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John Oates Pays Tribute to American Music's Roots With Solo Album 'Arkansas': Exclusive First Listen

John Oates
Philip Murphy

John Oates 

You don’t usually associate Hall & Oates’ John Oates with the state of Arkansas. But the New York City-born, Philadelphia-raised singer has quite a real connection to the Natural State.

“My uncle Tony, after World War II, moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas and lived there for the rest of his life. I went there to visit him,” he explains, saying that the wide-open landscape captivated him as a youngster. Then, on a recent trip back to the area, inspiration struck. “I stood at night out in the middle of the cotton fields all along the banks of the Mississippi River and it was one of the most beautiful moments that I've ever experienced, with the moonlight shining on the white cotton, and I just thought, 'Man, this is so American, in a way.'" Oates soon put pen to paper. “I went back to Nashville, and the next day I just wrote the song. It just came out of me.”

The song, “Arkansas,” serves as the title cut from Oates new solo album, which will be released Friday (Feb. 2). Billboard.com is pleased to preview the new album exclusively above.

Oates says the song sets the tone for the LP. “I just thought it seemed like a fitting title for the record because Arkansas, I think, doesn't get the cred that a lot of places like New Orleans and Memphis do. But Arkansas has an interesting, a great music tradition with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and Levon Helm and many others. It's also the last stop before that music that came up the Mississippi River came to the northern cities like St. Louis. I think it's an important part of the American music tradition.”

Arkansas had its impetus as a way for Oates to pay homage to one of his heroes, Mississippi John Hurt, whom he says was a huge influence on his style. “I actually own his guitar that he played at Newport Folk Festival in 1964. I've just been a fan and I've got a chance to see and play back in the '60s.” However, the artistic process began to take a few detours. “Originally that’s how it started out, but it didn't feel like I was doing anything unique or original because it's all been done before -  certainly not better than the original. So I said, ‘You know what? What would these songs sound like if I played them with a band?’ That's how it started.”

However, Oates didn’t just get together any group of instrumentalists, attracting the cream of the crop for the record. “I assembled this really cool group of musicians - Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Max Smith on cello, Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Josh Day on drums, and Steve Mackey on bass. From the very first track we cut, my engineer looked at me and said ‘I don't know what this is, but it's cool, and we should just keep doing it.’ That's how it evolved,” he said, adding that it was very much an old-school musical approach. “It was really kind of a very natural thing, and it got better and better as we recorded. We recorded in a most traditional way on analog tape. It's totally live. What you here on the record is exactly what we played. There's no overdubs or anything like that.”

As stated earlier, the album began as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, and there are several tracks from his catalog represented on Arkansas, such as “Spike Driver Blues” and “My Creole Belle.” If you bring up Hurt’s name, Oates immediately smiles at the mention. “I loved his guitar playing style because I think a lot of people mistakenly lump him into the Delta blues category, only because he's from Mississippi. But he's not actually a Delta blues player. He's from the Piedmont, from the hill country of Mississippi. His style is different and unique - no one else played like him. That appealed to me as a young guitar player. I wanted to learn how to do that. It's always been something I've felt a kinship to. I just thought he was totally unique.”

The only Hurt-related regret about making the disc was that Oates didn’t get to play that special guitar on the project – as it was a recent addition to his collection. “I just wish I would have gotten it in time to record it on the album. I had actually played that guitar on the first two Hall and Oates albums in 1972 and '73. Then it disappeared, and then I managed to get it back from the estate of a fellow who passed away in Denver, Colorado. It was a long journey to get the guitar. It's a pretty amazing experience.”

Oates reached back to the earliest days of recorded popular music for "Anytime." Though perhaps best remembered as a 1948 country hit for Eddy Arnold, the song goes back a lot further – to Emmett Miller’s original recording of the song in 1924. “I've done a little bit of a look back into the history of that song, and I think it's kind of unique in that it was one of America's first actual hit records when the phonograph and records were available to the general public.”

Listening to the sonic flavors of Arkansas is akin to a visit to a museum where the early history of music is on display – whether that genre be country, blues, or rock. Oates says whatever musical stylings you favor, it all had a starting point.

“This great tradition of American roots music that has taken off in different directions over the years, but it all comes from the same place. It's the story of rural America. It's the story of working people. It's a story of heartache, and these are simple, direct stories that are universal. That's what interests me so much - this is the dawn of American popular music before big band or rock n' roll, and that's what I think makes this period of time really unique.”

Another track from the set with an impressive musical pedigree was Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss The Mississippi and You," which was recorded originally in 1932. Oates said he tried to be reverential to the classic Bill Halley composition, but did attempt to give it a little bit of a twist. “I kept the lyrics and the melody true to the original, but I added some unique chord voicings, and things like that, that I felt just would enhance the emotion of that song. It's one of my favorite tracks on the album.”

Oates first performed the song a few years back when he was invited to play the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival – in the same town where Rodgers first recorded in 1927. Being in that historic setting brought chills to him. “When you think about it, that’s ground zero when it comes to this great American musical tradition. When I went there, it was the first time I had gone to Bristol and the stage was set right in the middle of Main Street and left half of the stage was in Tennessee, the right half the stage was in Virginia. Had I not been invited to that thing, I never would have had that great Jimmie Rodgers song. I'm grateful for that.”

Arkansas contains two new songs – the title cut and the riveting “Dig Back Deep,” which allows the all-star band to display their exemplary musicianship. Getting to be a part of that Nashville music community has been something that has enriched his musical life. “Well, it's called Music City for a reason. I came here in the '90s and started writing songs. I started to dip my feet in the musical pool here in Nashville. Then, later, I decided to commit to being here. Once I did that, my whole life changed. It's been an amazing experience for me. It's been a kick in the butt because the level of musicianship and song writing here is set so high that I felt like I really needed to get back and start practicing and getting better. For me, it was an inspiration and an amazing thing for me to feel like, ‘You know what? I'm surrounding myself with some world-class musicians, and I want to be part of that world.’ It's been the greatest thing that's ever happened.”

And he hasn’t forgotten his other musical life, as the Hall & Oates story continues to be written. “We have a huge tour planned starting in May. We'll be out on the road until about the first week of August. We'll be playing arenas around the country, and it's going to be a big tour. It's completely different from what I do on the solo side, where I play smaller venues and it's much more of a singer-songwriter kind of thing. The Hall & Oates show is big, and it's got all the whiz-bang stuff that you expect in an arena tour. I love both things."


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