By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
At 70 years old, John Oates, from the 80 million record selling, Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inducted pop/soul duo – Hall & Oates, has successfully reinvented himself as a solo artist.
With the release of his new record, “Arkansas,” Oates has passionately returned to his musical roots, performing the music that he grew up playing, prior to joining up with Daryl Hall and becoming a pop superstar.
“Arkansas” is a ten track throwback to early 20th century American music, but re-imagined with a bit of a modern twist. Although, nine tracks are covers, Oates brilliantly composed the title track. Oates describes “Arkansas,” as “Dixieland dipped in bluegrass and salted with Delta blues.”
For this record, Oates teamed up with some of the best musicians in Nashville. His band, the Good Road Band, features: Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Steve Mackey on bass, Nathaniel Smith on cello, and Josh Day on drums and percussion.
John Oates and the Good Road Band will be hitting the road starting in mid-September. This tour will include a headlining performance at the inaugural Borderland Music and Arts Festival at Knox Farm State Park (just outside Buffalo, NY) on September 23rd.
What follows is an exclusive Rock Music Star interview with the legend – John Oates. During this interview, we discussed his new solo record, his recently released autobiography, the future of Hall & Oates and much more.
RockMusicStar: John, you will be headlining the Borderline Music and Art Festival in East Aurora on September 23rd. This is a really great new festival with some amazing bands. How do you feel about headlining it?
John Oates: I love it! I love the fact that I get to do the first one. I hope that the Festival goes on for many more years. It sounds like a great festival that many people are looking forward to. I looked at the line-up, and it looks really cool, it has a lot of people who I know in Nashville, where I’ve been living for quite a while now, in that part of the Americana roots community. I’m bring an incredible band, The Good Road Band, so I can’t wait to play on September 23rd. (tickets can be purchased here )
RMS: Many people are a bit surprised with your new musical direction. It’s a throw back to early Americana, delta blues, but has a bit of a hip, modern element to it. I give you a lot of credit for being able to pull that off.
JO: Thank you! This record represents an important part of me. It gave me a chance to go back to my very earliest musical roots. People associate me with the pop music that I made with Daryl Hall, and of course for good reason. But before I met him, I was playing guitar starting at 6 years old, so by the time I met Daryl, I was already playing for over 10 years. The music that I was playing was folk music, delta blues, bluegrass, swing, ragtime and things like that. So, that’s kind of what I did. Over the years, that kind of got pushed to the side. But living in Nashville for the past 10 years has enabled me to basically rediscover part of myself, that I really kind of put aside for many, many years.
My new record, ‘Arkansas,’ really represents a chance to go back to that. It was a real chance of not only to celebrate that music that I know and loved so much, but kind of re-imagining it with years and years of experience in the recording studio and of course surrounding myself with these incredible musicians that I have been fortunate enough to become friends with. This record kind of crystallizes all of these moments together. When recording, we took traditional songs, old songs that were recorded in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but re-imagined them in a modern way.
RMS: In addition, you did write “Arkansas,” the title track. How challenging was it to compose that song and have it perfectly fit the format?
JO: That song was actually written when the record was 3/4 finished. I didn’t have any original songs on it at that point. I had gone to a place called Wilson, Arkansas on the banks of the Mississippi river, about thirty miles Northwest of Memphis. Highway 61, the blues highway runs right through the middle of the town, of course there were cotton fields. But it just seemed to capture the essence of this great American music tradition. I thought to myself that there was a magic there. I felt that as a songwriter, I wanted to try to capture that. And that’s where the song, “Arkansas,” came from.
I wasn’t really sure at first if it was going to fit or not. But, because I played it with the same band, and we approached it in the same style, we were hopeful that it would fit in. Also, I did want to have an original song or two on the album.
RMS: I truly believe that it’s one of the best songs that you have ever written. It certainly shows that you have matured and grown as a songwriter.
JO: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I’m very proud of this record. I’m getting the word out by playing a lot, we already toured with it last winter. But, it’s on ongoing thing. I think this style of music is timeless, so I feel like I can play this music for a long time. It’s a lot of fun to play, and lot of people really dig it. And like I said, I have this incredible band performing with me.
RMS: Yes, the band is amazing. I’ve also seen some videos of you performing material from this new record by yourself. I was impressed with not only your vocal performance, but your guitar playing as well.
