Words by: Ryan Dembinsky
The 1920s were a pivotal period in American cultural history. Remarkable advances arose in every segment of the arts during the economic boom period following World War I. The decade saw the beginning of the surrealist art movement, the first films to contain voice and music, the beginnings of jazz and blues, and huge technological advancements for the exposure and accessibility of the arts. Televisions, radios, and phonographs became commonplace in households, as did the automobile. Music became a much more prominent part of life for the masses, which helped garner the term the Roaring ’20s. It became the first decade with a soundtrack, and it was a soundtrack you could dance to.
On his new solo album, Arkansas, John Oates and his Good Road Band – a who’s who of Nashville virtuosos and innovators, including Sam Bush on mandolin and Russ Paul on pedal steel – set out to record a tribute album to Mississippi John Hurt, the legendary country bluesman who made massive contribution to that golden age of music and arts in the late-1920s. Mississippi John Hurt would go on to inspire countless artists including Bob Dylan, Beck, Jerry Garcia and Doc Watson. After tackling a handful of Hurt’s songs, Oates felt such a strong spirit of collaboration with his band and fondness of this period of American music that the project evolved into a collaborative portrait of this time in American history that lasted from the boom times of the Roaring ’20s through the 1929 stock market crash and into the hard times that followed in the Great Depression.
After a storied career as one half of the highest selling duo in music history, Hall & Oates, John Oates moved to Nashville around the turn of the century, a decision that reinvigorated the dedication to his craft and he sought to improve his guitar playing across a variety of styles. Since then, he has become a musical troubadour with an encyclopedic knowledge of music history and a passion for collaboration. I caught up with Oates to discuss his love for playing with different musicians, his fondness for Mississippi John Hurt, and his pride for the great American music of the late-1920s.
JAMBASE: At this stage in your life, it seems like you have really found a nice balance of exploring new and varied styles of music and you’re getting out and playing with all sorts of musicians. When you show up to a jam or a first rehearsal with some new friends where you haven’t all played together before, what do you tend to do right off the bat? Do you dive into an actual song or just throw out a key and a chord progression or something and jam?
JOHN OATES: Every person in every collaboration is different. Every person brings a different approach and a different personal style to the table, but at the same time, a lot of it is very similar. I think musicians just like to play. [laughs] They like to try new things. In fact, pretty much all the musicians I’ve met are very open-minded and want to try things outside their comfort zones, even though some of them might be a little nervous. That’s where the role kind of transcends the musicianship and becomes almost a psychological element.
So, the main thing is you have to create an environment where people feel comfortable and can be themselves, so you get the most out of everyone. That’s a big part of collaboration in any context. You need to become a person people can trust and make them feel like they can be themselves and be together in way that you can create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
JAMBASE: How did the coloration of this group of musicians come about? Is this a new group of friends or more established relationships?
JO: On this project, I’m playing with all good friends. These are all guys I’ve known for a while who I’ve played with and recorded with in different configurations and different projects. There were no strangers involved on the record.
Sam Bush was one of my first friends in Nashville. He welcomed me with open arms when I first came here in the early 2000s. He’s just been great. I’ve played with his band at Telluride. I’ve sat-in with him. He’s sat-in with me. We have written together. We’ve recorded together. So, we go back and have great relationship. And It’s the same way with the rest of the guys.
When I did the thing with Jim James at Bonnaroo in 2013 when we did the Super Jam, he had asked me to sit-in with those guys at Red Rocks and I just sat-in as a guest. I had such a good time and felt so comfortable with the My Morning Jacket band, that when it was proposed that we do something together at Bonnaroo, we already knew each other. So, it was just a matter of sitting down together and plotting out what to play and what direction we wanted to go and who our guests were going to be. Here again, that was seamless.
JAMBASE: This is kind of a tangent, but did you get to know Carl Broemel, the other guitar player in My Morning Jacket? We’re all huge fans of him around here. We’ve done a bunch of stuff with him over the years.
JO: Oh yeah, Carl and I go way back. He’s such a nice guy. He practically lives next door to me. He lives like a quarter of a mile away right here in Nashville.
JAMBASE: Maybe talk about the guitar style on the record. This project began as a Mississippi John Hurt album and a lot of people hear that name and think of a blues guy, but it’s more country blues, Americana, almost bluegrass music. It’s kind of that fingerpicked, plucky blues-style of playing. Was that a style you were fluent in before this project or is that something you had to work at practicing to get up to speed?
JO: Not to put too many labels on this thing, but I did start out planning to just play in a traditional way with just my guitar and voice. I’m still doing Mississippi John Hurt songs but in a very casual way. After doing a few tracks, I just said, “Well, sure I can do this, but what am I doing this for? Am I doing it, just to prove to other people I can do it.?” I already know I can do it. I’ve been playing these songs for 50 years. [laughs]
I didn’t want to abandon the songs though. I love these songs so much, so I thought, “I wonder what would happen if I put a band together?” But I I didn’t want just a regular band. I wanted to have an eclectic group of musicians who are all come from slightly different places but could come together.
So, that’s what I did. I got a guy named Nat Smith playing cello but he’s not a cello player in a classical sense. He plays almost like a country fiddler. I have Russ Paul who is a groundbreaking pedal steel innovator who plays with Dan Auerbach among other people. Of course, Sam you know. Then in the rhythm section we have Guthrie Trapp – a fantastic electric guitar player, Steve Mackie on bass and Josh Day on drums and percussion. So, that is the band. I put them together and it was magic. The chemistry was there from the very beginning.
