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Curtis & Loretta
Curtis & Loretta's music comes straight from the heart. They live and breathe folk music. It isn’t something they put away at the end of the day, and it’s something they can never imagine “retiring” from. Though it is how they make their living, it is infinitely more than a job! The husband and wife duo's extraordinary harmonies and proficiency on a parade of stringed instruments create an alluring frame for their poignant original songs, and carefully chosen traditional pieces from the British Isles and America. The current menagerie includes Celtic harp, mandocello, mandolin, guitars, clawhammer banjo, and National steel ukulele, plus a bit of kazoo, harmonica, shakers, and spoons.
They were married (to each other!) 33 years ago, in Santiago, Mexico. Though Curtis grew up in Texas, and Loretta in Minnesota, they went all the way to California to meet each other 42 years ago, and ten years later to Mexico to get married. Scroll down for more details on how all that came about!
They started playing music together the first day they met in 1977, and haven’t stopped since. They’ve racked up countless miles on a procession of mini-vans over the years, criss-crossing the country to present their unique brand of folk singer-songwriter music. From the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, to Fiddling Cricket Concerts in San Jose, from the Sarasota Folk Club in Florida to the Fox Valley Folk Festival in Chicago, and innumerable places in between, they have won dedicated fans across the country.
An evening with Curtis & Loretta is a captivating experience. It runs the gamut of rolling with laughter, to holding back tears, with plenty of side trips in between. Their thought-provoking originals and timeless traditional songs are seamlessly woven together by their tight harmonies and their array of stringed instruments. And their years of performing and touring together have honed their comfortable stage presence to a delightful edge.
Their poignant original songs have touched hearts everywhere. Loretta was awarded an Artist Initiative Grant in Music from the Minnesota State Arts Board in 2015. She is writing 12 songs about real-life people who have overcome great odds in their lives. This stellar cast of characters includes a woman who donated a kidney to a toddler she didn’t know, a native American man who grew up at the state orphanage in Minnesota amid great discrimination and abuse, a woman who grew up in great hardship in the grasslands of Somalia and is now a nurse at Mayo Clinic, and many more.
Each of these 12 people has such an inspiring story to tell, and Curtis & Loretta are so honored to have become a part of each of these people’s lives. Loretta interviewed each “subject,” as Curtis took pictures. This is the exact point where the part about living and breathing folk music comes in. It’s woven inextricably into their lives, and they like it that way! Curtis & Loretta will be recording a CD of the songs at the end of the summer, and it will be released in November 2015. Check the calendar here for times and places.
Previously, their original songs have tackled such tough issues as Alzheimer’s, the holocaust, and the war in the Balkans. Can You Take Me Home? ("Just My Heart For You"), tells the story of Loretta’s mom taking care of her dad through 10 long years of Alzheimer’s. Angel of Bergen-Belsen (also on "Just My Heart") is the story of Luba Tryszynska-Frederick, a holocaust survivor who saved 54 children during WWII, while she herself was a prisoner in the death camps. After writing the song, Curtis & Loretta sought her out, finding she was living in Florida. The duo became good friends with her, visiting her four times, and staying in touch by phone till she passed away in 2009. Elza and Branko: The Siege of Sarajevo ("Where You Hang Your Hat") details the love and bravery of an elderly couple who somehow survived the siege of their city. Curtis & Loretta located Elza, who had since been widowed, and stayed in contact with her for many years.
Lest you think everything this duo sings is serious, be aware there are also songs of lutefisk (if you’re a Minnesotan you know what they’re talking about), people who think they’re always right, bugs, and harp players trying to sneak into heaven.
Rick Mason wrote in City Pages A-List “Curtis and Loretta are in many ways the quintessential folk duo: finely honed vocal harmonies of multidimensional intrigue, abundant talent on an array of stringed instruments, deep traditional roots, great originals, and equally strong strains of gravity and playful irreverence.”
In 2010, they received an Arts Tour Minnesota Grant from the State Arts Board, and presented nineteen 1800s historical concerts across the state. In 2002, City Pages named them “Best Acoustic Performers of the Twin Cities.”
