John Oates,
The TVD Interview

John Oates didn’t think his new album, Arkansas, was going to turn out the way it did. What began as a tribute to legendary bluesman Mississippi John Hurt transformed into a raw and heartfelt reinterpretation of the folk and blues music that inspired Oates to pick up a guitar in the first place.

The Natural State has a rich musical history to be sure, but it’s landlocked by legend. Arkansas is surrounded by Mississippi, Memphis, and St. Louis blues, Texas honky-tonk, Oklahoma outlaw country, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and damn near every seminal American musical genre that grew up from Louisiana. So why not any number of locales with a more notorious musical history?

To hear John tell it, as he was recording the songs for what became his latest album (due out February 2), he gradually realized Arkansas’ unique significance in American music’s history: it was the last rural stop before Southern folk, country, and blues moved up the Mississippi and got grittier in big cities like Chicago, New York, and his hometown of Philadelphia.

Arkansas is an obvious departure from the rock-and-soul sound that brought him so much success with Daryl Hall. “It’s like Dixieland, dipped in bluegrass, and salted with Delta blues,” he says. But it also might be the most inevitable album he’s created to date (more about that in our interview). It’s a natural companion to the musical history lessons found in the plaintive country sound of his 2014 solo album, Good Road to Follow, and the bluesy rock and shuffle of 2011’s Mississippi Mile. And it’s just a damn good record.

We caught up with John just before his tour with The Good Road Band and chatted about everything from American popular music before rock and roll, to the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances in the postseason, to why Arkansas was always going to be released on vinyl.

As I was thinking about your new album, Arkansas, I couldn’t help think about how Arkansas always gets short shrift when it comes to tributes, because it’s physically surrounded by all these states with undeniable musical legendary talent, too.

Yeah. Interestingly enough, and not only because I wrote the song and called the album Arkansas, but I began to realize that there was an interesting significance to Arkansas’s role in American roots music. And it never occurred to me before, until I spent time there.

I realized that, as you said, so many places—like obviously Mississippi and New Orleans and the Delta—are so known as the birthplaces of American roots music… but I think that what people tend to forget is that Arkansas is probably the last of the rural stops on that music moving up to the north, because once you pass Arkansas now you’re in St. Louis and then finally Chicago, where the music became more urbanized and more sophisticated in a way.

So really it feels like Arkansas was the last rural stop for this roots music before it hit the northern cities. And I think that’s kind of important. It never even occurred to me before, really, but I began to think about it much more since I’ve been doing this project.

That’s so interesting. This project started out a lot smaller; it was going to be a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, right? And then it just kind of grew.

Right.

When did you realize this was going to be bigger?

Well, just to backtrack a bit. I cut a few tracks, just me and a guitar in the traditional way, basically playing Mississippi John Hurt songs that I have known and played for years and years. And then I realized it was kind of a futile effort because I wasn’t gonna play them any better than him, certainly, and a lot of other people probably have played these songs… but I loved the music.

One night I came up with this idea: I said, “You know what, I don’t want to abandon this project, but what if I played it with a band?” I’ve never heard these songs that are so associated with just being performed on a guitar with a voice… I’ve never heard them played with a band, really. So I said, “Let me assemble a band.” I wanted to assemble a unique group of musicians who really are sensitive to the music and see what happens. So I did that; I called in a bunch of my friends, people I’ve played with for years—great players like Sam Bush, Russ Pahl, and Guthrie Trapp—all these incredible musicians.

We got in the studio and the first track we cut was “Stack O Lee,” a real Mississippi John Hurt classic. It came out unbelievable. It just had this sound that I couldn’t… I would love to say I had this grand vision and I knew exactly what it was gonna be like, but I had no idea. After we cut the track, my engineer and I looked at each other and we went, “Wow. This is cool.” And we didn’t know what it was, but we said, “Okay, whatever this is, we should just keep doing it.” And that’s how it started.

Then we just began to cut track after track, and everything just got better and better. So the band that I assembled became a real band in the studio. And that’s the band that I’m now gonna be traveling with to promote this record and playing with live. That’s why I call it The Good Road Band. Some shows, it’s gonna be a little bit smaller version, like a trio, and some shows it’ll be bigger, six or seven pieces, depending on where I am and who’s available.

That’s so cool that the band kind of grew out of the album, too.

