John Oates’ new album Arkansas displays raw power, pure beauty, as well as musical grooves that get under the skin and head straight for the heart. There’s an emotional honesty to Oates’ vocals that imbues these tunes, and performances, with a heart-wrenching clarity. On Arkansas more than any of his albums — even those with Daryl Hall — Oates is the music, and the music is him. Of Arkansas, Oates says, “I feel like I’ve finally found my voice. With this album, I’ve unlocked the key to the influences that have made me who I am even before I got into rock and roll. If left to my own devices, this is the music I’d be playing.” While the album started out as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, it developed to include songs that reflect the musical styles of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
And it’s Oates’ voice that propels the album; his gritty, soulful vocals provide the stoutness for every song, and even when he just can’t quite stretch to some of the high notes on the jazzier tunes, Oates movingly maneuvers his phrasing to deliver the poignant moments the song requires. On Arkansas a stellar band, the Good Road Band, joins him — Sam Bush on mandolin, Guthrie Trapp on guitars, Steve Mackey on bass, Nat Smith on cello, Josh Day on percussion — and they produce the tight grooves and smooth sounds on which Oates’ voice and his own guitar licks float.
Oates’ take on Bill Halley’s “Miss the Mississippi” — made famous by Jimmie Rodgers and more recently by Crystal Gayle — may be the most beautiful version of this song. This version opens sparsely, with just Oates singing over a few elegantly picked chords, and then it develops into a slow ragtime waltz that captures the ache of a man who misses his lover and the beauty of his home. The old folk blues tune “Stack O Lee” opens with Oates’ gravelly voice pleading for justice as he tells the infamous tale of Stack O’ Lee’s shooting a man to death. The song starts slowly but choogles along propulsively with a jump blues feel.
The moving title track flows gently and stately, much like the old man river, the Mississippi, that the singer watches flowing from his vantage point in the “snow-white cotton fields of Arkansas.” Oates recorded “Pallet Soft and Low” on his 2011 album Mississippi Mile, but this version echoes much of the best music recorded at Muscle Shoals, with its crunchy guitars, especially the lead riffs on the fadeout (which recall the Stones of Sticky Fingers). “Lord Send Me” is a hand-clapping gospel tune that brightens the corner where Oates and the band stand and illustrates that the blues and spirituals are close cousins.
“Mississippi John Hurt would start his show with a gospel song,” says Oates, “and I’ve started doing that, too. It puts the crowd in a certain frame of mind.” “Dig Back Deep” sums up this entire project: “Gonna dig back deep/back to where you started/back to where your heart is.” Oates not only mentions his influences in the song but also plays guitar in their style in the song as he includes phrases from Mississippi John Hurt’s “Slidin’ Delta.”
“My guitar playing,” he says, is a blend of “Mississippi John Hurt, Chuck Berry, Curtis Mayfield, Percy Mayfield, and Doc Watson.”
Arkansas may be Oates’ very best album simply because the music is so much a part of him that he can deliver it with a simple intensity that evokes a range of feelings in the listeners.