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Organic Oates - Rocker returning to his roots with 'Arkansas'

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Organic Oates - Rocker returning to his roots with 'Arkansas' (photo courtesy of Philip Murphy)

In his excellent 2017 memoir “Change of Seasons,” John Oates - best known as one half (along with Daryl Hall) of Hall & Oates (the most successful musical duo of the rock era) - recounts the heavy influence that traditional American folk, blues and roots music has had on his life.

Readers of that chronicle (due to be reissued in paperback this May) won’t be surprised to discover that Oates has just released a brand-new album paying tribute to some of the originators of the music of America’s heartland.

Through five decades of Hall & Oates, a period that saw the duo rack up seven platinum and six gold pop and rock albums, 34 charting Billboard hits (including six #1 singles) and more than 80 million in sales, Oates has never forgotten about the folk and blues singers that captivated him during his formative years.

Surrounding himself with some of the most in-demand session and touring musicians in America, Oates initially set out to record a tribute album to Mississippi John Hurt, the legendary country and folk blues singer and guitarist who made an indelible mark on American music while unknowingly sending Oates out into the world to blaze his own musical path.

That idea of paying tribute to his one of his musical heroes evolved organically to include more of Oates’s influences.

“It’s like Dixieland dipped in bluegrass and salted with Delta blues,” Oates says of his new album “Arkansas,” recorded in Oates’s current home city of Nashville.

According to Oates, some of the material on the new album is similar to what we would have heard if we had seen him perform solo in a mid-1960s suburban Philadelphia coffee house or with Valentine, one of his pre-Hall & Oates bands.

“Arkansas” opens with Herbert “Happy” Lawson’s “Anytime,” one of America’s first actual hit records. Initially recorded by Emmett Miller in 1924, the song became a number-one country hit when recorded by Eddy Arnold in 1948.

Oates’s fine fingerpicking is joined by pedal steel innovator Russ Pahl, bassist Steve Mackey and electric guitar picker Guthrie Trapp on a song that is the musical equivalent of a warm summer Sunday afternoon spent sipping lemonade out on the front porch swing with your best belle or beau.

The title track on “Arkansas” is one of the album’s two original songs and is designed as a tribute to a state whose musical gifts are too frequently overlooked.

Tennessee has Memphis and Nashville, Louisiana has New Orleans, Texas has Austin; Oates feels that Arkansas should receive props for giving us greats like Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Floyd Cramer, Lefty Frizzell, Al Green, Levon Helm, Louis Jordan, Albert King, Junior Walker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Conway Twitty, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lucinda Williams (to name a baker’s dozen).

Oates’s original songs sit proudly with his and the band’s reimagined takes on vintage Delta, country blues and ragtime songs originally recorded by artists who built the foundation of Americana, including Mississippi John Hurt, Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Blake.

In the following interview, Oates explains how the scope of “Arkansas” widened to include songs from more Americana legends. He shares how he just recently acquired Mississippi John Hurt’s acoustic guitar (the same guitar he played on the first two Hall & Oates albums) as well as some info about his upcoming solo tour featuring some of the Good Road Band musicians and the upcoming summer Hall & Oates tour with Train which will see both bands playing full sets before collaborating for an extended encore for nearly 40 concerts between May and August.

He also explains why we will likely never see another new Hall & Oates album of original songs.

Dow: In the electronic press kit for “Arkansas,” you explain that many of these songs have been part of your life since you were very young. How did you get turned onto this music?

Oates: In the early 1960s, I had a friend whose older brother went off to college in North Carolina. I recall when he came home at Christmas break, he brought stacks of folk albums from artists I had never heard of before. The folk music boom was happening at college campuses around the country at that time.

There were records by Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Joan Baez, The Weavers, Dave Van Ronk, Hedy West and others. He had all of these really seminal records from new folkies and some from the traditional folk singers.

I had been playing the guitar since I was six years old, so I’d been playing for five or six years at this point. I started to needle-drop on these albums and I discovered an entire world of music that just really appealed to me. I was self-taught and tried to teach myself as best I could what they were doing and how they were doing it.

A few years later when I moved to Philadelphia, I met a guy called Jerry Ricks who was a guitar teacher and performer. He used to take these rediscovered and newly discovered folk musicians to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and to the various coffee houses and places where they were playing. They would sleep on his couch and I got to meet a lot of them firsthand and hang out with them. One of them was Mississippi John Hurt.

That was my connection but it goes even deeper. When John Hurt died in 1966, his guitar, which he played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 – essentially his coming out party – was given to Jerry Ricks, who subsequently brought it to New York for me to play on the first two Hall & Oates albums.

So on the first two Hall & Oates albums, I’m playing Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar, and now, as I’m speaking to you, I’m looking at it because I just bought it a few months ago from an estate in Denver, Colorado, where it ended up after 40 years. It’s kind of come full circle so I have this very deep connection to Mississippi John Hurt. 

Dow: What was Mississippi John Hurt like as a person?

Oates: He was very shy but also sly in a nice way. He would sometimes sing dirty songs with a smile on his face (laughs). I always thought that was great. He was a very unique performer because a lot of people mistakenly lump him into the Delta blues category but he really wasn’t part of that. He was a hill-country, Piedmont, Mississippi player. His style was a little more similar to ragtime than it would have been to Delta blues.

[The Piedmont fingerpicking guitar style is distinguished by the guitarist’s thumb plucking a bass pattern on the lower strings which support a melody picked by the index and middle fingers.]

