The muse of the Mississippi Delta has been calling to music icon John Oates since he was a child growing up in urban Philadelphia. The recordings that emanated from the region, through artists like Mississippi John Hurt, had a tremendous impact on his career, including the songs he wrote and recorded with Hall & Oates.
Today, we’re excited to give Wide Open Country readers an exclusive first listen to “Arkansas,” Oates’ new song that’s a love letter to the Delta region and its warm music that has inspired him so much.
“Arkansas” is the title track of Oates’ upcoming Americana record. In his third act, he has become something of a statesman for Americana music, setting up home in Nashville, Tenn. He’s spent most of the last decade diving into roots music through Nashville’s robust music scene and through explorations of the South. Oates says the inspiration for “Arkansas” came from one such exploration to the historic town of Wilson, Ark. last year. “The cotton fields and the vibe of the delta really moved me,” he tells Wide Open Country.
His upcoming record, Arkansas, is an homage to that region, but it began as a tribute to his hero legendary bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, whose good-natured songs and finger-picked country blues shaped Oates’ own musical style. In fact, Oates played Hurt’s Guild F-40 guitar on the first two Hall & Oates records.
The early draft of the album was a recreation of Hurt’s songbook, which had just Oates singing and plucking acoustic guitar like Hurt would have done. But when production began, he realized that rather than make a faithful imitation, he instead wanted to take the spirit of Hurt’s material and transfer it to an ensemble production. All he needed was a great band. Fortunately, when you’re a guy like John Oates, that’s not a hard problem to solve.
For the record, he called up a handful of Nashville’s best players. Sam Bush (Mandolin), Guthrie Trapp (electric guitar), Russ Paul (pedal steel), Josh Day (percussion), and cellist Nat Smith — whom Oates calls his “secret weapon” — comprise Oates’ Good Road Band.
To capture the roots vibe, Oates — who co-produced the record — had the Good Road Band record Arkansas live in the studio with all analog equipment and no overdubs. Techniques like that are crucial to preserving the spirit of this music, and Oates’ and company do it well here.
Arkansas does include a handful of Hurt’s songs, but it mostly features Oates’ new original material. If you love roots music and want to see a lesser-known side of an American pop music master, pick up Arkansas when it drops in early February 2018.