John Oates: Arkansas
Thirty Tigers – 2 February 2018
Arkansas is the state across the river from Mississippi and Tennessee, on the opposite bank of the delta that has so hugely influenced American music. The state of Arkansas may not quite have the status of Memphis or the Mississippi Delta, but the state of mind there is no doubt akin.
Music legend John Oates has released a robust new album named for the state, one that does Arkansas proud. He’s put together a solid set, a survey of traditional Americana from deep blues to classic country-western. In fact, Oates designed “Arkansas” around a theme – American pop hits in 1920’s and 30’s, with a special focus on his hero, Mississippi John Hurt, whose songs are widely covered on the album. The project actually started out as a tribute album but expanded to include songs from other artists who were contemporaries of Hurt, along with a couple of Oates originals.
For Oates, who is best known for his #1 pop hits and longtime collaboration with Daryl Hall, the album is a return to his roots. He began his career as a folk/blues musician in Philadelphia in the 1960’s, before turning to the “blue-eyed soul” sound that defined Hall and Oates.
Oates put together an “A Team” of Nashville cats including Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Paul on pedal steel, Matt Smith on cello, Guthrie Trapp on guitar, Josh Day on drums and Steve Mackie on bass. The first-rate band certainly adds authenticity to the effort, but Oates himself is a strong roots artist, having recorded several recent albums under the Americana umbrella. In a recent interview, he noted, “The album is the expression of everything I’ve done up to this point.” We concur.
The album opener Anytime is pure ragtime, the tune written by Herbert “Happy” Lawson and originally sung by Emmett Miller in 1924. It sets the old-timey tone and is handled perfectly by the band.
Arkansas, the title song, is exceptional. The song feels like the perfect roots country song, with Oates assuming a soulful rasp in the tradition of Levon Helm. It’s an uplifting song about the beauty of the land – the vast expanse, the “snow white cotton fields of Arkansas.” You want to be there on the front porch humming along with the singer. The lyrics are inspiring:
“There’s a faded glow along the great river road,
Worn down farmhouse hangin’ on the broke down porch,
Lookin’ over miles and miles and miles.”
Oates includes the sublime Hank Williams ballad Miss the Mississippi and You, a song that surely caused Grandma’s heart to flutter in the early 1930’s. It’s a gentle waltz with a faint religious reference, surely a “safer” song than Mississippi John Hurt’s blues.
“Roaming the wide world over/Always alone and blue, so blue
Nothing seems to cheer me under heaven’s dome/Miss the Mississippi and you.”
Oates shows off some fine fingerpicking on the classic Stack O’Lee, the first song he cut for the album. The song was first recorded in 1923 by the banjo orchestra Waring’s Pennsylvanians, although John Hurt’s 1928 version is considered the definitive version. Oates’ low grizzled vocals and stripped down acoustic feel makes this blues standard about the murderer “cruel old Stack O’ Lee” another album highlight.
That’ll Never Happen No More is a finger-picking Blind Blake classic with a Dixieland feel and strong vocals that fit right in with the ragtime nature of the song. Blake’s guitar work is admired by modern players who credit him with contributing to the development of the Piedmont fingerstyle, a technique which sounds more like ragtime piano styles of the era. Oates gracefully recreates that style on the song, with wry lyrics that describe love gone wrong.
“I met a girl at the cabaret/Said pretty papa I’m goin’ your way
Her man know what it all about/Waiting at home just to throw me out
Broke my nose split my chin/Don’t let me catch you here again
That’ll never happen no more/That’ll never happen no more”
The Oates original Dig Back Deep reinforces the central theme of this album. It’s a sort of a road song that skips along at moderate speed, where you “dig back deep back to where you started.” In the 60’s, Oates paid close attention when he sat in the audience for artists like Mississippi John Hurt. He even got to “sit and pick” with guitar great Doc Watson. The song is a tribute to those early blues artists and serves to extend the blues tradition.
Oates rounds out the roots category with the gospel-influenced Here I am Oh Lord, Send Me, a traditional tune in the tradition of Bill Monroe, although popularized by John Hurt. It’s inspired by a biblical verse from Isaiah 6:8 (“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”) Oates version is more uplifting than Hurt’s more somber version, partially due to the full band behind him.
The album closer Spike Driver Blues is a traditional “hammer song” performed solo with just Oates and his guitar –as such, it’s got a certain authenticity. It’s the truest to Mississippi John’s approach – utilizing Hurt’s syncopated bass line, Oates picks out the melody like the blues veteran he is. It’s a fitting conclusion as the song was included on folklorist Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music collection that heavily influenced the blues revival of the 1960’s. Of course, it was during that period that Hurt was re-discovered and brought to cities like Philadelphia to entertain, educate and enlighten kids like John Oates. Full circle indeed!
Although some Hall and Oates fans might see a long road from their radio-friendly Philly R&B to the Mississippi Delta, on this release, Oates shows the musical distance really isn’t that far at all. This album should expand Oates’ audience and increase the audience for the growing roots genre as well. Listen to it now and look for it again in those ‘Best of’ end-of-the-year lists and award shows.
Arkansas is released 2nd February via Thirty Tigers
Photo Credit: Philip Murphy