed always to have an endless supply of energy, focus, patience with one another, and good humor.
Curly and Carole Anne settled five miles up a quiet dirt road and across a creek or two near Kingston, Arkansas, in the beautiful Ozark mountains of Madison County, on the land she purchased adjacent to Curly’s. It had the best continuous water supply. They both loved living in the Ozarks and happily shared duties running their family business, Sweden Creek Farm, raising organic Shiitake mushrooms, herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers. Carole Anne managed the office side of the business. Curly controlled the production process, and built and maintained the equipment. They were mightily assisted too. His sons Kerry and Silas, and daughter Sara and her husband Galen, all shared responsibilities. They also benefitted greatly from many dedicated farm families, Adan and Hilda, children Roberto/Arcelia, their child, and many other fine folks.
Curly applied the same kind of attentive, inquisitive, tenacious problem-solving skills to his work as a mushroom farmer as he did with his music. He studied the weather relentlessly and directed/controlled the mushroom process accordingly so as to regulate the weekly harvest. He developed and refined his own process for raising Shiitake mushrooms that enabled them to grow their family business, Sweden Creek Farms, into a major organic Shiitake mushroom supplier. He determined how to control the growth variables so he could manage thousands and thousands of logs and deliver the desired output each week, every week of the year.
While Carole Anne and Curly were busy looking after the farm and raising kids, they still found time to develop their music. They sought out the oldest recordings and sheet music of old fiddle tunes that they could locate. They learned and polished the tunes endlessly.
Early in their relationship, Carole Anne suggested to Curly that she’d like to transfer her guitar chops to the banjo. Eventually with her idea and Curly’s innovative creativity, they came up with a unique solution that Carole Anne still plays today. Basically, she clawhammers an alternating bass pattern on a large-pot skin-head six-string banjo, strung with nylon strings and tuned similarly to a guitar, but a step lower than standard. The short thumb string, or “twanger” as Curly called it, takes the highest-pitch string and gets adjusted to suit whatever key she plays in. The resulting big, bassy banjo sound made an ideal rhythmic anchor for Curly’s challenging fiddle melodies, which wound their way through all the usual fiddle keys, and all the flatted keys too. That solid, sparse, and metronomic banjo accompaniment of Carole Anne’s applied to Curly’s virtuostic grasp of old raggy fiddle tunes evolved into the very large and very recognizable signature sound that would become The Old 78’s. (As they began to take this out and share their music at dances, festivals, and parties in the Northwest Arkansas area, people frequently commented to them that they sounded like old 78 RPM records, hence their name.)
In addition to the raggy repertory Curly fiddled with Carole Anne’s big banjo style, they were both actively learning the finger-picked classic banjo style. They fell in love with this style largely through their association with Clarke Buehling. Curly arranged many of these pieces from old sheet music to play with Carole Anne. They both laughed about the hours, hours, and hours of practice time it took to cultivate these pieces. If you’re not acquainted with the classic banjo style, you owe it to yourself to explore, find it, and listen carefully.
Curly and Carole Anne managed always to attract and inspire a steady stream of musicians at festivals to come sit down with them, visit, and play. Although the tunes were often very demanding pieces pitched in flatted keys, or requiring great facility moving about high up on the neck, or with highly unusual and idiosyncratic chord progressions with lots of parts, both Carole Anne and Curly seemed always to encourage and inspire even the wariest of players to give it a shot, even if they were out of their comfort zone and sounding somewhat less than polished. Somehow, Curly and Carole Anne both seemed to keep a very positive, joyful, and playful attitude going all the time. Curly was a dedicated and patient teacher. He never seemed to mind repetition and would happily play troublesome parts over and over for people, or play them together with the folks until they got it right.
Curly did a great job of using written music and aural music skills in both learning and sharing his music. Many of the early rags, Dixieland, and early jazz pieces he played had more parts and chord sequences that were too demanding for most mortals to remember in a casual festival jam setting. Curly was always great about doing all he could to help anyone who wanted to learn to play those pieces. He taught lots of people to read and follow chord charts. He was also patient about writing out new chord charts if he didn’t have them ready to hand out.
I used to think that written music had little or no place in traditional music. If we roll time back to the days before radio, audio recorders, and mechanical recorders such as player pianos, written music takes on an entirely different meaning than what I’d always considered. I’ve also come to appreciate the value that chord charts provide with some material in some settings. Thank you, Curly, for opening my eyes to all of this.
