With Arkansas, John Oates—yes, that John Oates, of the ’70s and ’80s hitmakers Hall & Oates—delivers what will likely endure as the most surprising roots-music release of 2018. You might not expect the guitar-playing half of the duo that gave us “Sara Smile,” “She’s Gone,” “Rich Girl,” and “Kiss on My List” to harbor deep knowledge of the traditions embedded in such old-time music bibles as Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, but here he is, on an album originally conceived as an homage to Mississippi John Hurt, essaying heartfelt, musically rich renditions of eight blues, ragtime, gospel, and bluegrass standards from the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, plus two well-matched originals. Hurt is represented with “My Creole Belle,” “Stack O Lee,” and “Spike Driver Blues,” and name-checked in Oates’s “Dig Back Deep.” “Anytime,” recorded in 1924 by Emmet Miller, opens the album, while Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More,” Jimmie Rodgers’s “Miss the Mississippi and You,” the bluegrass-tinged gospel song “Lord Send Me,” “Pallet Soft and Low” (later reworked into “Atlanta Blues” by W.C. Handy), and Oates’s title track fill out the pithy 33-minute program.
Hall & Oates scored a half-dozen Number One hits, so Oates, turning 70 this year, knows how to craft polished, accessible “product.” Using Addiction Studios in Nashville, he and co-producer/engineer/mixer David Kalmusky made the Good Road Band—mandolinist Sam Bush, pedal steel player Russ Pahl, electric guitarist Guthrie Trapp, bassist Steve Mackey, cellist Nathaniel Smith, and drummer/percussionist Josh Day—sound like a practiced hybrid, somewhere between the acoustic simplicity of Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur and the shimmering snarl of a great John Hiatt band. Contrasts abound: The driving “Pallet Soft and Low,” with Wendy Moten soaring into Merry Clayton territory, is almost Stones-like in its thick, blues-rock arrangement; it’s followed by a tender, “Miss the Mississippi,” which lopes along sweetly in a chamber-folk mix of acoustic guitar, bass, cello, and pedal steel.
Grit is a primary component of Oates’s singing, which is splintered around the edges but (blue-eyed) soulful at the core. His phrasing and melodic leaps are miles, or decades, removed from that of his Platinum-certified pop-singing partner, and these songs are that much more compelling for it. But most unanticipated—and just as critical to the recording’s appeal as his engaging, unpretentious voice—is his guitar playing. At once intricate and relaxed, Oates’s syncopated acoustic fingerpicking rolls along with the confident ease earned by someone well-versed in ragtime, Piedmont, Mississippi Delta, bluegrass, and country idioms, as well as the specific styles of Hurt, Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, and Merle Travis.
Arkansas will stun longtime fans who still have “Maneater” ringing in their heads, and it won’t add much to the numbers Hall & Oates have racked up over the decades—40 million records sold, 13 Platinum and Gold albums—but its wonderful repertoire and sincere and modestly virtuosic delivery will yield many spins of listening pleasure.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.