Bluegrass fiddler Raymond Dorsey "Curly" Parker once professed that he actually liked to play the guitar better than the fiddle, and wound up rubbing rosin on many a bow simply because of a shortage of good fiddle players in his territory. As he said in an interview for the fifth volume of Rounder's ambitious Early Days of Bluegrass series: "Well, I liked the guitar better than the fiddle. But at the time there wasn't no fiddles and Ed Haley and them were gettin' on up in years and you couldn't depend on them to keep going, you know, and you were interested in makin' money and somebody had to play the fiddle, so I just picked it up and kept on-a playin'." But he grew enamored of the fiddle, and although a vintage publicity photo of his group the Pine Ridge Boys lists Parker as guitarist in the caption, he actually cradles a fiddle lovingly in the photograph. At least the instruments seem more visible than the letter "e," which slips into spellings of this artist's name (i.e., "Curley") roughly half the time. It would have been simpler if he had stayed Ray, as his parents named him and his wife called him.
The diversity of the evolving music scene was another reason that players such as Parker doubled, although it was traditional for pickers in these genres to play several different stringed instruments well. Parker might be on fiddle for an old-time number, but would switch to the guitar or "gitfiddle" for bluegrass because the band's guitarist hadn't quite mastered the new strumming style. "Changin' over to bluegrass was just like goin' from a Model T to a steam engine," Parker said.
This musical evolution centered around the Southern Appalachians, and Parker's side of the pasture was eastern Kentucky. Local player Haley was a big influence on the boy, but radio broadcasts held just as much appeal. Being unemployed during the Depression was a young Parker's dream date, as it meant plenty of time to take down tunes off broadcasts such as The Grand Ole Opry. Energy could be stored up for gigs, which were incredible ordeals in this period. Curly described square dances that went on for 16 hours straight. Musicians' fingers would be covered with blood by the end of these engagements, for which a total of 40 dollars -- 20 dollars per eight hour shift -- was the reward. Was this bad? Not according to Parker: "Well, back then if you had 40 dollars, you was a rich man." Parker claims to have learned the fiddle tune "Sally Goodin" the fourth time he'd picked up a fiddle in his life, indicating that cash money was not the only form of riches in his treasure chest.
Obviously, Parker was gifted with an instinctive feel for music. He navigated the complicated harmonic straits of bluegrass as if a ship's captain, much like that other Parker, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, steering swing into bebop. Haley got to be a regular jamming partner -- pretty accessible, since the fiddler played most days out in front of the Ashland courthouse. Parker began playing professionally with a group called the Kentucky Miners and was also a hired hand with the popular Blue Sky Boys, whose duo recordings of 1946 through 1949 are often augmented with fiddle. With the perpetually grinning mandolinist Pee Wee Lambert as co-leader, he formed the Pine Ridge Boys in the early '50s. The pair kept the group going for next decade, membership including hotshot banjoist J.D. Crowe at the age of 16, and the fine fiddler Art Wooten.
The group's activity was mostly regional, and halted upon the mandolinist's final death trill. With his buddy Lambert out of the picture, Parker gave up gigs for surveying -- the opposite of most musicians, who spend their lives surveying for gigs. The field paid well enough so that Parker apparently turned down an invitation to join Bill Monroe's band. He continued playing bluegrass live on the radio, usually going on the air at six in the morning on the way out to a surveying job. The band with Lambert was on the recording roster of the Rich-R-Tone label, a one-man venture distributing loads of bluegrass releases out of the trunk of a car, much like cases of illegal hootch. The last word from Parker: "We never did get paid." ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi