Guitarist and vocalist Nick Curran died this past week after a three-year battle with oral cancer. An exuberant, flamboyant and immensely gifted musician, Curran was a singular presence on the roots music scene in Austin, Texas where he lived. Blessed with a gigantic, soulful voice and monumentally tasty blues, rockabilly and hard-rock tested guitar chops, Curran was a musical iconoclast who saw rock 'n' roll as a continuous thread running from T-Bone Walker and Les Paul, all the way through Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, to Keith Richards, Angus Young and Slash. Over the course of five albums, all engineered by his studio partner-in-crime Billy Horton, Curran reinvented the often conservative and self-limiting template of roots-based rock, turning it into a post-modern celebration of all that is wild and rocking, hilarious and life affirming.
Although he was schooled in and adept at all the purist traditions of rock guitar, Curran was never one to get pigeonholed as a neo-style artist. Born in Biddeford, Maine, Curran was first introduced to blues and rock 'n' roll by his guitarist father, who encouraged him to learn by playing along to records by The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Duke Robillard. By his adolescence, Curran was heavily under the influence of such albums as AC/DC's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction. Although he didn't hear rockabilly music until his teens, by 19 he had mastered the genre enough to hit the road as rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson's guitarist. From there, he moved to Dallas, touring and recording with neo-rockabilly diva Kim Lenz's backing band, the Jaguars. Finally settling in the fertile roots music city of Austin, his rockabilly credentials set in stone, Curran blew everybody's minds when he released his 2000 debut solo album, Fixin' Your Head. While still looking like the second coming of Eddie Cochran on the album cover, Fixin' Your Head found Curran diving headlong into a vintage-sounding jump blues and rockin' R&B style that sounded like a collection of long-lost Wynonie Harris b-sides from the late '40s. For fans of old school blues, the album was a revelation. For neo-rockabilly scenesters only familiar with Curran as one of Lenz' Jaguars, the album was an eye-popper. Curran, who was now touring with his own back-up band the Nitelifes, would proceed to pack houses at various '50s-themed festivals around the world, including the Viva Las Vegas Fest, where Curran was regularly the highlight of the yearly event.
His next album, the equally as vintage-sounding Nitelife Boogie, showcased his take on Lloyd Price's classic shouter, "I'm Glad, Glad." Curran's version, with his punk-rock energy and no-holds-barred guitar playing, bested Price's and stands as the moment he transcended his influences and became something indisputably unique. Listening to Curran's first two albums – which are filled not just with cover songs, but also his own original compositions, each one sounding like a lost R&B classic – is like hearing blues for the first time. Curran would further develop this approach after signing with the blues-label Blind Pig in 2002. His two albums for the label, 2003's Doctor Velvet and 2004's Player!, found Curran delving deeper into the blues traditions while at the same time applying his eclectic ear to a variety of decidedly non-blues songs, such as garage-rock legends the Sonics' "Shot Down," Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart," and the Stooges' "No Fun." And these weren't just token cover songs. On the contrary, Curran's uncanny ability to find the throughline in all rock 'n' roll made these tunes sound perfect alongside the album's rock 'n' blues tracks. In interview with AllMusic in 2010 Curran said, "I always want to do something where there's no way someone could give me a hard time about it. Like, do it with conviction. You are going to like this whether you want to or not... I want it to be known that this is this song that you probably would hate – but you like my version of it. I'm trying to show people there is a similarity between this and that, and that is where they were coming from. This might be what it would sound like if it was done back then."
In 2004, Curran received the W.C. Handy Award for Best New Artist Debut. It was an auspicious moment and should have portended his rise to one of the most lauded young blues artists in the world. However, the ever restless artist, Curran disbanded the Nitelifes that same year in favor of touring as a sideman with Kim Wilson's blues-rock stalwarts the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Curran had long espoused his love of original T-Birds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, with whom he recorded on Doctor Velvet, and the move allowed Curran a break from the stress of running his own band and a chance to be a member of one of his favorite groups. That said, while he impressed longtime T-Birds fans with his blues chops, he wasn't interested in pandering to their expectations. In that same AllMusic interview in 2010, Curran said, "Let's say when I was first going with the T-Birds, the last thing I wanted to do was go up there and look like Jimmie Vaughan – which a lot of people would try to do. So I'm like, well, if I'm gonna play guitar with the T-Birds, I'm gonna have to look like Sid Vicious or something. That's what I did and a lot of people didn't like it. But at the same time, I was kind of telling people, hey, listen with your ears, not your eyes. You don't have to play a '50s Stratocaster and wear vintage suits to play blues."
After leaving the T-Birds, Curran remained an active sideman and collaborator with several punk-influenced bands, including the short-lived Deguello and The Flash Boys, but eventually returned to his solo work. Curran's final album, 2010's Reform School Girl, took Curran's time traveling ethos to its fruition. Centered around the cheeky title track, a Phil Spector "wall of sound" girl group style production that found Curran playing the lovelorn fool for a rough-and-tumble delinquent chick, the album was Curran's most frenetic, most rocking, most red-eyed and punk rock-sounding recording yet. From cuts like the explosive "Psycho," to the punk-blues Deguello carryover "Filthy", to his genius, Little Richard-style reworking of AC/DC's "Rocker," Reform School Girl was a veritable rock 'n' roll manifesto, a bright, neon-colored spotlight on all that he found gorgeous and gross and lustful and outright awesome about rock's past, present and future. The album sounded like Curran bringing together everything that had ever sparked his own creative musical fire into one cohesive rock 'n' roll fever dream. It looked every bit the signpost pointing to the future for Curran, but it was not to be.
In late 2009, Curran began experiencing discomfort and pain in his throat, and in early 2010, he was diagnosed with oral cancer. By his own account, he wasn't someone at high risk for this sort of disease. In 2010 he told AllMusic, "Basically, they don't know what caused it, because I'm not high-risk. I'm not a smoker. I mean, [the doctors] said for me to have this I'd have to be in my 50's or 60's and smoked packs a day for my whole life and drunk hard stuff. I have drunk a fair amount in my day, but not enough. But they caught it early and it didn't spread anywhere."
For a few months, it seemed as if the cancer had abated. Then, in 2011, Curran announced that the cancer had returned, and that he was seeking further treatment. Not just a fighter on stage, Curran kept up an unrelentingly positive public image, posting often on Facebook about what he was going through to friends and fans alike (as he never converted his personal profile to a fan page), and keeping the dream that he would soon return to touring and recording at the forefront of his fans' hearts. As he told AllMusic in 2010, " I'm ready to get this over with. I'm ready to actually get out and play and be on the road for the new record. I'm just a little set-back, but I'm gonna be fine. I'm real positive about it and I'm just ready to be on the other side of it. But you gotta do what you gotta do and take care of business and then I'll be back before you know it." Curran's cancer remained unaffected by further chemotherapy, but positive as ever, the musician devoted himself to alternative therapies with no visible break in his unrelenting optimism. A tattoo enthusiast, Curran even inked his wrists with the phrase "Fuck Cancer" and, as if to mock the very sadness of the disease, had one solitary tear tattooed onto his cheek. Perhaps it was the very exuberance that radiated throughout everything Curran did that made his death on October 6, 2012 such a shock and deeply felt tragedy, even to those who were well aware of his illness. He passed away while in the care of his mother, at the age of 35.
For more information, read the AllMusic interview with Nick Curran, and listen up to some of AllMusic's favorite Nick Curran songs: