JOHN OATES with the Good Road Band – Arkansas (PS Records PSR006CD)

ArkansasAfter 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.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.johnoates.com

‘Arkansas’:

CARLENE CARTER – Carter Girl (Rounder)

CarterGirlAs the daughter of June Carter and 50s country star Carl Smith and the step-daugher of Johnny Cash, even making reference to her musical heritage feels like unnecessarily stating the obvious. However, recorded with a core band of Blake Mills and Greg Leisz  on guitar, Don Was (who also produces) on bass and Jim Keltner behind the kit, this is the first time she’s dug so deep into her mother’s family’s roots with all but one of the twelve tracks being taken from the Carter Family songbook.

While never looking to clone the folk and bluegrass Carter sound, some of these do remain fairly faithful the originals, albeit given a punchier contemporary country feel, most notably the twangy vocal honky-tonk swayer ‘I’ll Be All Smiles’, a jangly ‘Gold Watch And Chain’ and the yee haw bounce of ‘Poor Old Heartsick Me’ (a number from the Carter Sisters repertoire), the latter two both custom-built for line dancing. Teaming with Kris Kristofferson, she also resurrects ‘Black Jack David’, AP Carter’s rework of the traditional folk ballad ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’.

Decidedly removed from the Carter version, ‘Little Black Train’ opens the album with a swampy gospel groove driven by Carter’s growly vocals and some molten guitar work from Leisz while she also a  more twang country heft to her mother’s 1999 song ‘Tall Lover Man’, making sure to bring out its sly  musical reference to Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’.

Elsewhere, you’ll find a lovely waltzing ‘Give Me The Roses (While I Live)’, a lively duet with Elizabeth Cook on ‘Blackie’s Gunman’ which features Sam Bush on mandolin, and a terrific version of ‘Troublesome Waters’, this time with Willie Nelson doing the duet honours.

Family roots are equally present in Carter’s own contributions, revisiting her 1990 tribute to grandma Maybelle for a rearranged, less Dolly Partonish, version of’ Me And The Wildwood Rose’ with ‘Lonesome Valley 2003’ featuring new words to AP own appropriation of the 19th century spiritual, taking the pace right down to a full blooded piano backed gospel mood with harmonies by Vince Gill.

Given the nature of the album, it’s appropriate that it should close with something of a family reunion as, through modern technology, Carlene’s joined by the voices of Helen Carter, Anita Carter, June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash for a rousing finale of ‘I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow’. Tremendous stuff.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.