Yeah. I mean… I’ve played with all these people in the past, but I never played with them in this configuration all together. It really gelled in a really amazing way. And I just love playing with these guys.

And it’s awesome that the genesis of the album is “Stack O Lee,” which is about as foundational to American folk and roots music as you can possibly get.

True. Exactly. I mean, that song’s been recorded by many, many people with different titles and slightly different lyrics and slightly different takes on the story. Yeah, it goes way back. I definitely am referencing the Mississippi John Hurt version.

You also called the music on the album “an homage to America’s earliest pop music,” which I love. And you’re doing with it what American music always has done best, and what artists always come back to, which is making a gumbo of influences and bringing it to the table. Now that it’s completed, do you kind of feel like this album was inevitable for you?

I do. I think that’s a good way of putting it. I wouldn’t have said that myself, but I like it. It was inevitable that I would get to this point. But I didn’t know when that would happen and how it would happen.

I think if you look back on my solo albums, especially Mississippi Mile and Another Good Road, and stuff like that, I think you’ll see that all of those musical signs are pointing in that direction, but nothing was quite as pure as this. After the foundation of Mississippi John Hurt material, I didn’t want it to be just a Mississippi John Hurt album.

What I started to do is I started to think, “Well, he had two careers.” He had a recording career from about 1926 to about 1930, 1929 on Okeh Records. And that’s where he made all his classic recordings. Then in the early ’60s, he was rediscovered with the folk boom that was happening. He had a resurgence of live performance and a few recordings then.

So what I did was I went back to the music that he recorded in the late ’20s into the early 1930s and I asked, “What songs would have been contemporary with him?” What songs would he have heard perhaps on the radio or on a record? Or what songs might he have liked? And as it turned out, I did a little bit of research, found out that he was a big fan of Jimmy Rogers. So I said, “Well, you know what? I’m gonna cut a Jimmy Rogers song.” So I started to create a musical map of that era for me, and the influences that influenced not only myself, but influenced Mississippi John Hurt.

Then I began to delve into… I looked at one of the earliest pop hit recordings was this song “Anytime” by Emmett Miller, and that song was a hit during this period of time when Mississippi John Hurt began to record. So I said, “Well you know what? I made my entire career based on making hit records, so why not tap into a hit record from the earliest days of hit records basically?” So I included that.

And then I looked at his guitar style. And even though some people might erroneously lump Mississippi John Hurt into the Delta Blues map, he’s actually not a Delta Bluesman; he’s really a Piedmont Bluesman, which is a distinction in that it’s a different style—it’s a different style of music, a different style of guitar playing, and it’s a little bit more aligned with ragtime than it is actual Delta Blues.

Then I went and did a Blind Blake song [“That’ll Never Happen No More”] too, who’s pretty much acknowledged as the king of the ragtime guitar pickers. So, I started to put together a musical picture of the 1920s and the early ’30s.

A lot of these artists must have been formative musical influences for you. I’m curious, because I’m writing for The Vinyl District, could you walk me through what it would have been like going to a record store with you when you were first discovering the artists that inspired this album?

Well, my earliest roots are in folk music. I start playing guitar at six years old, and I played simple songs, like country songs. Things like Don Gibson, “Oh Lonesome Me,” and the Everly Brothers, and things like that that were on the radio as a little kid in the late ’50s.

But it wasn’t until the folk boom happened in the early ’60s… I had a very good friend whose older brother went off to college in North Carolina, and when he came back at Christmas break, he brought all these folk albums with him. And these were artists I had never heard of. Some were contemporary; some were people like Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk, who were the new interpreters. But he also brought back records by Hedy West and The Weavers and John Jacob Niles, and all these esoteric performers basically from Appalachia.

I sat in my friend’s house and I borrowed the records, and I just needle dropped. I’d try to figure out what they were doing and how they were doing it. I became fascinated with it. And the more I got into it… I went to all the folk clubs in Philadelphia, the coffee houses, and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. And I began to see all these people first-hand and listen to them, watch them play.

And then I met a guy named Jerry Ricks, who became my guitar teacher and my mentor, who was friends with all these people—like Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee. They would sleep on his couch when they would come to Philadelphia, so I got to meet a lot of these guys. And that’s eventually how I ended up with Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar. So it’s quite a story. I mean… it’s crazy.

