Keeping It Grounded on the Road with Stories and Songs
By Jay S. Jacobs
John Oates knows a thing or two about popular music. After all, he has spent most of his adult life as half of the rock and soul duo Daryl Hall and John Oates, one of the biggest selling hitmaking bands of the 1970s and 1980s. Since their heyday, the band has been a strong concert draw and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
However, he is not merely a part of pop music history, he’s also a student of it. He has been fascinated with the roots of music and the songs that inspired him to go into music when growing up in suburban Philadelphia. Over the last decade and a half, Hall and Oates has been a regular touring entity, but Daryl and John have also had thriving solo endeavors.
For well over a decade, John Oates has been living in the Nashville area, recording critically acclaimed music that is more rootsy and Americana-based than the pop-soul for which he is most well-known. Now he is doing a brief “An Evening of Songs and Stories” tour of the Northeastern states with his good friend guitarist Guthrie Trapp. As the shows are described, it is “Just two guys, two acoustic guitars, and a bottomless well of timeless songs and the stories behind them.”
A couple of weeks before Oates and Trapp set open the tour at the Colonial Theatre in the Philadelphia suburbs, we caught up with John Oates to discuss the tour, his solo work, and his other job as half of a superstar Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted blue-eyed soul duo.
Like the rest of the world, you spent a good amount of time in the last couple of years stuck at home and unable to tour for the first time since you were young. How did that experience influence the idea of a current tour?
It was an interesting thing. When I finally accepted that I wasn’t going anywhere, (laughs) which took me a little while to readjust to, because honestly, it was the first time that I never traveled from 1972. So, it was a weird adjustment. Then I began to embrace it. I had one of the most amazing creative spurts that I’ve ever had. I wrote a bunch of songs, started to think about music in a different way, got involved in a movie project. So really, it was a very interesting time. For me, it turned out to be a very good time. I got to reexamine a lot of things I was doing business wise. My wife and I really bonded together at home and really enjoyed being home. So, that was the positive side. On the negative side, I love to play live, and we definitely didn’t do that. Daryl and I had to put off a tour that we had planned for 2020. We played Madison Square Garden in February… I believe it was the 28th. We sold it out. That was going to be like the kickoff to this amazing tour. We were so pumped. (chuckles) And then it was just done. So, that was a weird thing.
I can imagine…
We did get back on the road in August of 2021. We did 20 cities. We got a few of those shows out of the way. Then I started settling back in Nashville with the idea of playing smaller venues and doing a songwriters-oriented show. After the tour, I was sitting with my buddy Guthrie Trapp, who I’ve worked with for 15 years, and we were playing in the living room. Literally just sitting around playing old songs and he said, “Man, isn’t this fun? This is cool.” We said, why don’t we just bring the living room live? That’s the concept. The concept is bringing the living room to you. We booked a few small theaters, played a couple shows in Nashville, played one in Colorado. We actually had two sold out shows in Colorado over Christmas. Due to Omicron, they were cancelled. Now we have some shows that were booked and we’re going to go out in March. We’re doing Paste Magazine on March 10. Then we’re going to stream our show that we recorded in Nashville in November. We’re going to stream it on Mandolin on March 13.
While it’s not exactly close, Phoenixville is in the Philadelphia area, not all that far from where you grew up in North Wales. Obviously, you have often played in Philadelphia with Daryl, but how is it special to return to the Philadelphia area to play?
Yeah, it always is. It’s interesting. I actually booked the Phoenixville show because it’s near where my dad lives. I don’t get to see him very much. He’s 98 years old. I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like. So, I thought to myself, you know what, I’m going to book a show near him and maybe he could even come. So, the rumor is that he’s actually going to come to the show. My sister’s going to try to bring him hopefully. He’s still in pretty darn good shape considering how old he is. So, hopefully he’ll be able to see me play. It’ll probably be the last time he’ll be able to see me play. I’m very excited about that. Honestly, that’s why I booked the Phoenixville show.
When you were in Temple with Daryl all those years ago, could you have ever imagined that you would still be working as a musician at this point in your life?
No. To be honest… well you know, yes. Yes and no. Yes, I thought I’d always be a musician because I’ve never been anything but a musician. From the time I’ve been a baby literally, a little kid. I’ve identified myself as a musician. Now, whether that meant that I was going to be a famous musician or be able to make a living being a musician, that was up in the air. But I always knew that I’d be involved in music in some way, shape or form. But the fact that the music Daryl and I have created over the years has stood the test of time and still resonates with the younger generations, it’s a miracle. And honestly, it’s something that I do not take for granted. I’m very appreciative of the fact. I realize that it’s something that very rarely happens with musicians and people. So, like I said, I don’t take it for granted.
A few years ago, you wrote your autobiography, Change of Seasons. Between that and also your new “Evening of Songs and Stories” tour, how interesting has it been to sit back and reflect on your life and career and to share it with your fans?
