The devil and John Oates: How a Mississippi blues man helped shape one of the year’s ‘most anticipated albums’

John Oates will release his new album “Arkansas” on Friday. He will play Family Gras in Metairie on Saturday.
John Oates will release his new album “Arkansas” on Friday. He will play Family Gras in Metairie on Saturday.

If you were to ask John Oates who influenced him the most musically, the answer is probably not going to be exactly what you would expect.

It’s more than likely not going to be Sam Moore or Eddie Kendrick or Jerry Butler or the soul acts that helped shape the sound of the pride of Philadelphia, Hall & Oates, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame duo he formed with Daryl Hall in the early 1907s.

The answer is going to be Carroll County native Mississippi John Hurt.

Mississippi John Hurt was born in Avalon, Mississippi, which is located in the Delta and is in close proximity to Greenwood. It’s a small community along the Mississippi Blues Trail, where Mississippi John Hurt has his own blues marker. The blues man died in Grenada in 1966.

But his spirit is all over Oates’ latest solo album “Arkansas,” which drops Friday. “Arkansas” is a collection of some of Hurt’s songs, traditional covers and some Oates originals. It’s a mix of blues, bluegrass, country and Dixieland that is one of the most anticipated “Americana” releases of early 2018, according “Rolling Stone” magazine. But it’s more far-reaching than standard Americana fare, it’s an organic representation of Southern Americana.

“Arkansas” places Oates in the company of albums like Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings,” Willie Nelson’s “Teatro” and Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft.”

Oates recorded the album in Nashville, his adopted hometown of the last several years, live in the studio with The Good Road Band. The band features some of the top players in Nashville, including the legendary Sam Bush. Bush brought bluegrass into the mainstream with the seminal New Grass Revival, which helped to launch the careers of John Cowan (Doobie Brothers) and Bela Fleck.

Oates will be bringing “Arkansas” and The Good Road Band to Metairie on Saturday for Family Gras. The free show also features Michael McDonald and Cyndi Lauper. It kicks off at Mardi Gras Plaza at noon. Oates and Good Road Band are scheduled to play at 2:30.

In an interview with the Sun Herald, Oates reflects on his affection for Mississippi John Hurt, his passion for the music of New Orleans and his fascination with Alabama Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban.

I’ve heard you talk about your admiration for Mississippi John Hurt and that “Arkansas” is a tribute to him. But to me, the final product seems like a love letter to the music of the American South, which you started with “Mississippi Mile.” How did you bring that vision to fruition?

Philadelphia was the first northern city, geographically and historically. So after the Civil War, African American culture migrated north and it was kind of the first place people stopped and settled, so you had the unique blending of that and an Anglo-European culture. You get a great mixture. Philadelphia’s R&B tradition also had a great folk tradition. It was just an amazing place to grow up in the 50s and 60s and that’s where I came in contact with a lot of these great Southern musicians who were being rediscovered at the time. I fell in love with Mississippi John Hurt and I saw him perform many times in the early 60s and I eventually came to own his guitar and I played it on the first two Hall & Oates records. I had this deep, important connection to that music.

The album started as, like you said, a love letter to Mississippi John Hurt and then expanded to some of the music and some of the styles that were contemporary during his early recording career in the late 1920s.

It all came together in a very unique way. It started out as me doing a solo Mississippi John Hurt record and then I realized I wanted to broaden the scope, so I started thinking about songs that were popular during that time. I found the Emmett Miller song “Anytime,” which may have been one of the first, arguably, hit record. I thought, “Hell, I’ve been making hit records my whole life and that kind of defines who I am but I didn’t even know what the first hit record was,” so I thought that was significant and I added that. Then I found that Mississippi John Hurt was a huge fan of Jimmie Rodgers, so I added a Jimmie Rodgers song. I started thinking about his style being more of a ragtime style than a delta blues style, so I added Blind Blake, one of the greatest ragtime guitar players of all time.

The album took on a much a deeper and wider scope. What It ended up being to me, you called it a “love letter” and I love that, I think of it as a snapshot of the earliest American popular music that was that was being recorded.

The song “Arkansas,” which you wrote paints a very vivid picture — and this is coming from someone who rented a house on a cotton field in North Mississippi. Did you spend a lot of time physically in the Mississippi River area Arkansas?

