Singer-Songwriter John Oates Explores the Music of Mississippi John Hurt

He will forever be best known as half of Hall & Oates, but John Oates has carved a distinct identity as a proponent of classic Americana
John Oates

John Oates will forever be best known as half of Hall & Oates, the top-selling musical duo of all time, who’ve been in the Songwriters Hall of Fame for 20 years and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for nearly a decade. Since 2002, however, the Philadelphia-area native has carved a distinct identity as a proponent of classic Americana. His most recent releases—2011’s Mississippi Mile, 2014’s Good Road to Follow, 2018’s Arkansas, and five live albums—feature his voice and acoustic guitar playing right up front, and his 2022 duo tour with guitar great Guthrie Trapp made it clear that moving to Nashville had only strengthened Oates’ relationship to acoustic and classic songwriting.

Anyone surprised at Oates’ turn from pop to Americana had perhaps missed the fact that before he had absorbed the R&B and soul that set the stage for Hall & Oates (as well as his recent soulful singles like “Pushin’ a Rock” and a cover of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”), Oates had paid close attention to his parents’ big band and swing records, fell hard for doo-wop and early rock, and fully immersed himself in the ’60s folk revival, which included being mentored by Philadelphia blues icon Jerry Ricks and learning “right from the source” by watching Mississippi John Hurt and Son House up close.

“I’m a better acoustic player than I am on electric,” says the 75-year-old Oates. “My style is Chuck Berry meets Curtis Mayfield meets Doc Watson meets Mississippi John Hurt. I don’t separate [blues, country, rock, and R&B] into genres—I call it all American roots music, because that’s what it is. I see it all as a continuum.”

What was the inspiration behind Arkansas?

I had originally planned to do a Mississippi John Hurt tribute record, because I know so many of his songs, in a very authentic way. I cut a couple of versions, just me and a guitar, but I had to ask myself, “Why am I doing this? It’s never going to be as good as John Hurt.” Then I realized that I’d never heard these songs performed with a band. So, I put together a band. I didn’t want it to be a rock band, though.

Who’d you get?

Nathaniel Smith on cello, Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Steve Mackey on bass, and Josh Day on cajon and shaker. I played things exactly as John Hurt would have done, but when these musicians played around it, it turned into this magical thing. It sounded so good that I decided it would be a shame to just do Mississippi John Hurt songs. 

How’d you decide the rest of the set list? 

I began researching what he might have been listening to back in 1929 and 1930, when he was on OKeh Records. I got jukebox lists from all over the Deep South, and I was shocked at the music that was being played on jukeboxes. There was cowboy music, ragtime, swing, some gutbucket local stuff—a real hodgepodge that I never expected. I found out that Mississippi John Hurt was a huge fan of Jimmie Rodgers, so I decided to do a Jimmie Rodgers song, too. The album became a snapshot of American popular music of the late ’20s and ’30s. 

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How did Arkansas change how you thought about American music?

I realized that the birth of American popular music coincides with the invention of the record player and radio. There was music in America before that, obviously, but the fastest way for it to spread was through radio and records. Although I made my reputation making pop music with Daryl Hall, I had no idea where it came from. That was a revelation to me. That’s what Arkansas is about.

What attracted you to Hurt?

What appealed to me, which I didn’t understand at the time, was that he didn’t sound like a Delta blues player. He got his style from ragtime stride piano players, and once I understood that, I did a deep dive into ragtime and how he integrated that style into his playing, which helped me understand his music on a deeper level.

I know you own one of his guitars, and I’ve seen lists of your collection online. You also have a 1947 Gibson J-50 and a 1949 Martin 5-18, right? 

Yes. The J-50 has the big baseball neck and it’s not that comfortable in my hands, but it has a big sound. The 5-18 slot-head weighs nothing. 

Do you still have your other Martins, like the 1983 D-28, the 00-15M, and the 00-28 custom?

