John Oates Revisits His Americana Roots

Sam Gazdziak | April 25th, 2011


As one-half of the famed rock-pop duo Hall & Oates, John Oates has sold millions of records, toured around the world, won numerous awards and is a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Despite all the accolades, however, not many people are aware of his background and the music that inspired him to become a musician in the first place. His new album, Mississippi Mile, aims to change that.

Released this month on Elektra Nashville/Phunk Shui, Mississippi Mile finds Oates doing his take on classic songs from the likes of Elvis Presley, Curtis Mayfield and Chuck Berry, as well as traditional folk songs like “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “He Was a Friend of Mind.” Oates and co-producer Mike Henderson assembled an all-star band, including Bekka Bramlett, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and recorded much of the album live in the studio.

Oates says that his original intent was to record some songs he loved growing up. As he began putting the album together, he realized that he was creating somewhat of a musical autobiography.

“I realized that people didn’t know a lot about me from before Hall & Oates–if I started playing guitar the day I met Daryl or what,” he says. “The truth of the matter, I was playing for 12 or 13 years before I met him, in bands or by myself on the folk circuit.”

One of the important things to Oates in making this album was to add a little bit of himself to each of the songs while still paying tribute to the original. His take on “All Shook Up,” for example, is a bluesier, grittier version than the Elvis version.

“If you’re going to do these classic records, you can’t just ape them,” he says. “It’s an exercise in futility, and I didn’t want to do that. At the same time, those songs are classic songs, and I wanted to honor them.”

It was his take on “All Shook Up” that actually kickstarted the album. Oates says that he was messing around on his guitar and started playing a Delta blues riff. The Presley classic came to mind, and he started singing it. The result was successful enough that he started looking for a roots-oriented partner to work with on the album. He originally met with Buddy Miller and sang him “All Shook Up,” and while Miller was impressed, the two couldn’t work out their schedules.

“As it turned out, Buddy was too busy–I think he had something to do with some guy from Led Zeppelin at one point,” Oates said, laughing. “But I thought that just the very fact that he dug where it was coming from was a good sign.”

Oates was also looking for a slide guitar player for the record, and he was directed to Henderson through a recommendation from Sam Bush.

“I knew about what he does with The SteelDrivers, because that’s one of my favorite groups,” he says. “[Then] I saw Mike play with his blues band in the Bluebird in Nashville, and I really liked where he was coming from.”

Oates admits that he can overthink things too much during the recording process, so one of Henderson’s main tasks was to curb that impulse and keep the record as spontaneous as possible. As a result, the songs were recorded live in the studio, needing no more than two or three takes to get it right. Oates recorded his vocals in an isolation booth, and 80 percent of those vocals made it to the album.

“After the take, Mike would say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good vocal,’” Oates recalls. “I’d say, ‘I was a little flat here’ or ‘I could change that part,’ and he’d say ‘No, it’s good, it’s good, don’t touch it.’”

Oates penned three songs for the album, one of which is a cover of the Hall and Oates’ classic “You Make My Dreams Come True.” The swing arrangement, though, is far from what fans of the original song might expect.

“Here was a way of showing that a really great song can be reinterpreted in many ways and still maintain its integrity,” he says.

Oates wrote the title track after realizing that many of the songs tied either directly or indirectly to the Mississippi Delta. He wrote “Mississippi Mile” as a tribute to that common thread and the musicians who inspired him.

The other original for the album, “Deep River,” came about almost by accident.

“I wanted to do a Doc Watson song, because he’s one of my great heroes,” he explains. “My initial thought was that everyone’s heard “Deep River Blues” a million times, but very few have ever played it with a band, so I thought that would be cool to do.

“We played it a couple of times, and I started feeling hollow–why mess with perfection?” Oates continues. “I’ll never play it as good as Doc Watson in a million years, and it didn’t seem to be honoring it.”

