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One of the strongest debuts of the album rock era was the eponymous “Black Oak Arkansas” LP released in March 1971. Recorded in California, “Black Oak Arkansas” was produced by Mike Pinera and Lee Dorman — members of Iron Butterfly, once a top late-1960s psychedelic rock group itself.
The album’s opener, “Uncle Lijah,” set the tone for Black Oak Arkansas’s very persona — hillbilly hard rock where the multiple guitar attack might mix with a scrub board or banjo.
Black Oak’s home state gets name-checked with the bluegrassy “The Hills of Arkansas,” and “When Electricity Came to Arkansas,” which closes side two. Just before the closer is “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul,” a spiel on the duality of man on par with those written by Robert Louis Stevenson or Prince. Side one’s closer is a six-minute rock tour-de-force called “I Could Love You.”
Side two of “Black Oak Arkansas” opens with “Hot and Nasty,” which became a staple of the band. In 1989, the Beastie Boys sampled the opening drum beat of “Hot and Nasty” for “Shadrach,” a single from their ambitious rap album “Paul’s Boutique.”
The members of Black Oak Arkansas — lead singer Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, Pat “Dirty” Daughtery on bass, Stanley “Goober” Knight on guitar and organ, Rickie “Ricochet” Reynolds on 12-string, Harvey “Burley” Jett on guitar, banjo and piano, and Wayne “Squeezebox” Evans on drums — mostly came from Southern Baptist families in Northeast Arkansas. Mangrum’s mother was said to be a Sunday school teacher. A fascination with spiritualism can be found on Black Oak’s first few albums. But while hippie mysticism — especially the free love part — was embraced, BOA gave it a post-1960s kick.
The backdrop of the front and back of the album cover of “Black Oak Arkansas” is a map of the state of Arkansas, with the tiny town of Black Oak, east of Jonesboro in Craighead County, written in and circled. Butch Stone of Blytheville — Black Oak’s manager, with whom members of the group would later have legal wranglings for decades — is credited as the “seventh brother” of the sextet, “with whom all is possible.”
The group saw greater chart success in the mid-1970s — its cover of LaVerne Baker’s “Jim Dandy to the Rescue” nicked the top 25 in 1974. But, in many ways, the band’s artistic peak was achieved, as Stone says, “right out of the gate” with its 1970 debut. Hence, Black Oak Arkansas does not always enjoy the respect other bands of the era have.
The band Black Oak Arkansas was never exactly a critics’ darling, even at its peak, but the album “Black Oak Arkansas” can qualify as a rock ’n’ roll classic, which helped usher in the hard album rock sound that dominated the 1970s, and begat the hair metal of the 1980s and the grunge of the 1990s.
The album covers a lot of ground — from the band’s barrelhouse cover version of the country classic “Singin’ the Blues,” written by Drasco-born Melvin Endsley, to the pop-rock sounds of “Memories at the Window.” Besides “Singin’ the Blues,” the other seven songs are credited to Black Oak Arkansas, which issued a debut album with a creative focus sadly not as obvious in its later catalog.
Like Guns ’N’ Roses, one of the many hard-rock bands of later years it influenced, Black Oak Arkansas’s debut is a sometimes bittersweet reminder of what could have been. But the album — and its influence on the rock ’n’ roll world — still stands.
• “Black Oak Arkansas,” 1971
• “Keep the Faith,” 1972
“If An Angel Came to See You Would You Make Her Feel At Home?” 1972