Oh my gosh, yeah. I feel like I hear so much about artists who arrived at rock and roll, or folk and blues music from afar; The Beatles, for example, got their records from the sailors that came into the port of Liverpool and the rest is history. For you, these roots records also came from far away and introduced you to entirely new life, essentially.

Yeah. Yeah.

How important was it to you, then, to have a vinyl pressing of the album?

Oh, from the very moment that this record started, I knew it was gonna be a vinyl record. That was the intent from the very beginning. That’s probably the only thing I knew! We recorded it on analog tape. We backed it up with Pro Tools, but basically when you hear this record, you are hearing it exactly what we did in the studio. There are no overdubs. If I had to be 100% honest, I fixed a few vocals here and there… for technical reasons. If I screwed up the words or whatever, you know. If there was leakage, or whatever, but that’s technical stuff.

Sure.

But basically, it’s recorded live in the studio the way all those records in the 1920s and ’30s were recorded. No one overdubbed to fix anything. You just played the song and that was it. Maybe you played it twice or three times to get it right. But that was it. So we did it that way. We were very faithful to that. And we were faithful to the entire analog recording process all the way through. We mastered it, lacquered it on equipment from the late 1960s at a place called Welcome to 1979 in Nashville.

Oh, I know of those guys. They’re great!

Yeah. We cut the lacquers, they’re using the old lathes and the old methods. So it’s really a very pure record from that point of view.

It’s so neat that down to the technique of recording the songs, you remained very faithful to the songs themselves. And I love, too, that you felt compelled to tell stories about each of the songs on the album on Facebook and elsewhere. And obviously, just from everything that you’ve said so far, those stories are incredibly important, and they kind of tease the album ahead of its release. That must bring in more fans and more interest to what you’re doing.

Well, it does. My solo shows have always been about storytelling. I’m very comfortable in that space for myself. But I think it’s even more important for this record to put these songs into a context, because younger generations… they don’t understand much about anything really that happened before rock and roll. Music did not start with rock and roll!

I think that what I’m trying to do is shed a light on the fact that there’s a legacy of American popular music, and American popular recorded music that happened before rock and roll that paved the way for rock and roll. So, that’s the space that we’re working in right now.

One last question: how are you feeling about the Eagles this weekend?

Oh, how am I feeling about them? Well, are you talking about the football Eagles or the musical Eagles?

The football Eagles. [Laughs]

Okay. Just making sure. Because my buddy Vince Gill just joined The Eagles— that’s the band, The Eagles. I was just curious if that’s what you were asking me. No, you know, if they had Carson Wentz I think they’d be cake-walking into the Super Bowl.

I know.

Even without him, I think they’ll do pretty well. I’m actually on my way to Pittsburgh and I’m singing the National Anthem for the Pittsburgh playoff game. [Jacksonville beat Pittsburgh to advance to the AFC Championship game. —Ed.]

I’ll be watching that game for sure. My entire family’s from Philly, so I just had to ask. They’re all super nervous about this weekend.

Yeah, well it should be good. I don’t know whether they’re gonna show me on TV singing the National Anthem. I hope so.

I hope so, too.

But it’s gonna be great. I’m playing a show in Pittsburgh. That’s why I’m gonna be up there, and then they asked me if I would sing, so I’m really looking forward to walking out on that field in front of 60,000 insane Pittsburgh Steelers fans and singing the National Anthem. It’s gonna be great.

John Oates’ new album, Arkansas, arrives in stores on February 2. John and The Good Road Band will be touring the U.S. in February and March:

2/5 – Joe’s Pub – New York, NY
2/6 – World Cafe Live – Philadelphia, PA
2/8 – Old Town School of Folk Music – Chicago, IL
2/10 – Troubadour – West Hollywood, CA
2/11 – Great American Music Hall – San Francisco, CA
2/16 – Old Rock House – St. Louis, MO
2/18 – Rams Head On Stage – Annapolis, MD
2/27 & 2/28 – Eddie’s Attic – Decatur, GA
3/2 – Neighborhood Theatre – Charlotte, NC
3/4 – Music Farm – Charleston, SC
3/16 – The Heights Theater – Houston, TX
3/17 – The Kessler Theater – Dallas, TX

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PHOTO: PHILIP MURPHY

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