By Mark Kemp
WILKESBORO, N.C. — After Hall & Oates came out of Philly with a blue-eyed soul sound that would top the pop charts by the late 1970s and through the early ’80s, John Oates eventually became sort of a Pip to Daryl Hall’s Gladys Knight. But today, Oates is one-on-one onstage with an acoustic guitar, and he’s making some mighty different sounds. I caught up with Oates in his tour bus Saturday at Merlefest, where earlier he’d held his own jamming onstage with such folk and bluegrass royalty as mandolin player Sam Bush.
“I actually grew up playing folk music, believe it or not,” Oates tells me in this clip. “Before I met Daryl Hall, I played folk and folk-blues. It’s funny, my career and my life has come full circle.”
For his Merlefest performances, Oates brought along a beautiful mahogany Martin 00-15, but the guitarist also talks about his prized custom Martin 000-18 with a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. Best of all, he gives us a little taste here of his fingerstyle blues picking.
Oates’ latest release is the 2015 DVD and live CD Another Good Road, on PS Records/Warner Elektra. And the singer-guitarist is no slouch when it comes to kicking out the country-blues jams, even though he’s too often wrongly dismissed as being “the other guy” in Hall & Oates — wrongly, because he sang some of the duo’s amazing husky backup and lead vocals, namely his killer touch on “She’s Gone,” in 1976, as well as on Hall & Oates’ terrific 1980 cover of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
For more evidence of Oates’ guitar-and-vocal prowess, give his 2011 disc Mississippi Mile and 2014’s soulful Good Road to Follow — with guests like Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, and Bekka Bramlett — a few spins. You just might find yourself a convert.