“Arkansas” started out as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, but eventually widened in scope to include other songs that were contemporary with him by artists like Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Emmett Miller. The album evolved into this kind of snapshot of music that was being played in the infancy of radio and phonograph machines and the earliest popular American music.

Dow: You have some jaw-dropping players in The Good Road Band. We’re talking serious players here.

Oates: They’re an amazing group of players and just great people. Guthrie Trapp (Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett) is on electric guitar. Steve Mackey (Dolly Parton, Wynonna Judd, Big & Rich) plays bass. Sam Bush (Doc Watson, Bela Fleck, Bob Dylan) plays mandolin. Russ Pahl (Chris Ross, Dan & Shay, Ray LaMontagne) plays pedal steel. Nat Smith (Glen Campbell, LaVerne Baker) is on cello and Josh Day (Kruger Brothers, Sara Bareilles) handles percussion. When you hear an acoustic guitar, that’s me.

Dow: The album has a very warm and rich sound. How was it recorded?

Oates: This album was done in the most traditional, authentic way possible. We all sat around in a circle and played the songs. If you were to strip away all of the instrumentation on this album until you just heard me, you’d hear me playing in a very authentic traditional style for these particular songs.

Once we established the sound of the band and realized what we had, we designed “Arkansas” to be released on vinyl. That’s why we kept the album to ten songs and the total time of the album is relatively short. Vinyl has a physical limitation in terms of time. The more time you put onto vinyl, the less fidelity you can pump into those little grooves.

“Arkansas” was intended to be a vinyl album from the very beginning. My engineer and co-producer, David Kalmusky (Journey, Jan Hammer, Vince Gill) is very much into vintage gear, analog equipment, tube amplifiers and that kind of thing. We used era-appropriate equipment throughout the recording.

Dow:  In the pre-Hall & Oates days of the mid 1960s, when you were playing solo, and later with various bands, were you playing music similar to what we hear on the new album?

Oates: Absolutely. I played in blues bands and I also played a lot of solo stuff by myself in coffee houses and things like that. The repertoire was not dissimilar to what you hear on “Arkansas.” I was playing songs by Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson in the mid to late ‘60s.

If you go back to the earliest Hall & Oates bootleg album (“Past Times Behind”- a compilation of various sessions recorded before Daryl and John signed with Atlantic Records in 1972), you hear me doing “Deep River Blues” by Doc Watson. This is stuff that I’ve been doing for a long, long time. This music kind of got shoved to the wayside as Daryl and I evolved and began collaborating and kind of going in a more pop direction. But in my heart of hearts I’ve never left it.

Dow:  Will the Good Road Band accompany you during your upcoming shows to promote “Arkansas?”

Oates: It depends on the date and who’s available. Their services are very much in demand. The full band will join me in New Orleans and in New York. Nat Smith is on the road with Kacey Musgraves so he’s gone.

In certain shows, it will be the core rhythm section of me, Guthrie Trapp, Steve Mackey and Josh Day.

In Los Angeles, Sam Bush will join me along with another incredible pedal steel player named Paul Franklin, (Alan Jackson, Dire Straits, George Strait), who’s a legend in the world of country music. There’s the core group and then it’s a matter of who’s available. Everybody will be jumping in and out.

Dow: You’ll be playing a wide range of venues this year. From Joe’s Pub in New York City with a capacity under 200 to Montreal’s Bell Centre which seats more than 20,000.  Is there less stress involved with playing an intimate show, where you can see everybody’s eyes in the audience, or does that intimacy actually make you work harder?

Oates: Both (laughs). It’s interesting. They’re completely different in so many ways. The mindset of performing in an intimate venue where you actually feel like you’re in a living room and talking to people – it really breaks down the fourth wall and it becomes much more about personality and It gives me a chance to tell the stories behind these songs and really put this music into a context.

In the big arenas, it’s much more about communicating to a massive audience in a massive room. And then you have the technological issues of video screens and huge lighting rigs and a full electric band. It’s two completely different mindsets, but I enjoy both. It’s great to be able to do both things and have that balance.

Dow: When you and Daryl co-headline your summer tour with Train, will you and Train guest on each other’s show?

Oates:  We’re looking to do a collaborative kind of lengthy encore. Right now, we’re still talking about things and haven’t gotten further than that. 

Dow:  You’ve played in Maine a number of times, most recently in Bangor in July of 2016. What do you think of when you think of some of your past visits to our state?

Oates: I have great memories of Maine and I love going there, especially in the summer (laughs). There was a time back in the ‘80s when we spent time in Maine prepping for a major tour. We were in Portland for a few days and just stayed in the arena prepping the show and then we did the first show of the tour there.

(Note: John is probably referring to the week he and Daryl Hall spent in Bangor, rehearsing for the duo’s “Big Bam Boom” tour in 1984. The band prepped for the tour in the old Bangor Auditorium which also served as the tour’s opening venue on October 26 of that year.)

Dow: It’s been a long time since Hall & Oates released a full album of original material (2003’s “Do It For Love”). Do you foresee a time when you and Daryl will go back to the studio to work on a new album?

Oates: I doubt it. I really do. I don’t think that’s going to happen. That’s not to say we may not record something but I doubt we would ever do a whole new album again. At this point, making an album would only make sense if there was a theme like what I did with “Arkansas.” On this album, I was really trying to set a mood and create something that captured a moment in time. Daryl and I have recorded so many things in our lives, and we have such a backlog of material that we don’t even get to play, I don’t see any impetus for us to be making new music.

(“Arkansas” by John Oates with the Good Road Band is available now on vinyl, CD, mp3, and high-resolution 48kHz/24 bit download.) 


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