|Park Soon-hwan, “Jackie,” left, and Kim Dong-seok of Western Jubilee perform at a U.S. military event in 2018. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
As import and domestic pop variations like trot, rock and roll, folk, and disco flooded national airwaves and club stages throughout postwar Korea from as early as the late 1950s, Park Soon-hwan remained behind the walls of U.S. Army Garrison (USAG) Yongsan and other U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) bases. There, he would perform American-style country music in front of large crowds of homesick GIs.
Park, who went by the stage name Jackie Park, joined the band Western Jubilee in the early 1960s. They played renditions of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues” and Johnny Horton’s “All for the Love of a Girl” mainly in club venues on USFK installations in Korea.
The band was founded by fiddler Kim Dong-seok, who also worked as a concertmaster for MBC Symphony Orchestra ― from the early 1960s to his retirement in the 2000s. Kim also took part in composing the “Letter” written in 1983 by the Korean pop group Onions.
“Back then, if you heard the violin in compositions spanning classical, country and pop, most of us presumed it was Kim,” Park said.
Before Western Jubilee, Park was a member of the Jackie Brothers with guitarist “Jackie” Shin Joong-hyun. Together they had operated a music studio in Seoul’s Jongno 2-ga from 1957 until passing an audition in 1958 to perform at USFK events.
Commenting on Shin’s mastery with the electric guitar, Park said: “He was brilliant. And for such a short man, he had very long fingers perfect for the role.”
Shin went on to soaring fame in Korea, pioneering the psychedelic rock scene and earning a reputation as the “godfather of Korean rock.”
Park, however, stuck to country music. “People on base were saying it (country music) was an appealing genre to perform,” he said. “Seventy percent of service members came from the South, so it seems, and the crowd went wild for country.”
Although country music never achieved the same popularity among domestic audiences, Western Jubilee’s supporters also counted many Koreans who went on to influence the nation’s early popular music, according to Park.
“When we used to perform at C’est Si Bon Music Hall in Myeong-dong, youngsters like Cho Young-nam looked up to us and wondered when he could parallel our successes,” Park said. “And once he got a gig (with his four fellow bandmates that made up the folk group C’est Si Bon Trio) at MBC, he just waved at me.”
Some members of Western Jubilee sought to branch out and perform country music on their own.
Cho Young-gil and Seo Soo-nam, musicians who joined Western Jubilee in 1964 as supporting singers, left the group in 1967 to form another country band named Grand Ole Opry, sometimes nicknamed the Kimchi Cowboys.
Although Park said he considered their split an act of “betrayal,” he nevertheless praised their music that could arouse both American and Korean audiences.
“From when Cho first came in, it turned out he was better than me in many ways, telling jokes as part of his creative bit on stage that both band members and GIs could take to heart,” Park said. “And Seo would learn under Kim for two years to try and stylize his own country music because it wasn’t an appealing genre to Koreans.”
Cho added, “Once he played with Grand Ole Opry and his days in broadcasting, guess what? Some, even today, might say he was the epitome of country music in Korea even as more people were getting into disco.”
And Seo devoted his career to country and pop alongside his longtime partner-in-crime Ha Cheong-il.
As for Park, Kim and Cho, the show went on entertaining service members in saloons like the Main Post Club, NCO Club and Frontier Club all located on Yongsan Garrison, as well as at least one of the 64 clubs in Munsan and other USFK installations.
In five decades, all three musicians have found their place in the USFK’s community that, even to this day, welcomes them to perform at various events and functions.
Playing on Seoul Air Base and in Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Garrison to celebrate Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other festivities, Park, still kicking at 83 and accompanied by Kim’s fiddling, packs the same musical punch that he commanded in his 20s.
“Wherever he goes, I go,” Park said. “Wherever I go, he comes.”
During his tours off base with the Kimchi Cowboys, Cho also performed regularly in Sam’s Place and the Grand Ole Opry, venues located on hilly Usadan-ro near what is now Itaewon Station.
The latter venue, formerly known as the Playboy Club, was rebranded as Grand Ole Opry in homage to Cho’s band in 1974 when its current owner Sam-sook “Mama” Kim took it over. Cho, still a frequent customer there, recalls his friendships, drinking sessions and the rowdy reception they received when Grand Ole Opry stormed the stage prior to their breakup in 1996.
“They normally didn’t have Korean customers, but if I walked in, no one could stop me,” he said.
Kyung Lee is a team member of Yongsan Legacy, writer and researcher recording the U.S. military’s history in Korea. Visit yongsanlegacy.org to read more about the history of Seoul’s disappearing U.S. garrison or to contribute your own memories.