Willis Spears passes 

Curley Seckler and Willis Spears with The Nashville Grass

Willis Spears, whose singing and guitar playing were remarkably similar to Lester Flatt’s, and who served as Curley Seckler’s partner in The Nashville Grass, passed away on Sunday, September 17, 2023, at his home in Summertown, TN. He was 83 years old.

He was born on September 13, 1940, on a farm near Summertown, about 70 miles south of Nashville. His mother played guitar and, recognizing his very early interest in music, bought him a Harmony guitar for $37.50. By the age of 12, Spears had learned to play basic chords. 

Upon graduating from Lewis County High School, he went to work for a manufacturing company and, shortly afterwards, he met banjo player Bruce Weathers, and they spent time jamming at Weathers’ home. 

In 1963 Spears was drafted into the Army, and during two years of service, played with many different bluegrass bands entertaining at local events. 

Thereafter, he joined the Cumberland Mountain Trio, performing at weekends, including regular Saturday shows on Radio WDKN in Dixon, TN. Spears recalled that they made one album.  

Two of the group’s recordings are included on the Various Artists collection Wonderful World Of Bluegrass Music (Cattle LP 22), released in 1981. 

After meeting at a bluegrass event in Lawrenceville, TN, Spears befriended Johnny Warren, the fiddler with the Nashville Grass, which led them to play music together informally. Curly Seckler met Spears at one of these jam sessions, and as the duo sang together, Seckler noted that Spears, “sounded so much the way Lester did in the ’50s”. On the comparison, Spears insists, “I’ve never tried to sing like anyone. It’s just the natural way I sound.” 

In May 1981 Seckler invited Spears, then 42, to join the Nashville Grass, and at the beginning of 1987, Seckler made Spears his partner, changing the band name to Curly Seckler, Willis Spears and the Nashville Grass. 

Curly Seckler and The Nashville Grass – I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home

Everett’s Music Barn in Suwanee, Georgia (November 30, 1985)

The Salty Dog Blues 

I Heard My Mother Call My Name In Prayer

Jimmy Brown The Newsboy

Spears recorded a few albums while with the band. 

Little Pal from Tribute to Lester Flatt. 

Their last official show date was on November 26, 1994, at Myrtle Beach, SC. 

There were many reunions though; some private, such as the various Seckler birthday parties, and for a get-together at the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, KY, in September 2013; along with some public events such as on September 3, 2005, when Seckler performed at the Bass Mountain Bluegrass Festival near Burlington, NC; the October 2005 IBMA FanFest in Nashville; Curly Seckler Day in Bristol, TN, (January 2008); on August 2, 2008, when Seckler and Spears appeared at the 34th Annual Carter Family Memorial Festival in Hiltons, VA; at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theatre as part of Seckler’s 75th anniversary celebrations; and for Seckler’s last public performance at Mule Day in Columbia, TN (on March 31, 2012). 

R.I.P., Willis Spears

Arrangements are being handled by Neal Funeral Home in Lawrenceburg, TN. The family will receive friends from 5:00 pm to 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 20, 2023, at Neal Funeral Home. Funeral services will be conducted at Neal Funeral Home at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, September 21, 2023, with Jeff Vanlandingham officiating.

Interment will follow at Barnesville Cemetery in Summertown, TN, with full military honors.  

The family suggests memorials be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  

A Discography 

Curly Seckler and Willis Spears

  • China Grove, My Hometown (Folkways FTS-31095, 1983) w. The Nashville Grass
  • What A Change A Day Can Make (Rich-R-Tone LP-8129, 1986) w. Willie Spears
  • Bluegrass Gospel (Rich-R-Tone LP-8133, late 1980s) (Curly Seckler and Willis Spears with The Nashville Grass) 
  • Tribute to Lester Flatt (Rebel Records CS-4301, 1990 (cassette only). Five cuts from this set are included in the CD, That Old Book of Mine (County CO 2740, October 11, 2005).

Curly Seckler

  • 60 Years of Bluegrass with My Friends (Vine Street VSR D 107, 1996) – I’ll go Stepping Too – reissued on CD (Copper Creek CCCD-0227, 2004).

Various Artists

  • Rebel Records: 35 Years of the Best in Bluegrass (1960-1995) (Rebel Records RB CD 4000, September 3, 1996) – My Cabin in Caroline 

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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.