John Oates on the ‘Divine Intervention’ Behind His Blues Album ‘Arkansas': Exclusive Interview
Daryl Hall and John Oates are currently on a lengthy arena tour with Train, playing a set full of their indelible hits. Earlier this year, however, Oates released a stellar solo album, Arkansas, that nodded to his love of blues and roots music, and specifically the artist Mississippi John Hurt. Recorded in about two weeks, the full-length is loose and evocative, and full of well-wrought Americana highlighted by Oates' heartfelt, weathered croon.
To record Arkansas, Oates recruited an ace group of musicians dubbed the Good Road Band, which features mandolinist Sam Bush, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, electric guitarist Guthrie Trapp, and bassist Steve Mackey, among others. Not all of these players are able to join Oates on solo dates supporting Arkansas—of which there are more in September and October—although the live show is just as raucous.
Oates spoke to UCR about how Arkansas came together, and why the album means so much to him.
Arkansas started off as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. How did it evolve into the form it was released?
John Oates: Just as a lark, really ... I like being in the recording studio, so I went in [and] I said, "I'm just going to record a couple acoustic guitar-voice old blues songs," and that's how it started. And I realized it's not really exactly what I really wanted to do, but I love the songs. And I said, "I wonder what these songs would sound like if I put a band together?" So I called all my friends, a bunch of guys who I've been recording and playing with in Nashville for a number of years. I assembled this really cool band, added a cello and a pedal steel and obviously Sam Bush on mandolin, and it became this tapestry of sound that I never really expected. In a way, it was kind of dumb luck and divine intervention, really, that happened.
And once we played the first song—and basically I played the same thing I was doing before by myself, except what they did surrounding that was just incredible—I said, "Okay, this is a sound that I've never heard before." And we carried on and recorded the whole album that way. It was kind of meant to be. I didn't really know that it was going to sound like that, but once I heard the sound, we said, "Okay. We've got something going here. Let's do it."
In terms of the song choices, how did that come together? Was that all you, or did other people make some suggestions?
No, it was my song selection [with] the core of the music being Mississippi John Hurt, four or five songs. But then what happened was I started saying, "Well, this is great," but I just didn't want to restrict it to that. There were a number of things that went through my mind. One of the things was: What would've been the songs that Mississippi John Hurt would have been playing, or would have heard on the radio, or on a record in the late '20s when he was recording for the first time? 'Cause he recorded from '26 until '29 on OKeh Records before he was rediscovered in the '60s.
I found out he was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, and I said, "Okay, well you know what, I'll do a Jimmie Rodgers song" And so what ended up happening was I started to create, like, a snapshot of music that was being made in this late-'20s era, which is a really unique time because it was the birth of American popular music. You had radio in its infancy ... kind of for the first time, people had radios in their houses, they had phonograph machines in their houses. I started looking at hit records. I said "Well, what was the first hit record?" Because after all, a hit record is based on two things: hearing it on the radio and buying a record. So I thought "Well, I've made hit records my whole life," but I didn't even know what the first hit record was.
So I did a little bit of looking into that, and found a song by Emmett Miller called "Anytime," which was arguably one of the first records to ever sell a million copies. So I said, "Oh, okay, well I'll put that on the record." And that's how it evolved, and the whole album evolved and actually became a snapshot of this really unique time in early American popular music.
What kind of things did you do to find your research for this?
Books, mostly. I looked into various books on the era and on the times. Blues books. I read Mississippi John Hurt's biography. There's lots of research and books on all this music. In a way, I wanted to shine a light on this period of time so that there were people out there who might not be so aware of it and realize, "Hey, there was some really amazing music being made before rock 'n' roll." And music that led to the big band and the swing era and then eventually to rock 'n' roll. So it kind of tied it all together.
It is very true that that era is very much...not that it's overlooked, but it's not necessarily as talked about in the discussion these days.
Well, yeah, and not many people know about it. I'm not trying to be a music educator, but at the same time I think it's very important to know your history and know the history of what came before you. I'm a history buff in general, so combining that with music just seems like a natural thing for me.
How did you initially discover Mississippi John Hurt? What drew you to him as a musician?
I saw him perform in the early '60s when he was rediscovered at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and some of the coffee houses in Philadelphia. Everyone was really captivated by him. He had a very gentle way about him; he had a very unique guitar style. No one played like him. And he had great songs. And that's what appealed to me, and I began to learn his material. I was fortunate enough to be taking guitar lessons from a guy named Jerry Ricks, who actually befriended John Hurt in the early days, took him around, helped him go to these various festivals and actually played with him in places. I really learned first hand from the source; from the originators of this great music. And so, in a sense, I feel like I'm carrying on the tradition.
In the liner notes of the record, it's noted in connection with "Dig Back Deep" that you were able to sit and pick with Doc Watson. When were you able to do that?
That was back in probably '67 or '68. Doc Watson used to sleep on my guitar teacher's couch. When he came to Philadelphia, he was playing at The Main Point, and I wanted to go see him. I had seen him many times before, but I wanted to see him again. My guitar teacher, Jerry, couldn't make it that night, he said "Well, you should just go and hang out." So I went and I hung out and I got to play with him down in the dressing room in the basement of this place called The Main Point. So that was a really important moment for me, to be able to say that I actually played with Doc Watson and Merle Watson, which is really an incredible thing for me.
Being such a young musician then, how do you think you carried that with you through your career as it progressed?
The things that affect you as a young person in general—not only as a musician—they stay with you for the rest of your life. They define how you think, and the experiences that you have are definitive moments that you carry with you for the rest of your life. And if you're a musician, those moments translate musically. This music, it’s part of my musical DNA; this is what I do. So when I made this record, in a way it was like coming home. Coming home figuratively and literally to this music that I was so familiar with, that I'd been playing for fifty years. But the difference is, on this record is that when I revisited this music, I revisited it through the lens of a person who has fifty years of recording experience and live performance experience and better skills on my instrument, et cetera, et cetera. So I revisited it as a completely different person but at the same time trying to stay true to its authenticity. I mean, I know that's a little complicated, but that's what it is.
Coming at this music with this wisdom, was there anything you saw in the music today that maybe you didn't when you were younger?
Well, I saw the potential for it, for the songs. How they could be arranged and how they could be presented above and beyond what people traditionally know of them. In other words, most of these songs, especially the John Hurt stuff, it was performed on a solo guitar with a solo voice. And that's how everyone perceives those songs, because that's how they were originally performed and presented and recorded.
But now, I was separating the original versions from the song itself. A song is not a record until it's recorded, and then a record is not a song. A song is what happens when Mississippi John Hurt sits with his guitar and sings it and plays it. That's the song. There's nothing more to it. But now, I'm making a record from those songs and the record had musicians and technology and instruments and arrangements, and that's what makes it different.
The title track of the record was inspired by a trip you made to Arkansas. Was that a writing trip? What brought you there?
My manager asked me to come to a place called Wilson, Arkansas, and play a private show. So I brought my trio of the guys who played on the Arkansas album, but this is way before the album is made. We went out to Wilson, and we had this amazing show in an old church in this little town in the middle of the cotton fields in one of the largest cotton plantations in America. And after the show, I wandered out into the fields. The moon was out, and the Mississippi River was right there. Highway 61, the blues highway, runs right through the town. And I said, "Man, you know, this is it." This is like a whistle stop on this great tradition of American music that came up from the Deep South through the Delta on its way up to St. Louis and Chicago where it evolved into more sophisticated blues and eventually into rock 'n' roll. So I thought, "Man, this is a pretty amazing thing." And that's what struck me and then I wrote the song.