John Oates "Interviews" Mississippi John Hurt for Houston Press

John Oates
John Oates Photo by Philip Murphy, courtesy of Richlyn Marketing

John Oates was pursuing journalism at Temple University around the time he became half of Hall and Oates, which ultimately became the best-selling music duo of all time. Chasing a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career meant he never finished his degree; so, we gave Oates the chance to fulfill his one-time dream and play music reporter by "interviewing" the late Mississippi John Hurt, the Depression-era bluesman who informed Oates' own musical journey and is the central figure of his latest solo album, Arkansas.

Oates visits Heights Theater Saturday to perform a few Hall and Oates favorites and songs from Arkansas, a collection of Hurt tunes, folk songs of the era and original works inspired by that music. But first, he gave us a glimpse of the interview questions he'd ask Hurt in a fantasy interview.

“I would ask him probably something very similar to what a lot of people ask me – what inspired a particular song? Where do you get the idea for a song like ‘Candy Man,’ which is really a very unusual song, it’s got a very rude, kind of sexy – well, sexist, maybe – lyric. Where did that idea come from? Was it from a personal experience?’” Oates wondered. “And the other thing I would ask is ‘Okay, who taught you guitar? And how did you come up with this unusual kind of thumb-picking style?’ which is a very signature thing that he does. I think he would have said from ragtime piano players, that would be my guess.

“I also would have asked him what’s your favorite song? What are you listening to? When you walk into the juke joint, when you put a dime in the jukebox, what numbers do you punch up? That kind of thing.”

Oates said he was first urged to “punch up” Hurt’s music as a young musician because of the bluesman’s extraordinary playing style.

“What captivated me was his guitar playing. As a young guitar player, I was trying to learn certain finger-picking styles and folk music styles, and his style immediately jumped out to me as being totally unique. Even though he was from Mississippi, he wasn’t a Delta bluesman, he wasn’t like Robert Johnson and some of the others. He had his own unique style which was more of a country blues style. Something about that sound appealed to me. Later, I began to understand that his style had a lot to do with ragtime stride piano style.”

“I think what he was doing in his head, I believe, he was interpreting and translating. ‘I can’t play piano, so I’m going to play like a piano player.’”

Once the playing hooked Oates, he began paying attention to the lyrics. Musicians like Hurt helped him develop his own approach to songwriting, an approach that would later translate into some of the biggest hits of a generation.

“I loved his casual kind of laid-back style and he always sang unique lyrics. It wasn’t just about ‘I’m going down the road, I’m gonna find my baby,’ you know, this kind of blues lexicon,” he said. “He wrote a song called ‘Coffee Blues,’ and he wrote about a loving spoonful. ‘Loving spoonful’ became an iconic phrase. He wrote about ‘going up the country,’ which also became an iconic phrase.

“He wrote about the steamboat taking his woman, on ‘Sliding Delta,’” Oates explained. “He kind of used the steamboat as a metaphor for a guy who would steal your girlfriend. Instead of a guy stealing your girlfriend, his woman was getting on the boat and leaving town — just these cool things that really opened me up as a young kid to this interesting metaphoric way of writing songs and expressing yourself.”

Oates said he’s played at least 60 shows supporting Arkansas with his band, The Good Road Band, but he and Hall are set to embark on international tour dates in the spring. So, Friday’s show is one of the last Arkansas sets he’ll do for some time, he said. Over the course of the solo shows, he’s seen how the music of one of his idols threads through his best-known work.

“The music keeps evolving for me, it keeps unfolding in a very cool way. As I’ve been playing this music for people, because a lot of it predominantly is old, it’s music from the earliest days of radio and phonograph, and in a sense it defines the very beginning of American popular music, what I’ve discovered along the way was that people seemed really receptive to it," he said.  “I wasn’t sure how people were going to handle it. I didn’t want it to come off like it was a university lecture series. I figured out a way of making it entertaining. And the real revelation that I had in the course of playing the live shows was how much of a connection there was between this early pop music and the music that I made with Daryl. Really, it seems like there’s a continuum, not necessarily stylistically, but just in terms of the spirit of the music.

“Defining the idea of a pop song, essentially 'pop' means popular. I thought to myself, what makes it popular? It must capture kind of the zeitgeist of the moment, the sensibility of the people and the time. And, when all of that connects, that’s basically how you write a hit and you have a successful pop song. There’s something about the sound, the sentiment of the lyrics, what you’re talking about, the type of record you make, the style, the beat, whatever," he noted. "I started to see the connections became a lot clearer in the course of performing these old songs live and as the set would go on I transitioned to some of the Hall and Oates songs and it all seems to work together. I wasn’t sure it was going to work together and it really does, which is really a cool feeling. In a sense it kind of makes me feel like I’m part of this legacy, this great American pop music legacy.”

We ask if Daryl Hall might have a similar homage in his recording future.

“I don’t think he’ll do a record like this. That’s not his style, but everything he does is informed by the music of his past. He’s always referencing something that he heard when he was younger or even something he might be hearing today. As all creative people do, they kind of gravitate towards the things they like and they pull from the things they like and reshape it into something that is more their own. And I think that’s more Daryl’s style.”

Finally, he said they’ve both enjoyed their tours through Houston. He’s excited to play a room as intimate as Heights Theater, particularly with these songs in tow, because of Houston’s rich musical heritage.

“I know that Houston has traditionally been the home of amazing musicians, going way, way back. Obviously, there’s something in the water that you guys have got down there that makes it a very soulful place,” he said. “There’s so many great blues performers that have come out of the Houston area, of course the big names, the Janis Joplins and people like that. Any city that has a great music tradition is always a great place to play.”

John Oates and The Good Road Band, Saturday, February 23 at Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Vanessa Peters opens the show. Doors at 7 p.m., all ages, $24-44.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.