JO: Thank you. It’s the result of a lot of hard work and dedication. I’ve been playing some of these songs for years, like I said it goes back to my childhood. Over the years, living in Nashville and realizing how high the bar is set instrumentally caused me to really go back and woodshed, practice and kind of get my chops back up. When you perform with great musicians, you want to try to rise to the same level , and you want to be on the same page as these guys. I feel that my guitar playing now is the best it’s ever been in my whole life. I’m proud of that fact, and I really love playing.
RMS: I’m sure that many of the die-hard Hall & Oates fans still follow you, but I would imagine that you are building a new fan base with this newer musical direction.
JO: Absolutely! People are discovering this record and looking at me in a very different way. Which is great. The hard-core Hall & Oates fans, I think, really understand that I have my own musical personality, which is different from what I do with Daryl in the Hall & Oates catalog. Along the way, a lot of new fans are jumping on board because they didn’t realize that I did this kind of thing. But, it’s been fun, and very rewarding to know that I could have two separate careers, and they are both fun and good.
RMS: In March of 2017, you released your autobiography “Change of Seasons: A Memoir.” It’s really a great read. How difficult was the process to put it together, and how gratifying was it when it was finally finished?
JO: Well, it was a long process, it took about two years to write it. I had never really written a book before. Being a songwriter, I’m more used to a more instant gratification. When you write a song, it usually doesn’t take that long, and then when you play it and you can feel it. So, it was definitely a bit difficult at times for me to keep my focus, but I had a great collaborator/co-writer – Chris Epting. He was an amazing researcher, and kept me on the right path, and pointed me in the right direction, with great ideas.
When it was finally finished, it was extremely rewarding. I feel like I told my personal story, but at the same time, I told the story about the early days of Hall & Oates. What it took to get together with him, that time really defined a lot of my adult life. So, I couldn’t ignore it, but at the same time I didn’t want to make it just the Hall & Oates story without Daryl Hall. So, that was a little bit of a tight rope that I had to walk, to make the book the way that I wanted to, and to be able to tell my personal story.
RMS: In 2014, Hall & Oates were finally inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. This was after being eligible for 15 years. Were you upset at all that it took that long?
JO: Well, I wasn’t losing any sleep over it. But, at the same time, when it finally happened, I was very happy about it. But, it’s a lifetime achievement award in a way. It’s also kind of like a boys club, in that this committee decides who’s in and who’s not. I don’t think that it necessarily represents the real world of rock n’ roll, but more so who they think of at the moment. But, at least it happened for us.
RMS: Are there any plans at this point to record new material for Hall & Oates?
JO: No. Absolutely nothing planned. We just finished a huge summer tour, and we plan on touring more next year. But, I think what Daryl and I do together is based on our history. We play the songs that we did together, the songs that are popular, the big hits that people know and love. We are happy to do that. But when that’s done, we are both very much energized by doing our own individual things.
RMS: What are your feelings about the state of the music industry right now? Do you feel that it’s the most dysfunctional up that it’s ever been during your career?
JO: I guess it is. But, luckily for me, I don’t have to worry about it. Because, I’m really not involved in it? I’m really not in the music business. I’m making music, but I’m not in the music business. In other words, I make a record, and if people like it, that’s great. If they buy it, stream it, download it, whatever … that’s fantastic. But, I don’t live and die by that. Luckily my career has enabled me to have the creative freedom that I have, and allows me to do what I want to do. It’s a really unique and blessed place to be. I don’t take it for granted, and I try to make the most of it. But, I certainly don’t sit around looking at sales charts. If I’m not on the charts, it really doesn’t mean anything to me. Which is really a very fortunate place to be.
RMS: I feel sorry for many of the newer artist and bands. I don’t think any of them will ever by able to sell over 80 million records like you did with Hall & Oates.
JO: Yes, that really is shame. They are a lot of very, very talented artists out there. It’s a shame that the world has changed the way in which it has, but it is what it is.
RMS: My last question is, where do you see yourself going musically over the next few years?
JO: Well, I’m still involved with the ‘Arkansas’ project at this point, so I don’t want to look too far ahead. But, I just want to be creative. Next week, I’m writing a song with a modern jazz singer. I’m also producing an album of Americana country music with a guy that I’ve known for a long time. So, it really just depends on what comes along. I’m very open-minded musically. But who knows, it could be some unusual project that happens because it sounds like fun. But, the one thing about whatever I do is that it will always be real, musical, and will have to do with people playing music.
For more on John Oates, please visit www.johnoates.com
To purchase tickets to the Borderland Music and Art Festival in East Aurora, NY. please visit borderlandfestival.com