It’s important for me because I have a legacy. I have a history. I think it’s a history that’s unique. If you read my book, you know that I have a lot of interests more than just music. When you’re part of a world-famous entity like Hall and Oates, you become, you become part of… it’s ironic that Daryl and I call our company Two-Headed Monster, because that’s what it is. It is a monster, but in the best possible way. It’s this thing that overshadows everything else in your life. People associate with me with the MTV videos. I’m the guy that jumps around in the background and all that stuff. But personally, I’m way more than that and these the solo opportunities – writing a book, writing the autobiography, playing these type of shows – gives me the opportunity to express that part of me. Gives people the opportunity to see that I’m more than just that. I think Daryl feels the same way. He wants to go out and play his solo music as well. We both have a wealth of musical experience. Because the hits overshadow everything we do, we don’t really get a chance to show it off and express it. These opportunities give us that chance.
Both you and Daryl are doing solo tours this spring, but are there any plans for a group tour again this summer?
Absolutely. We already are planning it right now. There’ll be Hall and Oates shows in the summer.
When I spoke with you like six or seven years ago, you said that on your solo tours you tended to do mostly your own solo music with maybe a few older songs done as complete rethinks, because if people wanted to see Hall and Oates songs they can always go to those shows. This new tour apparently does have you doing some of the band songs, as well as possibly some covers of songs that have inspired you and the solo stuff. How did you come up with the set list for the tour?
In 2018, I released an album called Arkansas. It was originally supposed to be a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, one of my childhood heroes. As I got into the making of that record, I wanted to expand that idea. The record ended up being really more of a snapshot of the early days of American popular music. When radio and the phonograph machine, were really changing the way Americans heard music and could appreciate music. I found that to be very interesting. I started doing a lot of research about the early days. I realized that a lot of people might mistakenly assume that pop music started with rock and roll. But it didn’t. I started actually thinking to the point, what makes a pop song? Well, if you can hear it on the radio and buy it on a record or some listening device, that’s kind of the definition of a pop song. I went back and I realized there were million selling records back in the 1920s. I started to explore that. It became very interesting to me. I thought, “Well, here I am. I’m a pop musician. I made my whole career based on that. But I didn’t even know what the history of American pop music was really about.” So, my show is really kind of a musical journey, going back to play some of the first songs that influenced me as a child, some of the songs that were influential in the making of American pop music. I take people on a chronological musical journey. We go up through my solo stuff and interesting collaborations that I’ve done. Then I do get to the Hall and Oates songs. I play some of the songs that are near and dear to me, but as you said, I do them in a reimagined way, because there’s no point in trying to replicate what I do with Daryl.
Who are some of the musical influences you’ll be discussing in the shows?
I’ll tell you a quick story. A while back… this was quite a while ago, seven or eight years ago… I was doing a show similar to this with a guy named Pete Huttlinger, who was a friend of mine. Amazing guitar player who unfortunately has passed away. He and I were booked at a place called the Don Gibson theater in Shelbyville, North Carolina. We went to the Nashville airport, and we’re getting ready to fly over there. I was sitting down next to an older woman, and she was on her cell phone. I could overhear her conversation. She said, “I’m going to see John Oates play at the at the theater tonight.” I thought it was kind of funny, I was sitting right next to her. When she got off the phone, I introduce myself. She goes, “I’m Miss Bobbie Gibson.” She was Don Gibson’s widow. When I was a kid, one of the first songs I ever played on guitar and sang was a Don Gibson song, “Oh Lonesome Me.” I thought, this is so unbelievable. I mean, this is amazing, Kismet, returning to something. When I got to the venue, I told Pete, “Hey, Pete, let’s learn ‘Oh, Lonesome Me,’ and let’s play it.” She’s going to be in the front row. Ever since that day, I’ve kept that show that song in my show.
It really goes back to my earliest days as a performer. That’s just one thing. I tell that story, of course, and play that song. The other songs are songs like a Jimmie Rodgers song called “Miss the Mississippi in You,” which I performed at a Jimmie Rodgers tribute in Bristol, Tennessee. Then later I found out that Mississippi John Hurt, and even Robert Johnson, believe it or not, were highly influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, the old the country singer. So, I put that song in the show, and I recorded that song. Little by little, I began to kind of put together this patchwork of influences that not only influenced me as a musician but influenced the way roots music evolved. It became a theme for the show. That’s essentially what we do during the course of the show.
When you were coming up music was not so regimented. You could hear rock, pop, country, soul and other things all on the same station. The new tour is described as “explore the musical roots of pop, tracing its origins back to the beginning, and perform an eclectic blend of blues, folk and mega hits.” Why do you feel that the music world has become so segmented and as a musician do you feel that having a wide palette of influences helps your own work?
Oh, absolutely. It’s being open to the world around you. Not only the contemporary world around you, but the past and the history, if you don’t understand when to reexamine and to reference. The music of the past is a key to going forward in the future in a sense. I’m old enough to remember music before rock and roll. My parents were the World War II generation. They listened to big band music. That was the music that was played in my house growing up. As a musically sensitive little kid, I heard that. That music has seeped into me. It’s part of me. I think that perspective is unique in today’s world where most music lovers really reference music from the beginning of rock and roll onward. So, sure I’m dating myself, but in a way I’m proud of the fact that I have that reference point that I’m able to reference music prior to rock and roll.
