Sunday, December 13, 2009

Curtis Kirk 1951 acetate

Curtis Kirk - "Down Texas Way" (unissued acetate)

This is the earliest known recording of Tyler singer Curtis Kirk (b. Feb. 15, 1929, in Grand Saline). Dating from 1951, or slightly earlier, "Down Texas Way" was a Jack Rhodes song that was recorded in drastically altered form by Hank Locklin for 4-Star Records -- with the songwriter credit going to Locklin. It's a mystery as to how or why this happened. Locklin could have bought the song from Rhodes -- such song-buying being typical for the day -- except that Rhodes very shrewdly guarded songs that he had anything to do with, and selling a song would have been unusual for him.

Kirk's original was recorded as a demo at the Burton Harris Studio (his house at that time) in Mount Pleasant, Tx. According to Harris: "I recorded many original songs during 1951, 1952, and 1953, mostly with Jack Rhodes from Mineola. Jack had come to me with about 150 songs, said he had never been able to do anything with them, and asked me to help him. We got musician friends to assist and I cut 22 of Jack's best songs. These were all done at our little house on Texas Street in Mount Pleasant. Vocals were done by Jimmy Johnson, Curtis Kirk, Betty Lou Spears, Freddie Franks, and Danny Brown. Bobby Garrett and Al Petty played steel guitars, Jimmy Johnson and I played lead guitars, Pee Wee Walker, fiddle, Jimmy McGuire and Doc Shelton, bass, Connie Frable, piano, and various others played rhythm guitar." (Burton Harris, The Way I Remember It, 1993)

"Down Texas Way" is an odd, rambling, no-holds-barred travelogue of Texas as seem through the cynical eyes of Jack Rhodes. As was typical for Rhodes, the wordplay here is pretty clever:

Coons, possums, and .45s
A rattlesnake beatin' out a solid jive

Rich man, poor man, beggerman, all --
You better shoot fast or not at all

Musically, the guitarist (Jimmy Johnson?) and steel guitarist seem to have been thinking of the song as a ranchera, or something...these are not exactly typical country chordings behind the vocals. The twin-guitar break is well done and reminds one of similar breaks on Lefty Frizzell's early sessions.

Jack Rhodes must have pitched the song to Hank Locklin, then based in Houston, who recognized its potential and recorded a far more commercial, piano-driven version in the Summer of 1951 at ACA in Houston. Locklin stripped the song of anything potentially controversial ("half-breeds" and "pickaninnies" were ousted), altered some lyrics, and threw out the above "rich man" couplet entirely, while retaining the hook line, "It should be the capitol of the USA." Locklin's is still a good record (hear it here), but I wish somebody had released Curtis Kirk's version, too.

Curtis Kirk died on January 2, 1985.

Thanks to Burton Harris.