John Oates, "Arkansas" (Thirty Tigers)
The less celebrated half of the pop duo Hall & Oates has tapped into a rich vein of American roots music on his latest offering, an album that demonstrates his seriousness about the music-making craft.
No, "Arkansas" probably won't let John Oates live down a legacy in which the mere mention of a song title can leave its melody rattling around your head for hours. The duo, during its heyday, combined a string of catchy-to-cloying singles ("Private Eyes") with soulful ballads that held up better over time ("Sara Smile").
But Oates, a Philadelphia native, has lately been exploring earthier sounds in and around Nashville. His search led him to "Arkansas," a project that began as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt and evolved into a deeper exploration of traditional themes.
Oates describes the result as "Dixieland dipped in bluegrass and salted with Delta blues." He smartly enlisted A-list Nashville players to help, including mandolin wizard Sam Bush and guitarist Guthrie Trapp. Their playing on songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Hurt, Blind Blake and other legends elevates them considerably, and the Oates originals mixed in are good fits.
On one original, the title cut, Oates blends warm description of the delta landscape with a stirring melody and gravel-dust vocals. Despite the occasional "delta dawn" trope, he mostly writes what he sees.
None of that makes him a native son. It does produce an honest record, one that proves Oates isn't content to rest on past glory.