John Oates needs virtually no introduction among music fans, since his full name has appeared on millions of albums since 1972 – tethered to that of his partner, Daryl Hall. Together, the pair created soulful pop hits ranging from “Sara Smile” to “So Close” en route to becoming the world’s best-selling musical duo.
The group still tours regularly, returning to United Center in May. At present, however, Oates has another priority. The songwriter’s seventh solo album “Arkansas” finds him shifting gears, delving into his fascination for American roots music and paying tribute to country blues legend and childhood hero, Mississippi John Hurt.
“Mississippi John had a period of rediscovery between 1963 and 1966,” says Oates. “I saw him perform many times as a high school kid, starting at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. He made repeated trips to Philadelphia because his manager was there.
“… A guy named Jerry Ricks took Mississippi John to various venues when he was in town. Jerry became my guitar teacher and mentor. When John Hurt died, the guitar he played at Newport in ’64 was given to Jerry. He brought that guitar to New York when Daryl and I recorded our first two Hall & Oates albums. If I’m playing acoustic guitar on ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’ or ‘Whole Oats,’ it’s Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar.”
Oates wrestled with the idea of updating Hurt’s material. “I thought, I’m never going to do it as well as the original,” he says. “But my midnight revelation came when I realized I’d never heard these songs played with a band. I assembled a very eclectic band of good friends, with cello, pedal steel, mandolin and rhythm section. We threw caution to the wind, and the first track we cut was ‘Stack O’ Lee.’”
The song, also known as “Stagger Lee,” was published in 1911. Hurt recorded his definitive version in 1928, spinning the folklore of a St. Louis scoundrel who “killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat.”
“It’s a classic story that has been retold many ways,” says Oates. “Lloyd Price had a big hit with it in 1959. That’s when I first heard it, but my point of reference here is Mississippi John Hurt. If you strip away the band, I’m playing it like him.”
The album also features songs by Hurt contemporaries including Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Blake, as well as Oates originals. “Dig Back Deep” offers tribute to Hurt with a twist. “I’m collaborating with him,” says Oates of the singer, who died in 1966. “Whether he likes it or not. I realized I was digging into my earliest influences, so that’s where the chorus came from. I borrowed from the Mississippi John Hurt song ‘Sliding Delta,’ using some of his imagery, but with different melody and chord changes. I actually sing the chorus of ‘Sliding Delta’ as the fourth verse.”
Another Oates composition is the album’s title track. “The state doesn’t get the same props as New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta for music that came up from the South, but Arkansas is the last rural stop on that musical journey up the Mississippi River,” says Oates. “The song itself paints the picture of an evocative landscape. After I’d done a show in a town called Wilson, Arkansas, I stood in the moonlight in the cotton fields with the river in the distance. I don’t know how to describe the experience other than to call it an American moment.”
Anticipate a rich evening of songs and storytelling at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “I try to describe the legacy of this music and how the songs interconnect,” says Oates.
Don’t expect a set of Hall & Oates singles reinterpreted by Oates’ hot Good Road Band of Nashville journeymen, although a few treats are promised. “I do ‘Maneater’ the way I originally wrote the chorus, as a reggae song,” he says. “I’ve never performed it the way it came into my mind. I also do ‘She’s Gone,’ because I think it crystallizes everything great about what Daryl and I did together. I don’t feel like a show would be complete without that one.”