The first track we cut, my engineer looked at me and said, “Man, I don’t know what this is, but I love it.” It was done completely live in the studio with all analog gear with all vintage equipment and recorded to tape. This was designed to be on a vinyl record from the very beginning. There were considerations in the lengths of the songs, keeping it to 10 tracks, and timing it out right from the get-go. The main thing is that you have to keep it under a certain length per side on vinyl to ensure the things like fidelity and level are appropriately accounted for when you’re pumping out on a vinyl record. If it gets too long, the grooves in the physical product get too tight.
JAMBASE: In terms of the material, I recognize a couple songs as Mississippi John Hurt, and you have a rendition of “Stack-O-Lee” (“Stagger Lee”) on there. Is the rest of the material written by you, but keeping with the stylistic flow and style of the Mississippi John Hurt music?
JO: There are actually five Mississippi John Hurt songs on the record. There is “Creole Bell,” which he didn’t write, but he made it famous. Most people think he was the guy, but that song was written at the turn of the century in the early-1900s. “Stack-O-Lee” was his interpretation of a song that has been recorded by a million people. I first heard that song in 1959 by Lloyd Price, who was a singer had a rock hit with that song in 1959. So, we do our own version on that one. There is a song called “Lord Send Me,” a gospel song, that John used to like to start his shows with and then there is “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” but I reworked it a little and added a refrain and named it “Pallet Soft and Low.”
The album just sounded so good and there was something going on that I wanted to keep it going, so I said, “What other songs would have been contemporary in Mississippi John Hurt’s early recording career in the late-1920s when he was recording for OKeh Records?” I read that he was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers, so I chose “Miss the Mississippi and You”, which was a song that I played for the first time at Bristol Rhythm & Roots festival about five or six years ago. I love that song and we did a great arrangement of that.
Then I started thinking about his guitar playing, which I think a lot of people mistakenly lump into this delta blues category, but he is really more hill country. His style is more reminiscent of ragtime than it is delta blues. So, I decided to do a Blind Blake song. Anybody who knows guitar will probably agree that Blind Blake is the king of the ragtime guitar.
Then I started thinking back to this late-1920s period and how it was such an interesting time as it was essentially the beginning of radio and it was the beginning of the phonograph machine, so people could play albums. So, I started looking into what was the first hit record. What would be a record that would be played on the radio or played in people’s homes at that time? Emmett Miller’s version of “Anytime” is arguably one of the first hit records ever made in America. That was considered one of the earliest hit songs.
The album started to take on a wider scope and it started becoming a snapshot of this early American period of music in the late-1920s and early-1930s.
JAMBASE: You wrote the title track. I assume that would be the single? I like how “Arkansas” feels almost like the crescendo if you’re thinking about it in the context of the whole album.
JO: I’m a songwriter and I’m not really used to doing albums of cover versions of other people’s songs. I took a trip to Wilson, Arkansas just north of Memphis. After a show up there, I walked out into some cotton fields on the banks of the Mississippi River and moonlight was glistening and I was standing in this spot where it felt like this American music kind of came up all the way from the delta in the south through St. Louis and Chicago and it seemed to crystallize what I was doing on the record. It gave me this evocative feeling that I was standing at the epicenter of this great American musical tradition. I wrote the song on pure emotions really.
On that song, there is a blending of kind of rootsy sentiment and styles with a modern sensibility and a bit more of a pop sensibility. To me, that is who I am. I’m this blending of roots and traditional music that I grew up with as a kid and the popular music that I made through my career with Hall & Oates. In a way, that song glues the album together.
JAMBASE: Is that a guitar solo or a distorted mandolin? I couldn’t figure out what instrument that was, but I really dig how that sort of towers over the music, but the singing and the rest of the band is still up in the mix too.
JO: That’s a pedal steel guitar. He’s not like any other pedal steel guitar player. He uses effects and it’s almost like a rock slide guitar. Sam does play his slide electric mandolin on “Pallet Soft and Low” though. Russ Paul’s pedal steel playing is really amazing and unique.
JAMBASE: In a general sense, you have a ton going on right now. There is this album with all the affiliated promotion and shows supporting it, and then you have a massive Hall & Oates tour coming up beginning on May 1st. How are you feeling? Are you a person who gets a little stressed out or more just excited during times like this when you have so many big things happening?
JO: [laughs] Well, I’m trying not to be. It really is a lot of stuff going on though. First of all, this album was supposed to come out in the spring, and there wasn’t supposed to be a lot of Hall & Oates shows in 2018. I was going to work on this album and Daryl [Hall] was going to work on his TV show, but things changed when the group Train became available and it was proposed that we do this tour together.
Everything changed and I had to push my album release up to February and this giant Hall & Oates tour was quite frankly too good to turn down. So, that’s what happened and why this year might seem crazy. I didn’t intend 2018 to be quite so jammed, but my goal is to do it all and have a great time doing it.
JAMBASE: I was curious with Train, have you thought about what you are going to do with the collaborative part of the show?
JO: We’re working on a song together that is more like a single. So, we’re still working on that one, but it’s coming along nicely. We haven’t decided what else we’re going to do together, but we’ll figure it out. We definitely want to make it collaborative. I played with them at Jazz Fest and went on their cruise, and Daryl has had them on his show. So this will be a lot of fun.
JAMBASE: Alright last question. Will the mustache be ready for May 1st?
JO: [laughs] The mustache is always ready. I’ve already got a mustache goatee situation going on, so I think we’re in good shape. [laughs]
John Oates is currently on tour with the Good Road Band consisting of Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Steve Mackey on bass, Nat Smith on cello and Josh Day on drums and percussion. Among the upcoming shows is a visit to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco this Sunday, February 11.