Curtis McPeake passes

One of the originators of modern bluegrass banjo, Curtis McPeake, passed away at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, on Friday, February 19, 2021. He was 93 years old and had recently been hospitalized briefly.

McPeake was born on October 9, 1927, in Scotts Hill, western Tennessee, mid-way between Nashville and Memphis. 

His father, a well-known entertainer in the area, was a pretty good old-style banjo and fiddle player. However, his son gravitated towards the guitar, which from about the age of nine years old he would play in support of his dad for their own entertainment and that of his family, friends, and neighbors.

Otherwise McPeake’s early musical influences came from listening to the Grand Ole Opry and other radio shows of the day. 

He started his own career aged 14 on Radio WTJS in Jackson, Tennessee, playing steel guitar – an interest in which he began courtesy of a local farm worker – and mandolin in a band that he took over and re-named Curtis McPeake and the Rocky Valley Boys in 1945. He recalled, “I was doing radio work every day, six days a week.”

McPeake didn’t start playing the banjo until he was 18 after hearing Earl Scruggs. As that interest developed, McPeake changed his band to a bluegrass music format. They broadcast weekly on WXDL, Lexington, Tennessee, earning a sponsorship contract with an Arkansas flour company. 

Another primary banjo influence was Rudy Lyle, who followed Scruggs as a Blue Grass Boy. 

Early in 1956 McPeake was hired by Lester Flatt to substitute for Scruggs when the latter was injured in an auto accident in October 1955. He would fill in at various other times as Scruggs was indisposed through to 1968. This led to increased exposure for McPeake with live TV work in Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee. 

He worked for Bill Monroe in 1960 and 1961, and again during 1962, recording five sessions – the first of which was on November 30, 1960 – and featuring on 18 cuts: those on Mr. Blue Grass (Decca DL-74080), and half of those on the Bluegrass Ramble album (Decca DL-74266).

Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys – Toy Heart 

One of the highlights of his time with Monroe was the appearance as part of a Grand Ole Opry package show to perform a charity for elderly musicians at Carnegie Hall in New York City on November 29, 1961. Apparently, McPeake got an encore that night for his rendition of Cripple Creek. 

After that spell with Monroe, McPeake became the first staff banjo player at WSM – and apart from a brief period with Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper – he remained with them until 1969. 

In this video McPeake can be seen/heard taking a break, playing back-up and fills while with Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper ……  

While based in Nashville he was much in demand as a studio musician, and did lots of jingles and commercials during this time, yet found time for a few collaborations – with Benny Williams, as Tennessee River Boys; with Billy Grammer, Ray Edenton, Tommy Hill, and Junior Huskey as The Bluegrass Hillbillies; and with Josh Graves, Benny Martin, Larry Morton, and Chuck Sanders, as The Nashville Pickers. 

Thereafter he joined Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass – playing banjo with them for 18 years. During that period, they were starring guests on many of the biggest TV shows of the day, and took their brand of country music around the world. Of his tenure with Davis, McPeake professed, “I got out of bluegrass because I just wanted to feed my family and put my daughter through college. (Bluegrass Unlimited, July 1992)

In 1966 he invented the 10-string banjo. Much as the 12-string guitar used 6 pairs of strings, so Curtis’ 10-string banjo did the same, giving a sound not unlike two banjos playing together. The second string in each pair could be tuned in unison, in 3rds or 5ths, or even in octaves.

Here is an example of him playing that instrument – Red Dress (aka Cahulawassee Rapids, originally recorded by him in 1973) …… 

McPeake left Davis in 1987 to take over Natchez Grass, a band that he later re-named The Natchez Express, and with whom he performed at a variety of festivals as well as local dates.

Having been interested in vintage instruments since his time with Monroe, Curtis established McPeake’s Unique Instruments, initially based in east Nashville before, in 1977, moving it out to Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He was considered one of the most highly regarded experts on Gibson pre-war banjos. 

In addition to those early recordings with Bill Monroe and many with Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, McPeake features on releases by The McCormick Brothers, George Jones & Melba Montgomery, Chubby Wise, Wade Ray, Wayne Raney, Hylo Brown, Leon Payne, Curly Fox & Texas Ruby, The Willis Brothers, C.W. McCall, Cecil Brower, and Tommy Scott. 

He wrote several tunes throughout his career, one of which was Dixieland For Me …. 

(from Bluegrass Hootenanny – George Jones with Melba Montgomery, recorded January 1964) 

McPeake remained active into his 90s, participating in various Tennessee Banjo Institute and fiddler’s conventions, and most recently as part of a duo with guitarist and singer Andy May, releasing a CD about three years ago. 

Salley Gardens – McPeake and May – Country Music Hall of Fame – July 2018 

He was the well-deserved recipient of the Uncle Dave Macon Days Trailblazer Award (in 2010) and the IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award (2018). 

R.I.P. Curtis McPeake 

Services will be held at Bond Memorial Chapel in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee on Wednesday, February 24, with visitation from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. followed by further visitation at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 25, and the service at 11:00.

A Discography 

Curtis McPeake

  • The Dueling Banjos (Mountain Dew 7061, released September 1973) [reissued as Curtis McPeake Plays Dueling Banjos & Other Bluegrass Favorites (Gusto GTCD-1040, in 1987 and on Gusto GT7 0812-2, in 2008)]
  • Bluegrass Banjo Pickin’ (Cumberland MGC-29501, 1963), released as by The Mountaineers. 
  • Curtis McPeake And His Smokin’ Banjo (Lake LK-1-1001, ca.1975)
  • The View From McPeake (Swift River Music SRM-CD-105, 2000)

The Bluegrass Hillbillies

  • Pickin’ N Grinnin’ (ABC Paramount ABC/ABCS-446, 1963)

Tennessee River Boys

  • Good Ole Mountain Music (Cumberland MGC-29505, 1963) [the 10 tracks on Good Ole Mountain Music were re-issued on The Tennessee River Boys (BACM D-417, (UK) 2013)]

NB: There are two different groups with the name The Tennessee River Boys on this CD. 

Curtis McPeake & The Nashville Pickers

  • Cross Country Banjo (BD Communications RBS-105, 1976, (2-LP set)) [re-issued as Vintage 1976 (Lake 1-0005, 2002)]
  • C.B. Special (featuring Dick Curless) (BD Communications RBS-106, 1976)

Curtis McPeake & The Natchez Express

  • Headin’ South (Lake 1-0002)
  • Back To Dixie (Lake 1-0003)
  • I Have Found The Way (Lake 1-0004, ca.1991)

Curtis McPeake with Andy May

  • The Good Things (Outweigh the Bad) (Swift River Music SRM 120CD, March 16, 2018)

Various Artists

  • Bluegrass Special (Power Pak PO-218, 1973)
  • Fireball; Red Dress; Black Mountain Rag; Ruby; and Home Sweet Home – Also features tracks by Red Allen and by Benny Martin 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.