Curtis grew up in the little town of Duncanville, Texas. It’s just south of Dallas, and has since become a huge suburb of that metropolis. But back then, his family lived on a dirt road a ways out of town. Main street consisted of a feed store and a Dairy Queen. His dad and grandfather took turns preaching in the small family church, and he learned to sing harmony there, sitting alongside his mother. An uncle gave the family a record player, and it came with exactly 3 vinyl albums; Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and Pete Seeger. Curtis took to Pete right away, and has never looked back. At 12 he bought a guitar out of the want ads and taught himself to play. His determination to learn was bolstered by the fact that his parents told him it was just too hard to do.
Three years later he ran away from home and ended up in Hawaii! He lived there for five years or so, the“or so” part owing to the fact that he never owned a calendar and paid little attention to such things in this paradise.
He says he was a “beach minstrel / bum / tree house dweller.” He picked up and sold puka shells, learned shakuhacki (Japanese bamboo meditation flute), learned to sail and body surf. Once in awhile he returned to the mainland and hitchhiked up to Washington to pick apples to help make ends meet. The final time he left Hawaii was on an antique sixty foot ketch, as part of the crew. It took them 30 days to sail to San Francisco. He made his way south a bit to Santa Cruz, where his shakuhachi teacher, Peter Ross, had taken up residence. He continued studying with him, and apprenticed as a shakuhachi builder. And he joined the incredible street music scene happening on the downtown mall in Santa Cruz in the late 70s, along with such soon-to-be legends as slide guitar master Bob Brozman, jugglers The Flying Karamazov Brothers, and Artis the Spoonman.
Curtis is totally self-taught on guitar, clawhammer banjo, ukulele, mandolin, mandocello, harmonica, and spoons. "Teague is the master of a host of instruments, including guitar, mandocello, ukulele, and clawhammer banjo," says the Express-Times of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And his full rich voice is an integral part of the duo's harmonies, whether they're singing their originals, or traditional songs.”
Loretta grew up in the country too, almost 1000 miles north of Curtis. Her family lived on fourteen acres next to the highway just outside of the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota. It’s an historic river town, called the “Birthplace of Minnesota.” Performing was in her blood from a young age. She and her sisters put on puppet shows in the basement, she took piano lessons, and she absolutely loved singing. At 12, the same age as Curtis, she taught herself to play guitar out of a Peter, Paul, and Mary songbook. She played and sang in the Teen Choir at St. Michael’s Church. Her very first influences were P.P.M., along with Joni Mitchell, and like Curtis again, Pete Seeger!
At Stillwater High School, she was in plays, choral reading, and concert choir. She wrote for the school paper, and was editor her senior year. At St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, she acted in plays, made costumes and sets, and sang in concert choir. She did summer stock theater for two years, and graduated with a BA in Theater.
Curtis says Loretta is a natural born singer. She sang for years in choirs, and with Curtis. But in the 2000s, she decided to study with Jeanie Brindley-Barnett at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. She spent five years learning to hone her vocal technique, and now Loretta feels like her voice is richer than ever.
Rick Mason of the City Pages has called her voice “compelling and crystalline,” and Jon Bream of the Star Tribune wrote, “Loretta Simonet has a jewel of a voice.” “Simonet’s vocals are heartrendingly lovely,” said the City Pages A-List. Now, with the Artist Initiative Grant, she’s working to hone her song-writing skills too.
Self-taught on guitar and mandolin, she discovered the harp in the late 1980s. She got herself the requisite “Teach Yourself to Play Folk Harp” book by Sylvia Woods, and started on this new journey, but quickly decided this time, she’d opt for a teacher. It turns out one can do serious damage, such as carpal tunnel, with incorrect harp techniques. So she studied with Gaylord Stauffer for two years, then Bridgett Stuckey, former harpist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, for another five years. Loretta says the folk harp is the instrument she was “meant to play.”
Curtis & Loretta Find Each Other!
OK, if you’ve scrolled down to find out how they met, this is it! After graduating from college, Loretta decided to head to the West Coast, to get her break in folk music or theater. Something involving a stage!! She did some acting in community theater, and she was singing in a variety show at Schiavo’s Bar on Mission Street in Santa Cruz every Friday night. But after dividing the money with the other 7 or 8 acts each week, she realized she needed a “real job.” She found a job as a nursing assistant at a rest home in Capitola, just down the beach from Santa Cruz.
