Artist: John Oates and the Good Road Band
Label: Thirty Tigers
Release Date: 1.20.18
Maybe someday John Oates will finally get to record a proper tribute album to country blues legend Mississippi John Hurt, one of his biggest influences. That was the original idea for Oates’ latest project, but it morphed into a rich, nuanced revival of various and sundry traditional music from the 1920s and ‘30s during inspired early studio sessions with the Good Road Band.
A far cry from the smooth blue-eyed soul and massive neon ‘80s pop hits he made famous with Hall & Oates, Arkansas is rustic and earthy, with mandolin, pedal steel, cello and acoustic guitar figuring prominently in a mélange of downhome instrumentation. Oates wrote the mandolin tangled title track and the gritty, honking rocker “Dig Back Deep,” but the rest of Arkansas finds Oates and company restoring vintage musical antiquities, as ragtime, gospel, bluegrass, Dixieland and Delta blues all have their day in the sun—as does Hurt, actually.
Warm intimacy surrounds the beautifully sketched out opener “Anytime,” with Oates’ gentle, intricate fingerpicking stealing the show, and a sentimental, sepia-toned remake of Hurt’s “My Creole Bell,” where Oates’ scratchy, sandpaper vocals offer a rough contrast to a slightly burnished weave of mandolin and acoustic guitar. Lushly rendered, “Pallet Soft and Low” burns slowly with an insistent, bluesy surge and the soulful backing of singer Wendy Moten, while the mournful shuffle and back-porch swing of “Miss the Mississippi and You” make love grand. It’s easy to get lost in the nostalgia of Arkansas.
These songs seem as if they were dug straight out of the rich soil of the Deep South by Oates and his Nashville conspirators Sam Bush, Russ Pahl, Guthrie Trapp, Steve Mackey, Nat Smith and Josh Day with their authenticity intact. Cleaned up with some new arrangements, the old versions sound more alive than ever, and Oates’ new works fit in perfectly.