Instead of scrapping the idea, the musicians took the chord changes, stretched them out, and gave it more of a swampy sound, with Oates scatting in lieu of singing the verses. Based on encouragement from Henderson, he wrote verses to fit the new arrangement, and “Deep River Blues” turned into “Deep River.” The song has a deeper meaning, as Oates was recording about a month after the 2010 flood devastated Nashville.

Mississippi Mile is definitely more in the Americana vein than contemporary country music, but it should come as no surprise that Oates’ music has a strong following among country circles. Jimmy Wayne released a cover of Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile” last year, complete with the duo providing background vocals. Oates says that he recently wrote a song with James Otto, an unabashed Hall & Oates fan, as well.

“Musicians are musicians, and most of them have an appreciation for a wide range of other types of music. I like country music, but I don’t make it,” he says. “People think of these genres and the artists who represent those genres as being very one-dimensional, and from my experience, the exact opposite is true.”

  1. grumpiestoldman
    April 25, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Something tells me he’s friends with Kix Brooks.

  2. Fizz
    April 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    John Oates joins the likes of Phil Collins and Michael McDonald: over-the-hill adult-contemporary stars with covers albums “to show their roots.” Why not? He’s got the F.U. money. Waiting with bated breath for those bluegrass versions of “Maneater” and “One On One.”

  3. Jon
    April 25, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Nothing like blasting music you haven’t heard.

    I was out at Music City Roots last year sometime when Oates was on the bill. I didn’t pay much attention to his set, but it sounded ok when I was half listening. For what it’s worth, he certainly has the respect of some good musicians, and Mike Henderson doesn’t get himself involved in stuff he doesn’t like. So I’m inclined to think that the smartest thing to do might be to actually listen to the music and *then* decided if I like it, rather than the other way around.

    Oh, and consider the incongruity of calling someone “over the hill” and said person having wads of “F.U. money.” I’d love to be “over the hill” like that!

  4. Fizz
    April 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    What’s incongruous about it? The guy had a ton of hits that get played in dentist offices every day. Just none in the last twenty years or so.

  5. Jon
    April 25, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    If you don’t think it’s a good idea to use contemporary chart action to judge the value of Jason Aldean and his music, what makes you think it’s a good idea to use it to judge the value of Oates’?

  6. Fizz
    April 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    The point I’m making is that Oates’s commercial heyday is long in the past. And which is worse, knocking music before you hear it (which I wasn’t actually doing), or actually taking the trouble to say that it “sounded okay while I was half-listening?”

  7. Jon
    April 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    So what if it was long in the past? What difference does that make to his music? Looks to me like you’ve bought into Da Man’s way of thinking! And “over the hill” is a knock; putting “to show their roots” in quotes is a knock, and you haven’t heard the first note. I’d say that “blasting music you haven’t heard” it was right on target.

  8. Fizz
    April 25, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Haven’t you heard? Covers albums to show one’s roots are all the rage among guys like Oates. As for the “knocks,” just because you write in such a flat, expressionless way (the word monotony comes to mind), doesn’t mean I can’t be snarky if I want to.

  9. Rickster
    April 25, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    I listened to John when he was performing on Music City Roots and wasn’t particularly impressed. I think he also did an Opry show as well. I might give the song samples a listen on Amazon, but I’m not highly motivated to put it mildly…

  10. Ben Milam
    April 25, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    yall should get a room.

  11. roy smith
    April 25, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    If this wasn’t John Oates, you wouldn’t be trying so hard to show how cool and current you are…you would be saying “this is a nice CD”. Good songs, interesting arrangements and playing, and totally unexpected vocals. I go with the quality of the players. These guys don’t do things that aren’t good.

  12. Jon
    April 25, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Again, you’re just proving the point; this isn’t music made by “guys like Oates,” it’s made by Oates. So “guys like” him are irrelevant to the music. At least, they are to people who care more about music than their right to snarky posturing, never mind the snarky posturing itself. Silly us, we would like to hear the music before passing judgment on it.

