John Oates coming home to his teenage folk and roots influences is one of Nashville’s most interesting and emblematic stories of the past decade. Initially, it was hard for some to believe that the voice and pen behind 1980s radio staples “Maneater” and “Rich Girl” would find a style that would fit comfortably into an Americana field defined by the likes of Rodney Crowell and Jason Isbell.
But Oates was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for good reasons. He’s a highly developed and versatile talent with an ear for songs and a deep well of inspirations and influences from which to draw.
He’s made two roots-informed albums since 2001, but he’s never sounded as comfortable or coherent throughout a project as his new album Arkansas. Oates says his game plan going in was a solo acoustic tribute to his musical hero Mississippi John Hurt. In an interview from the January 27 edition of Music City Roots at the City Winery, he said that quickly changed.
“I cut a few tracks just solo guitar and voice and realized that it wasn’t really something that felt comfortable. It wasn’t happening. And I didn’t want to abandon the idea. I love the songs so much. I said what if we play the same songs but with a full band?”
That came from the relationships he’s built in the last five to eight years, a who’s who of Nashville’s roots musicians, including Sam Bush on mandolin, Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar and Russ Pahl on pedal steel. The Good Road Band, they’re called, and while it’s a big group, Oates says he kept the sonic emphasis on the fingerstyle guitar and the songs, which are mostly covers by the likes of Hurt, Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Blake.
“I think if you stripped away all the other instrumentation on the record, you’d find that I was playing the traditional songs in the traditional manner,” he said. “But the addition of all these other musicians really took the music to another place. It made it slightly more contemporary, but we didn’t lose the authenticity of the original.”
Two original songs, the title track and “Dig Back Deep” offer context for the larger story of John Oates’s journey from his days hanging out at the Philadelphia Folk Festival of the mid 60s to a global pop career and back a familiar firmament he’s found in Music City. Oates said that he was able to meet and learn from John Hurt directly in his Philadelphia days and that recently he purchased the guitar that Hurt played at that time.