Last year, I was invited to go to a place called Wilson, Arkansas, to do a small show and it was on one of the biggest cotton plantations in America. After the show, I wandered out into the cotton fields and it was a moonlit night and it was on the banks of the Mississippi River. It was one of the most provocative scenes I’d ever seen and it just struck me. I went back to Nashville and I wrote the song.

What I realized is that Arkansas kind of plays second fiddle to the musical touch points of New Orleans, the Delta and Memphis. I realized that Arkansas is significant in that it was sort of the last rural stop in music as it moved up the river to St. Louis and Chicago, where primitive music became much more sophisticated and led to the beginnings of rock and roll. I think Arkansas is sort of the unsung hero in this story.

I hear a lot of New Orleans touches on “Arkansas.” You’re playing in the New Orleans area on Saturday. Are you a fan of the music of New Orleans — The Meters, the jazz, etc.?

I’m a huge fan. I was has the rare opportunity to bring Allen Toussaint to Aspen a few years back for my songwriters festival. I got to play with him and listen to him and just watch him. I’m a huge, huge New Orleans music fan.

Even a song like “Stack O Lee,” which I referenced as the Mississippi John Hurt version, the first time I heard that song was the 1959 Lloyd Price version. Lloyd Price has a pop hit with “Stagger Lee.” I began to listen to Fats Domino and Professor Longhair — I was well into New Orleans music. I think the New Orleans influence on the “Arkansas” record comes from the style of playing. I think what we were able to accomplish, and it was totally organic, is that the players in the room were playing exactly like a Dixieland band. If you substitute clarinets and horns, things like that, for pedal steel and mandolins and acoustic guitars, that’s what’s going on on the “Arkansas” record. It’s a beautiful chaos of this interwoven and virtuosic playing going on. What’s really unique about it is that the players are so good and so skilled and they are playing at a very high level, but they are also listening at a very high level. There’s a tapestry of music that doesn’t get in each other’s way. The music you hear on this record is played exactly the way you hear it. There’s no overdubs and no fixes. It’s the most real thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I could tell by the opening part of the song “Arkansas” that the mandolin was being played by the great Sam Bush. How did you get him involved?

The moment you hear that part, you know it’s Sam Bush. There are a lot of great mandolin players, but there’s not another Sam Bush. He’s a one-of-a-kind and a legend.

He was one of the first people that welcomed me to Nashville. I did an album in 2007 called “1000 Miles of Life” and on that record I had Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush — a lot of great, great players. In the course of making that record, I become very good friends with Jerry and Sam. Back then, Nashville was kind of an “old boy’s club” and to be accepted by a guy like that helped me become part of the music community here. Sam and I have been friends ever since and we’ve recorded together and played together many times. He was the first guy I called when I wanted to make the record. The other guys on the record are actually my solo band — they are the core of my rhythm section. So what I did was I just enhanced the rhythm section with Sam Bush and the great Russ Pahl on pedal steel and another amazing player named Nat Smith, who plays cello. He’s actually from Mississippi. He doesn’t play cello like any person I’ve ever heard in my life. I just assembled this group of musicians to see what would happen and it was magic from the very first track.

I saw a photo on your Instagram that was two of my favorite things — John Oates and Alabama Coach Nick Saban from when you were in Tuscaloosa. I’ve heard that Coach Saban is a huge music fan. How did that meeting happen?

I’m a huge college football fan. We were in Tuscaloosa playing a show with Hall & Oates and I had a free afternoon. One of the promoters reached out to the university and asked if we could come and see the football facilities, which was very impressive, to say the least. We met Coach Saban’s executive assistant — I had read Saban’s biography and I’m fascinated with him as a human being, he’s a very unique individual. His assistant said, “Coach doesn’t normally see people during the season, but he said we could go in his office and sit at his desk. He was very cool, he said we could wear his hat, put his rings on. But then at the end of the visit, Coach Saban came out and said hello and we took some pictures together and he was super nice. But interestingly enough, I could tell he was happy to do it, but I could tell he wasn’ going to spend that much time with us. He had other things on his mind and he’s such a driven individual. I thought that was very cool. He was very cordial and very nice, but then he immediately went back to work.

Did you pull for them in the National Championship?

I did. I knew they were going to win. The moment they were put in as the fourth team, I said, “You don’t give this guy two months to prepare for anyone and he’s not going to lose.” I knew it.