Woody Guthrie's Country (Singing) Cousin

Tuesday, 17 September 2013 06:06 AM Written by 

One thing tends to get lost in the mythology of Woody Guthrie: the fact that long before he became revered as a folk music icon and champion of social justice, he was a popular country singer on the West Coast in the late 1930's. Another thing not known to many: his cousin Jack, the one Guthrie who actually ended up becoming country hitmaker—at least for a brief period.  

Leon Jerry Guthrie, born in Olive, Oklahoma 1915 (three years after Woody), grew up around ranching and music. He learned to play a number of instruments and in the 1930's amid the Dust Bowl migrations west, relocated to for Southern California, then a largely rural area. He worked mainly in rodeos and reconnected with Woody. Also nicknamed "Oke," short for "Okie," for a time Jack and Woody performed together there on "The Oke and Woody Show" on KFVD radio.

Woody moved on, following his own destiny toward folk music as Jack focused on rodeo work until a 1944 injury ended his rodeo career, sending him back to music. Capitol Records executive Lee Gillette signed him in 1944. He recorded Woody's "Oklahoma Hills" at his first session. It became a national hit while Guthrie was in the Army, stationed in the South Pacific. He insisted he should get writer credit on "Hills," since he'd made some changes in Woody's composition. Initially Woody disputed that but in the end the cousins shared co-writer credits.  "Oklahoma Hills" eventually became an American music standard.

Warning: this is hard country. Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line fans need not apply.

1944: "Oklahoma Hills" Woody wrote the song but Jack tried to claim composer credit. The dispute went to court and when the smoke cleared, Jack got a piece of the song along with Woody.

1944: The Jimmie Rodgers tune "When The Cactus Is In Bloom"

1946: The studio version of Johnny Tyler's composition  "Oakie Boogie," a country hit and later, a rockabilly favorite recorded by various acts.

1946: "The Clouds Rained Trouble Down"

He jumped right into things after his 1946 discharge, and with his career taking off, ended up in the 1947 film Hollywood Barn Dance which starred Opry luminary Ernest Tubb.   This is Guthrie singing "Oakie Boogie" with all-acoustic backing.

Sadly, Jack Guthrie didn't have much time to make his mark. He was working to keep up his career momentum in 1947 when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Putting off treatment to gain more professional traction proved fatal. He died in 1948 at 32.

Decades passed before he got his due as a country singer, for both his expressive, twangy voice and his distinctive sound on records. He was always in Woody's shadow and his window of fame had been brief in any case.  He's a bit better known today, with three CD's worth of his music available and more interest in the West Coast country music scene that blossomed during and just after World War II.

You might notice that Guthrie, despite being in western swing territory in LA, didn't use large groups of musicians on his records. His recorded sound was consistent, using the same accompaniment on every record. The instrumental lineup was similar to today's Hot Club of Cowtown: rhythm guitarist Red Murrell, bass player Cliffie Stone, electric guitarist Porky Freeman and Billy Hughes' very swinging fiddle on most tunes.

Jack Guthrie would have never enjoyed a long career in country, even without his fatal diagnosis. He was too raw and too nasal, to last as the music changed and pop overtones started permeating country. Also, the focus moved away from LA's country scene to that of Nashville and Bakersfield. The records he made, however, have a charm and funkiness that holds up well. And it would be the case even if he weren't Woody's cousin.  Still, he was one of the more interesting footnotes in the Guthrie saga.

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