Thirty Tigers Records and Jasper Productions
I went into the Navy in 1976 when Hall And Oates were major radio airplay pop rockers. Times have changed with Daryl Hall and John Oates doing a lot of interesting and diverse musical work that in my mind far exceeds their best selling duo of all time pop heritage. Here we have John Oates returning to his roots. Born in New York City and growing up outside Philly in the 1950s and 1960’s, he was exposed to an assortment of music.
I can’t say it better than his bio, “Soaking up the sounds of the 60s, John was influenced by the nascent folk scene, bluegrass, delta blues, and ragtime guitar styles, while also immersing himself in R&B legends such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. One of his biggest mentors was his guitar teacher Jerry Ricks, who had spent time on the road with Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, and introduced John to the music of Doc Watson and Reverend Gary Davis, passing down their signature finger and flatpicking styles.”
Oates met Hall at Temple University in Philadelphia and they went on to make 21 records that sold over 80 million copies. Ten of them went to #1 and 20 songs made the Top 40 over the years. His solo career began in 1999 and Oates has released 5 records since then plus he wrote and published his biography last year. He feels Arkansas is his best work ever. It would be hard to argue because it is a beautiful piece of work. Mostly acoustic, the songs hearken back to a day when life was slower and music was made to pass the time while enjoying the hours off after toiling hard at work. Sharing time in Nashville and his family ranch in Colorado, Oates work shows depth and maturity while his playing and singing remains youthful and expressive.
Oates begins with “Anytime,” an old Herbert “Happy” Lawson piece first recorded by Emmett Miller in 1924 on Okeh records. There is a lot of pretty finger picking backed by pedal steel that makes this special. Oates vocals have a little gravel and make for an authentic sound. He sings with enthusiasm and plays with abandon, an apt opening to this fine album. The electric guitar also adds a nice sounds to the mix. The title track is next up, written after a visit to Wilson, Arkansas where the Mississippi River bends and turns through the cotton fields. Nice vocals and hauntingly cool harmonies along with Oates picking make this another winner. “Creole Bells” reprises Mississippi John Hurt bringing this ragtime cut into the limelight. Hurt recorded it for Okeh about 90 years ago and Oates brings back to life with his band. “Pallet Soft and Low” is an old piece from the late 1800’s, appearing as parts of Blind Boone’s and W.C. Handy’s works. Here Oates modernizes the structure a bit and he and the band give it a very fresh coat of paint. “Miss the Mississippi and You” is a Bill Halley song immortalized by Jimmie Rodgers in 1935 in NYC just before he passed away. Oates remains true to the spirit of the cut and offers up a respectful and well paced rendition. He and band give it a sophisticated yet homey sound.
“Stack O Lee” starts the second half of the album. A classic song about a pimp from St. Louis whose nick name no one really knows the origin of. He did kill a man in 1897 and the song emerged, wit Prof. Charlie Lee banging on piano and singing. Fred and Tom Waring’s Pennsylvanians made it a hit in 1923 and Mississippi John Hurt made the definitive version in 1928. Here Oates blends those sounds with an early Sun Records sound and gives it a folksy and new sound. “That’ll Never Happen No More” is a Blind Blake tune and Oates and Company give it a rousing cover. He sings and plays with a bouncing approach that gives new life to the song yet hearkens back to the old days, too. A Dixieland blues, of sorts, and Oates and The good Road Band are more than up to it. “Dig Back Deep” is an original that was inspired by Oates work with Doc Watson and his love of Mississippi John Hurt. He pays homage to the latter’s “Sliding Delta” in the last verse, a beautiful blend of guitars and pedal steel. The traditional Gospel song “Lord Send Me” is inspired by Isaiah 6:8 and is delivered here as a blue grass piece that the Band and Oates deliver with authority. Things conclude with “Spike driver Blues,” a hammer song in the work song tradition that was recorded on Okeh by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. Harry Smith’s 1932 Anthology of American Folk Music got Hurt into the mainstream with this song’s inclusion and Oates finishes here to continue the re-appreciation of Hurt’s work.
By far the best acoustic album I’ve heard this year, Oates and his Band have delivered some time less music to us in a fresh and clean package. Sam Bush on mandolin, Guhrie Trapp on electric guitar, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Steve Mackey on bass, Josh Day on drums and percussion, Nathianial Smith on cello and some backing vocals by the band a couple of other folks make this a traditional sounding album yet one with newness and life. Oates tried to immortalize Mississippi John Hurt here and he’s succeeded.
Blending Dixieland, Blue Grass and Delta Blues in a magical manner, Oates delivers a superb record for us to enjoy. This is a fine acoustic work that anyone one who appreciates that type of music should add to their collection!