Writing a musical autobiography by rediscovering his roots

When John Oates first started getting to know Darryl Hall more than four decades ago, the two young Philadelphia natives had a love of R&B in common. But Oates had another passion, one that got obscured during the duo’s subsequent rise to pop stardom: roots music. Although you might not guess it from Hall and Oates’ hits, he cut his teeth on classic folk and blues as a teen—a sound he revisits on his latest solo album, Mississippi Mile, made up mostly of covers from Oates’ youth. “I’m getting back to where I started before I met Darryl,” he observes, relaxing in a chair at his record label’s office on Nashville’s Music Row.

Oates recorded the album just a half-block away, at a small publishing-house studio. He and producer Mike Henderson worked quickly, recording for only four days with a pickup band of local session pros like Dobro master Jerry Douglas and mandolin giant Sam Bush. “This album is about as close to a live album as you can have,” Oates says. “There are hardly any overdubs. What you hear is what we played that day, and I sang 80 percent of the vocals while we were cutting the track. I had never done that before.” Oates used a Guild GAD-F20 acoustic outfitted with a Fishman pickup for all his guitar parts. “The funny thing is that all my vocals came through the pickup, so I was stuck,” he says with a chuckle. “Had I not been singing OK, it would have been a big problem—I would have had to overdub all my guitar parts.”

The songs he selected form what Oates calls “a musical autobiography” covering his early influences, heroes like Mississippi John Hurt, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and others—all in drastically different arrangements from the original recordings. “I like to get back to where the song was even before it became a record, before the producers got involved,” he says. “I go by feel—if it feels right, it is right, as long as the songwriters aren’t going to be insulted or freaked out. I don’t think we messed with the songs, we just reimagined them.”

As for Hall and Oates, while the duo continues to tour together there are no plans for a new album anytime soon. “Darryl and I are more interested in what we’re doing individually,” says Oates, who now divides his time between Colorado and Nashville. “We do about 30 to 35 dates a year. It’s fun, we have a great band and people love it. But it’s like visiting a great museum—it’s fantastic when you’re spending time there, but you don’t want to live there.”

–Chris Neal

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