John Oates Revisits His Americana Roots
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.”
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