Classic Album Review-Jack Guthrie “Oklahoma Hills/Memorial Album”
Greetings from Asheville, where good music is always on the turntable, in the CD, or on the MP3. Today, we look back at what, so far, is the oldest album to be covered on the Classic Album Review, 1948. Certainly, no one can argue that the name Woody Guthrie is among the most famous of songwriters in the 20th Century; however, not as well known in this day and age, is his cousin Leon Guthrie, known professionally as Jack or Oke. In fact, it was the Oke name he used, when working with Woody on the radio, before World War 2.
Whereas Woody’s style was more of what is considered Folk, Jack leaned more towards Western Swing. And it was with that sound that Jack enjoyed most of his success in his short career. Oklahoma Hills/Memorial Album is a three record 78 rpm set, released by Capitol Records after Jack’s death in January, 1948, from tuberculosis at the age of 32. A six song album is short, today, but in the day of the 78’s, six to eight songs was the norm. This amount would also be used on early 10” 33 1/3 albums, as well as 45 albums. While it appears that this album was never reissued in either of the two aforementioned formats, the tracks can be found in later releases, including both chart singles included here.
The first disc includes the biggest hit of Jack’s career, “Oklahoma Hills”. Released in the Summer of 1945, it spent six weeks at number one on the Country charts. The song is a reworking of a song that Woody Guthrie had written. A bouncy track that fits well with Guthrie’s tenor vocals, this is a record that really falls somewhere between Western Swing and Western (Rogers/Ritter/Autry style), featuring elements of both. While my first experience with this song was the 1961 Hank Thompson hit version, I really like Jack Guthrie’s recording; it’s raw and edgy, with a minimal accompaniment of a lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and fiddle, which give a nice background, yet lets the song and Guthrie’s performance shine in the spotlight.
The next track (flip side) is Jack’s take on the Jimmie Rodgers song “When The Cactus Is In Bloom”, complete with the yodels. Jack was a more than acceptable yodeler, handling the yodels in fine fashion, here. Another sprite track that will create a sudden case of toe-tapping, if one is not careful. I really like this recording, again, a near perfect pairing of voice and composition. And speaking of the composition, I think this is one of Jimmie Rodgers’ more underrated works, with it’s catchy melody and lyrics highlighting the round-up time.
On the second record, Jack tackled the Eddy Arnold hit “Chained To A Memory”. Set to a quicker pace than Eddy’s cut, Jack gives a good performance of the Jenny Lou Carson written hit. I like Eddy’s version, best, but let me say this; if Eddy Arnold had tried the quicker tempo like this, it wouldn’t have worked. By the same token, I don’t think the slower pace would have worked for Jack Guthrie. I do like how it skips along with the loneliness of a man who can’t forget his ex-love. What is missing, with the quicker pace, is the mournfulness heard in the Eddy Arnold version.
Flipping record two over, we get “This Troubled Mind Of Mine”. Again, a bouncy track that is a very good mix of Country, Western Swing, and Blues. Country Blues at it’s best, right here. Great song that one wonders how it ever escaped an appearance on the best seller lists of the day.
Moving to record three, we get a taste of the “Oakie Boogie”. Considered by many to be among the first “Rock ‘N Roll” records; some go so far as to call it the first. It certainly has elements found in early Rock ‘N Roll, from the beat to the structure of the composition, and rocking guitar riffs. Still, the arrangement is pure Country, though definitely with attitude. This was Jack’s final chart entry, peaking at three in the Spring, 1947.
The final track of this compilation is “Oklahoma’s Calling”. A fitting end to this tribute, as the real-life Oklahoma native desires to return to his native state. Another quality piece of music.
There is a CD available titled Oklahoma Hills, that includes all but “This Troubled Mind Of Mine”. As for a copy of this album, I was unable to find any online, but they are out there. A little detective work will likely unearth one.
My Standout Track pick has to be the classic “Oklahoma Hills”, while my Hidden Gem goes to “This Troubled Mind Of Mine”, narrowly over “When The Cactus Is In Bloom”. No Weak Track, here.
Overall, a very nice collection of music from back in the day. Jack Guthrie was a unique vocalist, whose style really can’t be compared to anyone, at least not closely. One could argue a certain similarity to Jimmie Rodgers and even Ernest Tubb. Certainly the six sides makes the works feel limited by today’s standards, but remember, this was released before 33 1/3’s and 45’s were on the market. A cool piece from another time, I’m going 5 out of 5.
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