On the Record: John Oates
Mainstream Pop and Soul, the Singer-Songwriter Hones His Rural Roots in Arkansas

By Lee Valentine Smith

As half of Hall and Oates, John Oates has sold over 40 million records and toured the world. Their mix of Philly soul and mainstream pop made them one of the most popular acts of the late '70s and early '80s, easily marking them as the most successful duo of the rock era - with every sort of award and honor imaginable.

Since the late '70s, Hall has released a number of solo albums, but it wasn't until 2002 that Oates began to issue records under his own name. Beginning with the self-described "hodge-podge" of Phunk Shui, his style has shifted dramatically.

Now fully immersed in the Nashville music scene near his home and embraced by the Americana crowd, Oates' three most recent albums deftly detail his appreciation of old-time blues, folk and country. Arkansas, his latest, arrives this month as Oates takes his Good Road Band on a tour of the States. In May, he shifts gears back to mega-platinum arena-rock mode for a massive Hall and Oates tour - scheduled to arrive in Duluth in June.
INsite spoke with Oates from his office in Tennessee.

Now that your autobiography Change of Seasons has been out for a year, how do you view it in retrospect?

Well it took two years to write and it was cathartic in a way. I appreciated the fact that by delving into these memories, it brought back things I might not have thought of for the rest of my life, so it was a very interesting and emotional experience. One of the things that kinda shocked me was how I was able to squeeze in so much into every day. I'd kept a journal all during the '70s and that became a kind of catalyst for the book. [Co-writer] Chris Epting would review them and he was a good memory jogger. I was like, 'How did I do all that stuff?' But now that I'm saying that out loud, I'm realizing that now I'm probably doing even more now than then. The paperback edition of it comes out in May.

It's really unique that you were able to keep a journal during the '70s, when that was about the last thing many musicians were doing.

Yeah, I started it when I graduated college in 1970. I had the foresight to say to myself, 'Whatever I do from this day forward is going to somehow set the course for the rest of my life.' Little did I know then that I'd be working with Daryl Hall. We knew each other but we weren't working on anything. I didn't know we'd form a partnership and do all these things. So it all just happened to sort of coincide with this nearly 50-year collaboration and this crazy career.

The newest thing in that crazy career is a great new solo record. People are in love with vinyl now, but this is so authentic and retro, it needs to be on a scratchy old 78.

We did actually consider doing a 78 of it, but we realized that would be too much of a niche thing. But it is on vinyl. We cut the lacquer at a place called Return to 1979 with an early 1960s lathe. It sounds amazing on 180-gram vinyl.

I've heard this project was initially inspired by Mississippi John Hurt, a legendary music figure who isn't credited enough these days.

Yeah, he's been a hero of mine since the early '60s. I saw him perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and some of the coffee houses of that era. Later I got to meet him. Now I actually own his guitar. It's a Guild, the one he played at Newport in 1964. If you watch the video from the song "Arkansas," you'll see it.

In the '60s, many prominent folk artists cited him as an early influence. But over the years, he's been mistakenly labelled as a Delta Blues guy.

He was a very unique player. A lot of people do sort of lump him into the Delta Blues category, but he was a Piedmont Hill Country performer - and there weren't a lot of them. His style had a little bit more of a ragtime feel. His songwriting and his finger-picking guitar style were very unique, so it appealed and influenced a lot of people. Me especially.

This record is a solid follow-up to Good Road To Follow from 2013. There's a definite thread there, but this one has much more of a cohesive band sound.

Yeah, Good Road had a lot of styles because I had a number of collaborators. I was working in different worlds and I wanted to do what they wanted to do. But I actually think this album is more connected to a record I made in 2010 called Mississippi Mile. I recorded that with Mike Henderson from the Steeldrivers. I think that one is even more of a direct link to the Arkansas album.

That makes three very strong records that are vastly different than what people normally associate you with - blue-eyed soul and pop.

After these three, I think people are finally realizing who I really am as a musician. Stripped away from the popularity and the massive success of the Hall and Oates thing, I think these albums really showcase who I am.

Has living in Nashville played a part in shaping your sound or would you have gone in this direction anyway?

I'd always wanted to do it but I didn't have the support system and the musical community. Once I moved to Nashville, I felt like I was coming home in a way. Now I have a group of musicians and people who really kind of "get" what I do, because they do it themselves, too. I feel like I've entered into a musical family where we're all coming from the same place.

When you take this record out on tour, you'll have the Good Road Band along with you.

Yeah on selected dates I'll have the full Good Road Band, exactly like on the album. But a lot of those guys are very busy doing their other things, so on some shows, I'll have the four-piece rhythm section, the same ones - drums, bass and electric guitar - who also played on the album. In Atlanta, it's gonna be the core rhythm section.

This will be your second visit to Eddie's Attic.

Oh yeah and I loved it there. It's as up close and personal as you wanna get. We had an amazing show last time and now we're doing two nights - so obviously the word's out. People there come for the music and that's what it's all about for me.

Now that you are comfortable within your own sound, it must be very freeing to return to the big shows with Daryl.

Now I have the best of all worlds. I can go out on the road and play giant arenas - which we're gonna be doing this year again starting in May. But I can do this as well. It's a great balance.

Is it a challenge to shift from the small club mindset where everyone pays attention to the giant sports arenas where you can't see past the first few rows?

It's just so completely different - performance, style, mindset, everything. It's big, it's brash, it's over the top. It's about the spectacle in the arenas. Whereas what I do solo is totally music-oriented. It's stripped away of all the artifice.

The Americana mindset is so non-arena - for the most part.

Well for the most part but Chris Stapleton does it right. He's playing the arenas and stadiums and he's pretty real.

Chris has been fully embraced by the Americana movement and then from the mainstream, almost in direct reverse of your solo progress. And with you, there's no "Oh, he's the pop guy" snobbery.

No, not anymore. The fans who've followed me have realized what I'm doing and that it's all about the music.

Your musical ride from the '70s, '80s, '90s and especially this decade has been an amazing journey. Your first solo record from 2002 is so far removed from what you're doing now.

The way I look at it, when I did Phunk Shui, I was like a brand new artist because I'd ever done a solo album. It was just a hodge-podge of ideas, 'Let's try this or let's try that.' I didn't know who I was. I was just using whatever materials I had at my disposal at the time. But once I moved to Nashville in 2007 and did Thousand Miles of Light, it began to coalesce as to who I really am. What I needed to do was go back to my original inspirations, my original roots in order to find my own voice. I think this Arkansas album is the best version of that so far and I really want people to hear it.

John Oates will play on February 26 & 27 at Eddie's Attic. For more information, please visit eddiesattic.com.

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