After 46 years of making blue eyed soul, both as half of Hall & Oates and as a solo performer, John Oates has gone Americana, making the record he says he’s always wanted to make. Quite why it’s taken him so long is a matter of conjecture, but now that it’s finally here, how does he acquit himself?
Well, the first thing to say is that, while not exactly rough and raw, it doesn’t have the sort of high studio polish you might expect given his past form, and, save for two originals, it’s a collection of songs taken from either the traditional repertoire or that of bluesmen and composers from the 20s and 30s. It’s a number from one of the latter that opens the album, featuring Sam Bush on mandolin for a Dixieland ragtime arrangement of the standard ‘Anytime (You’re Feeling Lonely)’, a song written in 1921 by Herbert Lawson and first recorded in 1924 by Emmett Miller and, subsequently becoming a US No.2 for Eddie Fisher in 1951.
With Bush again to the fore and bolstered by a steady drum thump, the title track is the first of the two Oates’ songs, a tribute to the Mississippi delta and the music and mood that has been a lifetime inspiration, a fine track though perhaps an avoidance of hoary lines like delta dawn and old man river might not have gone amiss. Blues aficionados will know that, sung in a husky croak, ‘My Creole Belle’ is a classic from Mississippi John Hurt and indeed the album began life as a simple acoustic guitar and vocal tribute to the musician who has been Oates’ biggest influence before morphing to expand the horizon while maintain Hurt’s spirit. The album also ends on a Hurt song, ‘Spike Driver Blues’ while, though not written by Hurt, ‘Stack O’Lee’, ‘Lord Send Me’ (here a New Orleans flavoured jaunt) and ‘Pallet Soft And Low’ (arranged as a muscular six minute blues groove with Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar) all figure among his recordings.
He also gets a namecheck on the other original, the throatily-sung lolloping slide guitar blues boogie ‘Dig Back Deep’. Hurt’s not the only southern blues legend paid homage to here, though, the fingerstyle rag ‘That’ll Never Happen No More’ being a relatively obscure Blind Blake number from 1927.
A musical love letter to the delta could hardly not include a version of ‘Miss The Mississippi And You’ by William Heagney (who also wrote the tune ‘Maria Elena’, a 1963 instrumental hit for Los Indios Tabajeras) , a number covered by a plethora of artists among them Dylan, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Crystal Gale, but perhaps best known for the 1932 hit recording by Jimmie Rogers, the dreamy arrangement here featuring Russ Pahl on pedal steel, upright bass from Steve Mackay and Nathaniel Smith’s cello and styled slightly in the manner of early crooning Elvis.
Oates actually began his musical life as a folkie, though this is the first time he’s revisited it in a studio setting. It’s taken a while to get back to his roots, but on the evidence of this, hopefully he’s not finished digging yet.
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Artist’s website: www.johnoates.com