Since you moved to Nashville your songwriting and recording seems to have blossomed. What do you feel it is about the Nashville music scene that has opened up this vein of creativity?
I started going in the mid-nineties and started making friends. The more I came to Nashville, the more I realized there were a lot of people who had the same musical DNA and roots that I did. Especially among the Americana and roots musicians, not so much the contemporary country musicians, because I never really gelled in that world. But among the people like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck and Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller, the real authentic roots musicians here in Nashville, I entered into that community. The more I played and got to know those folks, the more it brought out the early days in me. I realized this is something that’s been simmering in my soul all these years and [I’ve] never been able to express it in the context of Hall and Oates. Nashville has given me that opportunity. The more I embraced it, the more my creativity blossomed.
You’ve also done an awful lot of work with lesser-known musicians in recent years – in fact you appeared on an album by a good friend of mine, Ken Sharp.
(chuckles) Yeah, Ken.
You’ve also worked with Mutlu, who we’ve interviewed a couple of times.
Is it fun to discover new musicians and help them to refine their musical visions?
Yeah. I am very open to good music. I’m not locked into genre and style and chart positions and success. I try to keep an open mind. If I have the time and if I like what I’m hearing, I’m definitely interested in working. I just did a few songs for this movie that’s coming out soon. It’s called Halfway to Somewhere. I did a duet with a Mexican female singer named Jamina Sariana. I did a song with a very adventurous rapper from South Carolina named CerVon Campbell. We did things that were really outside the box for me. The more I do these things, the more I want to be versatile. I want to try different things.
The music world has changed so much since you were coming up. When you started the band released four albums before you had your first hit.
It’s been a long time since bands had that kind of time to grow. Nowadays with the label system being on life support and the money so much harder to come by due to streaming and downloads and stuff, do you think it’s harder for musicians to find an audience than it was in your day?
Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. The digital world has created this unique opportunity for everyone to have a voice. On every level; musically, socially. At the same time, because everyone has a voice, it’s hard to cut through the clutter to find things. (laughs) Every musician can be heard in some way, shape or form now. But to the extent that they’re ever going to be able to generate mass appeal is very rare, and very difficult. It’s one of those things, but the younger generation has grown up in that, with that reality, and they’ve accepted it. I see how young musicians are utilizing their social media platforms and utilizing the digital platforms to be heard. If you’re good, someone’s going to pay attention to you eventually. You just got to work your ass off. (laughs again) That’s basically what you got to do.
You’ve been active on social media too. What is it like to be able to interact directly with your fans, as compared to the old days when there was a bit of distance?
I wasn’t that comfortable with it to be honest with you, but COVID cured that pretty quick. In the beginning of COVID, I didn’t even know how to use Zoom. Then I began to do some co-writes, some song collaborations or writing collaborations via Zoom, etc. It took me a while to come to grips with it, but now I’m totally comfortable. It’s really opened the door that’s never going to close. It’s going to be part of our reality. I mean, look what we’re doing right now. It’s part of our reality now.
What was it like to get back on the road after missing a year and a half of touring due to COVID?
When Daryl and I were going to do our first show in August, I thought it was going to be really weird and really hard. Luckily, the Hall and Oates family of support people – the crew, the production folks, the band – are really tight and good people and they weathered the storm. When we got back together, we did our first show up in Rhode Island. We did one day of rehearsal. It just (snaps his fingers) came back like nothing. Honestly, the hardest part was [whether] the mixture was in good enough shape to sing and write and be on the stage for two hours. Other than that, it really it was surprisingly smooth.
Will the “Evening of Songs and Stories” tour just be you and Guthrie acoustic, or will there also be a band?
No band. No nothing. No amps. With two acoustic guitars, three microphones and we actually use this new… well it’s not new, but it’s a really unique thing, it’s called the ear trumpet system. It’s these super high quality acoustic mics that we’re using. It literally feels like we’re playing in the living room. It doesn’t feel like music is amplified. It’s this very transparent, amazing, high quality microphone system that we’re using. We’ve done a few shows and people are like, “Wow, I never heard a guitar sound like that.” Plus, we use amazing vintage instruments as well.
You’ve been a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for several years now. How exciting is it to you that your band’s music has been recognized in that way, and yet you’re still able to do much more low-key stuff like you’re doing as well?
It’s very important to me to be able to do that. I’ve always felt like I wanted to maintain my feet on the ground, regardless of how I’m perceived. Being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was fantastic for the public profile. It opened a lot more doors. It created a greater awareness for me and Daryl above and beyond where we already were. So, I’m always appreciative of that. But I just make a point of doing things like just popping into a small club here in Nashville and playing. Jamming with people. It’s important for me to stay grounded musically.
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 9, 2022.
Photos by George Seth Wagner © 2022.