On a Friday afternoon in April, 1977, she headed to the beach to practice her guitar for that night’s variety show. A long haired man (also with a long beard) walked up to her and said, “Hey, I play guitar!” Yes, it was Curtis, recently off the sailboat from Hawaii. Loretta had heard that line before and proceeded cautiously. She had encountered several young men on that same beach who claimed to play guitar, but had something entirely different in mind. But Curtis ran home and returned in a few minutes not with a guitar, but a mandolin. She made room for him on her driftwood log, and they played “Suzanne,” the Leonard Cohen song, together. Something clicked. Their voices effortlessly “meshed” together. They kept playing, and the harmonies on each song sounded just as good. She invited him play at her variety show gig that night. He invited her share his gig on the street in downtown Santa Cruz. Eventually Loretta quit her rest home job, and they started hitchhiking (not recommended these days!!) up and down the West Coast, playing for tips and meals in coffeehouses and cafes. In Washington, Curtis showed Loretta the ropes of picking apples and pears for a season.
They backpacked through Europe for six months. They busked on the streets and in cafes there, and picked tulips in Holland when they ran out of money. They lived in Texas and Oklahoma for a short while, and ended up back in Minnesota. They had started out together in 1977 playing 1960s folk songs. In the 80s they were drawn to Celtic music as a natural progression of Loretta learning to play the Celtic harp. An exciting step in the evolution of their music was starting to write some of their own songs. Their originals are absolutely influenced by their traditional background, but they’re not afraid to tackle tough, contemporary issues.
They performed primarily in the upper Midwest though the 80s, and Curtis earned a degree in Musical Stringed Instrument Repair at Southwest Technical College in Red Wing, Minnesota. He did instrument repairs at several Twin Cities music stores throughout the 80s and 90s. Loretta started her own cottage industry making glass beaded jewelry, and selling it at Renaissance Festivals across the country.
OK, you might ask, didn’t you say something earlier about being married in Mexico? We’re getting there. But first, Loretta must admit that Curtis wanted to get married way back there somewhere. Maybe not the first day on the beach, but soon after that, he decided this. Loretta on the other hand, was not so sure. He did finally convince her! He claims he bribed her on a sub-zero Minnesota day, with a trip to sunny Mexico. In February, 1987 they went to Mexico and were married in the little town of Santiago, just outside of Manzanillo, on the West Coast. Yes, it’s legal! They sent all the documents to consulates, and here and there, and it is legal, although their marriage certificate is in Spanish. Neither of them speak Spanish, so Curtis always says, “I don’t know, it could say we’re Mexican citizens for all we know!”
They Hit the Road Again!
In the 1990s, their love for the music and performing drew them back to the road. This time they didn’t hitchhike though. They got a mini-van, loaded up all the instruments and started touring extensively across the country. They left instrument repairs and beadwork behind, and are still making their living doing what they love, performing folk music full-time.
In 2006, Loretta’s mom in Stillwater got sick, and the duo scaled back some on performing and touring, so she could spend time helping her out. Mildred Simonet died last year at the age of 88, and bittersweet though it is, Curtis & Loretta are once again touring across the country. One of the songs on their upcoming CD will be “On the Day They Said I Do,” which tells the story of Loretta’s mom and dad, and how the odds were stacked against their marriage back in 1947. They persevered, and were married to each other for 50 years. During the years Loretta was helping her mom out, she asked her mom lots of questions about how she and her dad met and faced these odds. She’s honored to now share their story with the world.
Curtis & Loretta live in Minneapolis. After they were married in Mexico, Curtis said he would take Loretta back there on every anniversary. In 1988, they went back to the same area on vacation. They haven’t been back since...
•Our Heritage in Song 2009
•Just My Heart for You 2006
•Sit Down Beside Me 2001
•Gone Forever 1999
•It's Where You Hang Your Hat 1994
•The Parting Glass 1993
•Christmastide with Curtis & Loretta 1991
•Haymarket Minstrels 1989