Talking with one half of the iconic pop duo Hall & Oates about his roots in early American music
John Oates calls from Colorado, where he’s vacationing with his family.
Normally, though, he can be found in Nashville, where he’s lived since 2010. Although Oates first found fame after emerging from the Philadelphia soul scene (as half of the iconic pop/soul duo Hall & Oates), he says Nashville truly suits him. “There’s a cool, positive competitiveness where people actually want to help other people do better because, in a sense, it will help them,” he says of the music business in his adopted hometown. “Like, if you write a song with someone and it becomes a good song for someone, it can help your career. People in Nashville, I think they have a very good attitude about stuff like that.”
Oates makes his appreciation for the Music City clear with his latest release, Live in Nashville, which captures a show he performed at legendary venue Station Inn with his other band, John Oates & The Good Road Band. The album contains four original tracks alongside covers of songs by artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Jimmie Rodgers and Don Gibson.
VIDEO: Mississippi John Hurt “John Henry”
“It started out as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, a childhood hero of mine,” Oates says of this album. “But once we did a couple of songs, I realized that the album could have a wider scope. I began to think about songs that might have been contemporary with him during his early recording career in the late 1920s, and I started looking at playlists of what was on the jukeboxes in the Deep South and the type of songs that were being played in the early days of radio and when the phonograph machine had been invented.”
Oates also kept those trailblazing artists in mind as he wrote the album’s original songs. “Even though some of the material is newer and more original, it all has a connection to that spirit of early popular music,” he says, pointing to the song “Let Him Come to You” as an example: “We tried to write a song that sounded like a song from the 1930s, so the chord changes and the style, the groove, are really very much like the 1930s.”
In a way, though, Live in Nashville does tie in with the roots Oates will always have in Philadelphia: “The stuff that I heard and got exposed to living in Philadelphia as a kid in the ‘60s, that music is basically the music that I’m referencing on this new live album,” he says. “It has a lot to do with the soul and the R&B that I heard there, but also the folk and the blues.”
Oates took all of those influences and, along with Daryl Hall, formed Hall & Oates in 1970. By the end of that decade, and on through the 1980s, they were dominating the charts with their pop-soul blend on a lengthy string of hits, including “Rich Girl,” “Private Eyes” and “Maneater,” among many others. (While Oates normally played guitar and sang backing vocals in Hall & Oates, he was the lead vocalist on their 1980 cover of the Righteous Brothers song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”)
VIDEO: Hall & Oates “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”
After such an illustrious career writing Top 40 hits, it may be surprising that Oates doesn’t follow that same style with The Good Road Band. He says his ability to focus on a wide range of musical genres across different eras is due to “a number of reasons. One, I’ve had a lot of experience. I started making records in the 1960s. So I’m as comfortable in a recording studio as I am anywhere else.
“And also, I’m old enough to remember music before rock ‘n’ roll,” Oates continues. “My parents were of the World War II generation. When I was growing up as a little kid, they played big band music and swing music from the ‘30s and ‘40s, so that music is logged in my musical memory banks. That music from the old days is ingrained in my musical DNA.”
Even with such an wide-ranging songwriting catalog to his credit, Oates says he’s still always looking to expand his songwriting. Since finishing work on Live in Nashville, he says, “I started writing more contemporary modern sounding things. I started getting back into programming and sampling and doing things that are totally 180 degrees from the live album.”
This adventurous writing approach is, Oates says, directly tied to his curiousity as a music fan himself. “I like all kinds of music,” he says. “I don’t put limits on music. I listen for the song. It could be a hip-hop song, it could be an old swing song, it could be a bluegrass song, it could be a heavy metal song. It doesn’t matter to me. I listen for the song itself and try to strip away all the stuff that’s surrounding it and make a decision, ‘Hey, is that really a good song?’ And if it is, then I usually like it.”
Oates believes this attitude is what helped make Hall & Oates so successful in the first place. “Daryl [Hall, vocalist and keyboardist] is very similar to me in that regard: we’re both very open-minded to musical ideas. I think we are able to collaborate on songs that have stood the test of time because somehow they’re not tied to a genre. Even though a lot of the big ‘80s hits, sure, the productions are very much in that ‘80s decade, if you strip away that stuff, the songs hold up. If I pick up an acoustic guitar and play ‘Sara Smile’ or ‘Out of Touch,’ they still sound like good songs.”
VIDEO: Hall & Oates “Out Of Touch”
Now, Oates is grateful that his success with Hall & Oates enables him to explore the eclectic mix of country, blues and gospel-informed music with The Good Road Band. “I’m a very fortunate person in that I’ve had a lot of commercial success in my career, and that commercial success has allowed me creative freedom to do whatever I want, which I think is really the ultimate goal of any creative person,” he says. “I don’t take that for granted. I know that I’m blessed and fortunate to be in that position.”
This remarkable music career is one that Oates began pursuing when he was a small child. “My parents took me to a phonograph booth at Coney Island amusement park in New York when I was four and I recorded the little nursery rhyme ‘Here Comes Peter Cottontail.’ I still have that record!” he says with a laugh. “You put a quarter in the machine and you’d sing and a little record would pop out. So I was singing as a little kid, and then I started taking guitar and vocal lessons at six years old. I never really questioned it. I just did it. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make a living at it ever since.”
With Live in Nashville, Oates is excited to embark on this latest chapter in his career. “I want to get the word out [about this album] because I’m proud of what I’ve done. I want people to hear it. I want people to hopefully like it. I’d just love for people to appreciate the amazing musicianship of this band.” (Besides Oates on vocals and guitar, The Good Road Band’s lineup consists of Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Steve Mackay on bass, Nate Smith on cello, and Josh “Daddy” Day on drums/percussion.)
Oates also hopes it won’t be long before he can get back to touring, both with Hall & Oates and The Good Road Band. Despite the pandemic-induced live show cancellations, he remains optimistic for the future: “You’re never going to stop music,” he says. Music is going to keep happening one way or another.”