  13. luckyoldsun
    April 25, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    It’s not as if it were Barry Manilow or that guy who did the theme from “Tootsie” suddenly deciding to do a roots album. I mean, I’ve never bought a Hall & Oates album in my life–and I don’t know if I’ll buy this–but the guy was clearly very talented and I’m interested in hearing what he comes up with.

  14. Matt B
    April 25, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    FWIW Oates did a nice job here. It’s a rootsy, hybrid of blues, rock, country and soul.

  15. Fizz
    April 25, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    But through all your fine-toothed analysis, you don’t seem to have noticed that I haven’t actually said anything about the music itself. I haven’t heard it (either). I’m commenting on the phenomenon of roots-baring covers albums by aging artists, a group which Oates has now joined.

    “This isn’t music made by ‘guys like Oates.’ It’s music made by Oates.”

  16. Jon
    April 26, 2011 at 6:57 am

    “This isn’t music made by ‘guys like Oates.’ It’s music made by Oates.”

    In your world, I can see where it would be; in the real world, where individual musicians make their own music, not so much.

  17. Barry Mazor
    April 26, 2011 at 7:59 am

    I’ve noticed a cerrtain tendency for some commenters here to slam people (artists and other commenters alike) for no longer being 22, being dead at 24 apparebtkly being a preferable life outcome. So I’d klike to coingratulate all of those on the remarkable accomplishment of being young. You may find it a posititon and prejudice a little tough to maintain so smugly over time. That’s a possibility. Being a kinder actual adult is another I’ve heard of.

  18. Fizz
    April 26, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Right. Pass the Vagicil back to Jon when you’re done.

  19. Barry Mazor
    April 26, 2011 at 8:23 am

    We’ll let mr. Fizz’s fizzless wit stand for itself.

    April 26, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Barry – Have you been called divinely to be Jon’s defender. Really dude, it’s getting weird! Comments from Fizz notwithstanding.

  21. Jim Malec
    April 26, 2011 at 9:10 am

    I found this to be a very boring listen.

  22. luckyoldsun
    April 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

    April 25, 2011 at 1:37 pm #Something tells me he’s friends with Kix Brooks.

    I wouldn’t know Hall from Oates.
    Did Hall actually do all the heavy lifting in that act?

  23. Barry Mazor
    April 26, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I’ve got no particular reason to be defending Jon. Sometimes he happens to be right. But that wasn’t my point in any case, which is why I took it more general.

    “Argument” so-called by age is about as menaingful as argument by race or sex–and just as pug ugly.

  24. Fizz
    April 26, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    About six years ago, when I was doing radio, one of the stations in the cluster was “presenting” Hall and Oates at a regional fair. Before the show, Hall was throwing a drunken fit because the tickets read “Hall And Oates” instead of “Darryl Hall And John Oates” as his people had supposedly specified. Hilarious to watch.

  25. grumpiestoldman
    April 26, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Darryl Hall is the talent. John Oates is the guy playing the guitar that isn’t even plugged into an amp.

  26. TXmusicjim
    April 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Y’all are making me bust a gut here. Who cares! /it is either good or it isn’t like any other music out there. Wouldn’t know haven’t heard it yet but Damn!

  27. Barry Mazor
    April 26, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Sorry your guts are busted, TX Jim. Call a medic.

  28. Donald
    April 26, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Andrew Ridgely resents that remark.

    April 26, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    @grumpiestoldman – Hence the aforementioned Brooks and Dunn comment.

  30. Fizz
    April 27, 2011 at 9:55 am

    At least Brooks got his name listed first …

  31. TXmusicjim
    April 27, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Barry my guts thankfully survived! Thanks!

  32. numberonecountryfan
    April 29, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Is the 9513 updating anything on this website? Where is the Friday Five? Just asking!

  33. Waynoe
    April 29, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I was wondering the same thing. Not much the last couple of days. Maybe it coincides with Malec posting on here again.