Carole Anne and Curly were fixtures as a dance band in their local dance scene. They were always excited to learn your new tunes, while also sharing the virtues of some new piece they’d figured out and slipping it into their dances. Curly was always happy to shave or add enough beats to make a squirrely tune fit the shape of a contra dance. They continued playing the monthly Fayetteville Traditional Dance Society dance up to May of this year, in spite of Curly’s rapidly declining health.
Since the late 1980s Curly and Carole Anne have recorded three tapes and five CDs. Their 2008 collaboration with Clarke Buehling is entitled The Old 78’s, and among other things, features an impressive classic banjo rendering of “The Russian Rag.” In 2010 Carole Anne and Curly teamed up with the fabulous talents and friendships of Fayetteville, Arkansas, musicians Ray and Melanie Palmer to explore more string band rags, ragtime, and early jazz pieces predating the 1930s, with Ray and Mel on banjo mandolin and baritone sax, respectively. They captured some of this amazing sound in their nationally acclaimed 2011 CD The Women Wear No Clothes At All. You really need to check out what Mel and Ray bring to their sound, especially “Big Barry.”
In the last several years, Curly became increasingly interested in exploring the intersection of string band rags with jug band, early jazz, and Dixieland. A number of us who shared his love for that music, thanks to his patience, encouragement, and leadership followed him into working out some of those pieces together. That group included Curly and Carole Anne as the Old 78’s, with the Retro Ramblers, who are Brian Schmiel, Edwin Wilson, Tolly Tollefson, and me. We performed some of these pieces at the Breaking Up Winter festival near Nashville, Tennessee. There are some YouTube videos from that concert. We also took some extra days after that festival and recorded six of the pieces, which will be released in the next few months. We had hoped to share that music at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in July of 2013 with Curly and Carole Anne, but his health declined too quickly for that.
You can hear lots of great examples of Curly and Carole Anne playing their fiddle/big banjo duets, classic and minstrel banjo pieces, as well as other collaborations on YouTube. Simply search YouTube for “The Old 78’s.” You can also read about them and their recordings on their website at www.theold78s.com. Steve Greene wrote an excellent feature article in 2007 for The Old-Time Herald (Vol. 10, No. 8) entitled, “The Old 78’s and Shiitakes: Carole Anne Rose & Curly Miller.”
Curly always maintained a serious work ethic and upbeat attitude with overwhelming forward momentum. In spite of the debilitating effects of the unyielding colon cancer and treatment programs he experienced, especially in his last three and a half years, he never really slowed down or stopped working, fishing, playing challenging music, learning new demanding music, playing for dances, teaching and performing at music camps, and dreaming of new possibilities. The last time I visited Carole Anne and Curly at their farm less than five weeks before he died, we were up well after midnight. Long before I awoke the next day, Curly was already out on the tractor mowing the pastures. He kept at his work duties all day and we didn’t begin to start up the fun until his work was complete. He kept up that pattern until his last few days here.
Curly was a thoughtful and giving soul. He always loved firing up the grill and roasting veggies, fish from his expeditions, or some delectable hunk of meat. It didn’t seem to matter that his compromised digestive system was barely working, he still was determined to cook everything up so that at least everyone else could enjoy an incredible feast. It’s easy to forget how challenging life can be for some at times.
Curly somehow always managed to defy the odds. His determination and drive were unyielding. I don’t at all mean to suggest that he was superhuman or without faults. It’s just I was always dumbfounded by his ability to get more done, or to accomplish really challenging feats with what seemed like relatively little effort or trouble. He just didn’t fuss about the work required to get any job done. Neither did Carole Anne. They just chose to keep the love, smiles, music, and good times flowing.
When I last spoke with Curly on the eve of June 30, just a few days before he passed, he knew, and we all knew, his time here was short. It was very important to him that I relay his love and gratitude to each of you, his family and friends, for the lifetime of love and support you all shared with him.
Curly is survived by his wife, Carole Anne Rose, their son Silas Miller, his son Kerry Miller, his daughter, Sara (Galen) White, two grandsons, River Shane and Rowan Benen White, his mother Roberta Miller, two sisters, Sharon (Ted) Peters and Barbara Miller; and scores of dear pals everywhere.
Carole Anne is adjusting to her new reality admirably. She’s picked back up with Ray and Mel and they’ve already played several of their old monthly dances. She’s running the farm now herself, along with the help of Sara, their family, and farm families living there. She’s making the best of things, isn’t complaining, and still maintains her joyously biting wit. It’s not easy, but she’s never opted for easy.
Thank you Curly for sharing your incredibly inspiring music, clever language, relentless determination, loving spirit, and cheerful nature. They all ring loudly and will always live on.