By Amara Nash
On Sundays, the small fishing village of Cortez was divided almost down the middle. Half would attend service at one of the two community churches, the other half would gather at the “Cortez Grand Ole Opry”. The Culbreath family home earned this moniker over time, as a result of the musical traditions that have been passed down over generations. The white two-story house stood as monument to its rich history, until it was torn down in the mid 1980s.
James Charles “Dick” Culbreath brought his wife, his fiddle, and his nine children to Cortez in 1921. Originally from Hamilton County, FL, they moved to Manatee County to farm the fertile shell middens on Perico Island. Cortez may have never known the musical family had the hurricane of 1921 not transformed their croplands into a salty wasteland. After the storm, Dick traded in his hoe for fishing supplies and adopted the life of a fiddle-playing fisherman.
Almost every member of the family played music: fiddle, guitar, piano, banjo, harmonica, mandolin, fiddlesticks, mouth harp, drums, or all of the above. The promise of music on the weekends helped them through the difficult weeks. Most nights there wasn’t much more than fried mullet for dinner. They had a dairy cow and made butter and other products, both for consumption and barter. The chance to play music together or listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio made it all okay, even if radio signals were intermittent in Cortez. On one particular occasion, as the radio signals faded in and out, a family friend, “Grey” Fulford said, “you don’t have to listen to that; you’ve got your own Grand Ole Opry right here.” The name stuck.
When the Culbreath family played together, folks couldn’t help but dance. They called it “shaking a leg”, and that is what happened every Sunday. “Dick” Culbreath particularly loved buck dancing (a form of clogging) and his signature move was to jump in the air and click his heels together three times before his feet touched the floor again. As their reputation grew, people came from Bradenton and surrounding areas to hear them play. Other musicians joined in, too.
One of Culbreath boys, Julian, known as “Goose”, is a Florida Folk Heritage Award recipient. He claimed to have learned to play fiddle on a bet (which he obviously won), and played professionally from the time he was 17 until his death in 2003, at age 87. He was no ordinary fiddler though; he was a “trick” fiddler. His tricks included playing with the fiddle between his knees, then with the bow between his knees, bowing the fiddle with no hair, and wrapping the hair around the fiddle and playing that way. He livened up many a square dance and folk festival.
Goose’s nephew, Richard Culbreath, still resides in Cortez and is the last remaining musician who was lucky enough to have played with the whole family, including his namesake and grandfather, “Dick”. Richard learned to play guitar by watching his father, and with help from his Uncle Goose. He gathered the remaining Culbreath musicians together in the 1980s, including Richard’s granddaughter who frequently accompanied them on the spoons, to play for the Commercial Fishing Festivals in Cortez. They called the band The Cortez Grand Ole Opry and played together, adding and switching musicians as necessary, until 1999.
Richard has memories of the family playing square dances in the schoolhouse that now houses the Florida Maritime Museum, as well as private homes throughout Cortez. While it is a rare treat to see a Culbreath at one of them, the Florida Maritime Museum honors this musical tradition with a monthly “Music on the Porch” jam session.