Yep! I bought the D-28 for $150 backstage in the ’80s. It was a 150th anniversary model, signed by C.F. Martin [both III and IV]. I’ve used it on a lot of things over the years. The 00-15M is mahogany, with a small body. And the 00-28 was the first guitar that I had made at the Martin Custom Shop. The body is also a half-inch thicker than a normal 00-28, so it’s got more bottom end. It’s a small-body guitar with a deep tone, and it has my Good Road to Follow logo. They’re all great guitars.

How about the ’67 Guild F-20?

That’s the guitar I played on Mississippi Mile. It always sounded good and it had a character, so I ended up playing it on every track.

What a great collection. What other guitars stand out to you?

I have an L-00 made at the Gibson Custom Shop in Bozeman, Montana, by Ren Ferguson, who was their master luthier at the time. It’s one of the last Gibsons he built, and it’s a traditional Gibson-style sunburst, like the ones made in the early 1930s. 

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What gets the most playing time?

My Taylor GT guitars [conceived] by Andy Powers. I saw all these guys on YouTube raving about the GT, and I was like, “What’s the big deal?” I went down to a guitar shop, picked one up, started playing it, and now I’ve got three of them—one in Europe, one in Colorado, and one here in Nashville. It’s a small-bodied guitar with unique bracing, and it’s short-scale, which suits my hands. I don’t take my vintage instruments out on the road anymore, but if something happened to my Taylor, God forbid, I can get another one.

What makes you want to hold on to an instrument?

If I don’t play it, I probably don’t keep it.

How do you amplify a guitar’s natural tone when you’re on tour?

I started out using super high-quality microphones by Ear Trumpet Labs, which a lot of bluegrass players use. They’re great, but it takes a good PA system and a good soundperson to get it right. To make things easier, I went back to plugging in with the Fishman Loudbox Artist series, which I love. I use those amps like monitors; I have one next to me and one behind me. Taylor has their own proprietary pickups, the Expression System [2], which works well with the Loudbox amps. It’s a great combination.

Are you using any effects? 

I use the TC Electronic Infinite Loop for sustain. I can play a chord, sustain it, and then play over it. When I’m playing by myself, it gives me a spatial kind of sustain.

Do you use picks? 

I’m either playing fingerstyle, with two fingers and a thumb, or with a Fred Kelly Bumblebee, which is a unique thumbpick. You can change the angle of the pick to your hand, and you can use it as a flatpick. 

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When you sit down to practice or warm up, what kind of stuff do you reach for?

The first thing I do is stretch my fingers because as I’ve gotten older, they’re getting stiffer. I’ll play bossa nova or some complicated chords that get my fingers moving in unusual ways. If I can’t play some [Antônio Carlos] Jobim right away, I know I need to practice. If I play bossa nova and it’s fluid, then everything else is easy. 

I’m learning to enjoy an elegant simplicity that transcends fads and styles. 

What topics did you cover in your new instructional videos for Truefire?

I just finished them—they’re being edited right now. I did three episodes: one on the history of American popular music, one on collaboration, and one about accompaniment, which I think is an untapped subject.

What about accompaniment fascinates you?

So many great guitar players know how to be accompanists, but a lot of guitar players just want to be able to riff, shred, and solo. There’s a real discipline to being an accompanist. It’s not easy to learn or be good at. 

I’ve read that hearing great players in Nashville inspired you to practice harder. Did you feel like something in your songwriting needed to evolve, or was it on a purely technical level?

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Well, country music is all about telling a concise story that’s appealing but actually saying something. The lyricists I worked with in Nashville made me take a hard look at my lyrics, and my writing has improved because of that. Musically, I was a little too complicated, and it didn’t serve the songs in any way. I’m learning to enjoy an elegant simplicity that transcends fads and styles. 

What are your thoughts on the current state of pop songwriting?

Harmony has taken a back seat to groove and digital production, and artificial intelligence is just going to keep getting better. I’m not going to be around to see how it’s all going to turn out, but while I’m still here, I’m waving the flag for organic, authentic songwriting and performing that uses harmony and chords. I’m an old-school musician, and I’m proud of it.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 341

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

E.E. Bradman
E.E. Bradman

E.E. Bradman is a word nerd and music journalist, a Grammy-nominated bassist, a musical midwife for childbirth and the dying, and an award-winning sound designer/composer.

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