  34. Jim Malec
    April 29, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Nope–I have nothing to do with it. I bet everyone’s just focused on the May schedule.

  35. luckyoldsun
    April 29, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I just went to Youtube and looked up some Hall & Oates videos. (I’ve heard most of their hits but have really never seen them or known who’s who.) You’re completely right–In fact, Oates makes Kix Brooks look like Waylon Jennings. Darryl Hall could have teamed with Johnny Oates, the manager of the Orioles (r.i.p.) and it would have been about the same.

    Seeing those videos killed whatever interst I had in hearing Oates’ “Americana” project. Maybe it will work as a goof, like Pat Boone doing heavy metal.

    April 29, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    @Lucky – Much the same can be said for Sugarland and B&D. I mean, the latest Sugarland has Bush changing guitars – WOW!

  37. luckyoldsun
    April 29, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Mr. Rob
    I don’t know where all this comes from. I mean, Paul Simon may have been the creative force behind Simon & Garfunkel, but Garfunkel at least sang harmonies that were an indelible part of the act’s sound.

    Years ago I came across a West Coast literay blog that had an outsider’s guide to country music. The writer described the then-hot duo as “Montgomery Gentry have perfected a formula innovated to great success by Brooks & Dunn– An-ugly-looking-guy-who-sings, and-a-gay-looking-guy-who-doesn’t-seem-to-bring-anything-to-the-act.”

    Being the helpful person that I am, I pasted the entry onto both the B&D and M&G message boards on CMT. On the M-G board people responded furiously about what an ignorant loser the guy was. On the B&D board, someone responded irately: “Montgomery Gentry haven’t perfected anything!”

  38. BAMBI
    April 29, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    A bit off topic, but in the early days of B&D wasn’t it a more equal partnership? I could be wrond but I swear I hear Kix on You’re Gonna Miss Me for example. . .

    April 29, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    @Bambi – You are right, but that song was about it.
    @Lucky – Agreed though you can hear harmony from MG.

  40. vicki
    April 30, 2011 at 9:52 am

    What had happened to this site? It was the place to get updated info on what’s happening in country music. Now it’s been 3 days of no change. Also, I miss the old gang. Again, what’s going on?

  41. Gator
    April 30, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Vicki I totally agree with you where is everyone?!?!?!

  42. luckyoldsun
    April 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Maybe the self-appointed gatekeeper won–he persuaded everyone that they’re too deficient to be worthy of posting in this hallowed virtual ground.

  43. Fizz
    April 30, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Jon and Barry have taken the Verchers hostage, armed with lethal, nickel-plated dulcimers, and are demanding the Magic Password. The plot twist: Barry doesn’t really want to be a part of this diabolical plan, but was dragged into it by Jon, who reminded him “YOUR ego is at stake here too, you know.” How long can the standoff continue?

    Seriously, it’s been a few days, everybody deserves (and probably needs) a break. Don’t worry.

  44. Fizz
    April 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    In the meanwhile, we can say whateeeeever we want! Just don’t use the seven dirty words and you don’t have to be moderated. Have fun!

  45. Steve Harvey
    May 1, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Ronnie Dunn isn’t ugly!

  46. MayorJobob
    May 2, 2011 at 4:19 am

    Apparently John Oates is THE last word in country music. Five days and counting!

  47. Thomas
    May 2, 2011 at 10:07 am

    …history knows “le drôle de guerre” and we are experiencing “le drôle of the 9513 country music blog”. after the former ended, world war II got into full swing in europe, but what’s gonna happen here, next?

    fair enough, the singles that have come out so far this year were mostly pretty poor, but still that’s no reason for not coming back after a john oates article, especially, when having endured and survived all those rascal flatts years.

  48. Jim Malec
    May 2, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Redesign, perhaps?

  49. jocuri imbracat
    January 5, 2013 at 5:49 am

    He Was a Friend of Mind is the best song !

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