Luke Hignight's Ozark Strutters

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The following is excerpted from W.K. McNeil's article "Five Pre-World War II Arkansas String Bands: Some Thoughts on their Recording Success" in The John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly, vol. XX, Spring/Summer, 1984, pp. 72-73 [1]. McNeil's informant was Hignight's daughter, Venetta Staley, interviewed in Mt. View, Arkansas on September 29, 1979, and subsequently corresponded with.

The final group under consideration here is one who, unlike the other bands discussed here, may have remained in obscurity partly because of a spelling error. For many years country music researchers have been searching for a Luke Highnight with little success. The chief reason for their failure is that no one by that name existed, the real last name was Hignight. The blame for this situation can be given to the record companies who inadvertently supplied the wrong name to those seeking biographical data on the man. It is not hard to ascertain why there was great interest in him, for with his group, the Ozark Strutters, he performed some of the most exciting music ever put on record by an Arkansas group.

The leader of the band was born Luther Burton Hignight in Hollywood, Arkansas, 27 September, 1898. His family, consisting of a brother, six half-brothers and a half-sister, were all musical, performing mainly for their own entertainment. Young Luther also learned to play and sing; by the time he was a teenager, he had mastered the piano, reed organ, mandolin, Jew's harp, harmonica, and banjo. The last two were the instruments he favored, so he devised a harmonica holder that enabled him to play both simultaneously. From his father, M.C. (and his brother, Rush, he learned a number of old ballads and soon became as well known for his vocal abilities as for his instrumental proficiency. His daughter, Venetta, recalls that he frequently sang "Birmingham Jail," "Red River Valley," and several more obscure items.

In 1917, Hignight's musical career began to gain momentum. In the mid-1920s he headed one of the first country acts to perform over KTHS (Kum To Hot Springs) in Hot Springs, Arkansas. This initial radio group possibly included M. C. Hignight, Luke's father, and may have been billed Luke Hignight's Ozark Strutters. Certainly the band used this name on its radio broadcasts. Obviously, these programs achieved some local popularity, for family members recall that the group received lots of fan mail, and even love letters.

In the late 1920s Hignight got a chance to make his first recordings. He was one of three members of Minton's Ozark String Band, a group consisting of Frank Gardner, fiddle, Hignight, banjo, and Sherman Tedder, guitar, that did a session for OKeh in Memphis, Tennessee, 25 February 1928. Unfortunately, none of the band's four cuts was ever issued; the same fate befell a Hignight vocal and a Sherman Tedder instrumental recorded at the same time. It is especially regrettable that the cut of Hignight singing was not released because, apparently, it was the only recording ever made of his vocalizing.

On 22 November, 1928, nine months after the Okeh session, Hignight returned to Memphis to make six sides for Vocalion. This group, billed as Luke Hignight's Ozark Strutters (although his name was misspelled on the record label), consisted of Gardner on fiddle, Hignight on banjo and harmonica, and Henry Tucker on guitar. Of the six cuts from this session, five were issued; only "Love Somebody" (a version of a tune also known as "Chinquapin" and "Crooked Stovepipe") was not released. The five sides probably provide a good example of the instrumentals Hignight and group performed on radio, but one wishes that either he, or the record company, had seen fit to include some of the singing for which he was well-known regionally. The fiddler plays lead on all of the cuts with Hignight's strong, ringing banjo and Tucker's subdued, unobtrusive guitar providing the backing. Hignight's harmonica, playing along with the "fiddle, is also very evident on most of the selections and, on "Fort Smith Breakdown," the two instruments alternate lead.

It is probably impossible at this late date to determine how well releases by the Ozark Strutters sold, but the fact that they never made any more records is perhaps a sufficient comment on their success. Nevertheless, the quality of their music was high and the group continued to play on KTHS and other radio stations in the Hot Springs area. For several years, they performed on a Saturday evening country music program in Hot Springs and also frequently provided music for square dances held at Whittington Park in the city. Yet, despite his local popularity, Hignight never considered music anything more than a sideline. He earned his living as a hunting guide and through a variety of other jobs. His experiences all came to an end when he died on 4 July 1940.