“The album is the expression of everything I’ve done up to this point.”
John Oates on his upcoming release Arkansas.
Next month sees the release of Arkansas, the new solo release by music legend John Oates, an album which has a distinct roots sound and was inspired by blues legend Mississippi John Hurt.
With Oates returning to his own roots, in fact, his career coming full circle, we grabbed the opportunity to speak to him. Among other things, we discussed his musical evolution from the years before Hall and Oates became internationally recognized superstars.
Pre-Hall and Oates
Oates began by describing his early career as a struggling musician…
“My prior life to Hall and Oates, I was a folk and blues guitarist. I did that for many years before I met Daryl Hall. I had the unique opportunity in the 60’s to be a part of the Philadelphia folk scene, the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the coffeehouses and got to see many of the seminal performers as they were being rediscovered in the folk boom of the early 60’s.
“I also met a guy named Jerry Ricks who became my guitar teacher and mentor. A lot of these great performers would sleep on Jerry’s couch when they came up to Philly, so I got the chance to meet them and watch them play. This became an important part of my musical DNA.”
A Tribute Album
“I started out by trying to make a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt in the traditional sense with just acoustic guitar and voice, but I felt like that had been done before. I wasn’t going to do any better than anyone else and certainly not better than the original. Then I thought, I wonder what would happen if I played some of these songs with a band?
“So I created this really unique band with Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Paul on pedal steel, Matt Smith on cello, and a great rhythm section of Guthrie Trapp on guitar, Josh Day on drums and Steve Mackie on bass. We cut one song, “Stagger Lee” (first recorded in 1923) and I said to my engineer, ‘I don’t know what this is, but its cool.’ And he said, ‘don’t outthink this, just keep going.’ So we cut the album – its completely live – everything you hear is exactly the way we played it in the studio, there’s no overdubs, and its recorded on analogue tape. We tried to be as authentic as possible.
“Originally it was all Mississippi John Hurt songs, but then I started thinking what were the songs that were contemporary to his early recordings. He recorded from 1926-29 or 30 on Okeh Records. I thought what other songs were played on phonographs then? What were the hit records of the day?
“I found out through some research that he was a big fan of Jimmy Rogers, so I included the Jimmy Rogers song, Miss the Mississippi and You, which I re-arranged. The song Anytime by Emmet Miller was one of the first American hit records so I thought that should also be included. So the album began to get a wider scope. It ended up turning out like a kind of a snapshot of American popular music in that era.”
Mississippi John Hurt
Oates went on to reveal how John Hurt was not your typical Mississippi Delta blues player.
“You know a lot of people mistakenly lump him into the “Delta Blues” category but he really wasn’t a Delta blues performer. He grew up in the hill country of Mississippi, and his style was very unique. I think it had more to do with ragtime, then it did Delta blues if you analyze his guitar picking style, especially his right hand. It makes him totally unique. He was listening to country music, to ragtime. That’s why I included the Blind Blake song (That’ll Never Happen No More), cause if you talk ragtime, Blind Blake is probably the king of ragtime guitar players.
“Mississippi John also had a unique sensibility when it came to lyrics. When you listen to Candyman for example, that song is filthy, yet he sings it in a way that’s almost innocent. I saw him perform it many times and remember thinking, if anybody else was singing this, people would be yelling and throwing stuff at him. But he pulled it off with a sly smile and a gentle attitude. He was a gentleman and a genius.
Newport Folk Guitar
Hurt was among several blues artists who came to the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960’s. Here’s the twist:
“The guitar he played in Newport in 1964, I own that guitar,” remarked Oates. He only came into possession of it recently. He explains; “My guitar teacher Jerry Ricks became to de facto tour manager for some of these blues artists. When Mississippi John Hurt would come to town, Jerry would take him to the coffeehouses and festivals. When John died, the guitar was given to Jerry. In 1972 when Daryl and I began to record, I asked Jerry to come to New York and play with me and he said, ‘do you want me to bring Mississippi John’s guitar’ and I said yes. So on the first two Hall and Oates albums, I’m playing that guitar.”
He described how it passed through several owners until a fan read about it in his 2017 book, Change of Seasons: A Memoir. It became available in an estate sale in Denver, and soon after, Oates acquired the guitar.
We wondered how long-time fans viewed the singer’s back to basics direction.
“The one thing about the Hall and Oates audience is that they are very open-minded. Sure, they love the hits and the old songs and that’s what packs arenas; but the core audience, the real die-hard fans, they’ve been following us for a long time. This is my 6th solo album, and if you follow the trajectory of my solo work from the early 2000’s, you’ll hear the evolution of where this album was going. The album is the expression of everything I’ve done up to this point.”
John Oates is on a US tour with his Arkansas band (The Good Road Band) through to mid-March (see his website for details). And Hall and Oates fans should be pleased – Oates promises an arena tour is in the works beginning in May.
For now, “Sam Bush will be with me on selected dates – I’ll have the full band in New York, New Orleans, San Franscisco and Los Angeles and the other shows will have versions of the full band. I’m very excited about it, can’t wait for people to hear it live cause it’s powerful and it’s a great show!”
Arkansas is released 2nd February via Thirty Tigers