John Oates will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during ceremonies Thursday night (April 10) in Brooklyn, N.Y., but it was noon on April 2 when I was set to meet him at a Nashville coffee shop.
Am I nervous? Are you kidding me? I’m shaking in my knock-off boots at the chance to sit down again with the legend. Last year, I had the pleasure of chatting with him as he began compiling his latest solo musical venture, Good Road to Follow, and had been looking forward to the follow-up conversation.
He enters the Bond Coffee Company and greets me with a huge smile and hug. He comes across as a guy who’s completely unaffected by celebrity and the last person to believe any of his own hype.
He doesn’t see himself as a master guitar player and songwriter and one-half of Hall & Oates , the biggest-selling pop duo of all time. He’s just John, a musician, music-lover, proud husband and father and someone lucky enough to land in Nashville to rediscover a side of his musical self he hasn’t explored in quite some time.
And with this new fifteen-track, three-disc collection of diverse tunes, Oates is exploring it all, taking detours to the lands of everything from pop and rock to Americana, country and even a little gospel music — all with the help of some of Nashville’s heaviest hitters, including Vince Gill, Jim Lauderdale and Jerry Douglas.
CMT.com: This is such a unique and diverse collection of songs you’ve put together in a way that’s very different from how most artists are making albums today. Did you have any trepidation while putting this project together?
Oates: Never. I have faith in talent, and I have faith in people that are committed to making great music, and I just let it happen. And you know what? There were very few songs that didn’t turn out. There was not one song that was a bust. There were songs that just weren’t as good as other songs — and I will admit that — and I did have to be a little more selective when I finally whittled it down from 28 songs to 15. And I did have to leave out a lot of songs. They’re not left out. They’re just idling on the sidelines.
You’ve said this was never really intended to be an album. Was the song selection process more difficult because of that?
That’s right exactly. I had to rethink the way it was going to be presented as an album because the songs really were all over the map. And that’s where I came up with the idea of having three discs with five songs on each disc. That way, I could make five songs work in a musically coherent way and then another five songs seem to work. So I kind of call it the pop, the Americana. … That’s the best way I can describe it.
Do genres really matter anymore?
No, it doesn’t to me. But it matters in terms of the flow of the music. I’m an old-school record guy, so when I hear songs, they need to have a continuity to flow from one to the other . … When I would listen to an album, the things that set apart the great albums in my life are the ones that seemed to have a very focused, coherent mood. I wanted to arrange my songs. If it was going to be assembled as an album, it needed to have a mood.
With your love of roots and folk music, do you think you were always destined to come to Nashville at some point?
I think so. It was just a matter of time. It had to do with our son finally deciding he didn’t want to tour anymore at 13 and going to a boarding school. And Aimee [Oates’ wife] and I were at the point in our lives where we were saying, “Wait a minute. How did we become empty nesters with a 13-year-old son?!” Most people are dealing with high school, but our son is independent and wanted to be at a boarding school.
So we said, “We have the freedom now. … Let’s move to Nashville.” I think, in a way, as I became more comfortable in the community and made more friends, the community starting welcoming me. I felt comfortable and I thought, “If I’m here, good things are gonna happen.” And, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
Especially within the songwriting community.
The bar is set very high [in Nashville] when it comes to lyric writing and songwriting in general — but especially in the lyrics. I think it’s always been the trademark of country music that the story is very powerful and well-crafted. And that really appeals to me. And I think that’s something that I kind of let slide a little bit. My criteria had been a little bit lazy.
When I came here, that’s one of the first things I noticed when I started co-writing. … I would be like, “Well, that’s good enough,” and they would be like, “No, it’s not good enough.” And I’d be like, “Eh, it’s all …” and they are like, “Yeah, all right is not good enough.”
And I realized the bar was set higher, and I needed to elevate my game — again. I think I got lazy. You know, it’s easy to get lazy when you have success and you can sit on a body of work that’s already out there. … It’s easy to become complacent. And what Nashville did for me is, it kicked me in the ass and said, “You better start practicing your guitar, and your songs better get better.”
I would think you would be the last person to feel intimidated by other songwriters and musicians.
I didn’t feel intimidated. I felt challenged. I felt like, “Wait a minute. These guys are playing at a level.” Especially when I started playing with the bluegrass guys. When I first met Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, and they started playing on my records and I got a chance to start playing with them live, I thought, “Whoa, this is a whole other level of musicianship. … I can get there, but I need to work a little harder and start practicing.”
I remember you saying Vince was a little hesitant at first.
I think he was hesitant because he didn’t want to commit to something he wasn’t sure was going to be good . . . I said, “Hey man, let’s give it a shot. If it doesn’t turn out, what did we lose? A few hours and a day?” And as it turned out, we wrote the song [“Don’t Cross Me Wrong”] in about two hours in his living room, and I said, “Well, did it make the cut?” And he said, “Yep! I love it!” and I said, “Do you want to record it?” And he goes, “Yep!”
We did the whole song in one day. We got the track in the morning. I began to sing, and he coached me through the main part of the lead vocal which, by the way, was intimidating and exciting all at the same time. To have Vince Gill working with you on a lead vocal is scary. Because you know what’s sitting in the other room listening to you.
And Amy [Grant, Gill’s wife] actually stopped in during the singing. I told her I said, “Man, this is kind of weird. I’m singing with your husband here, and he’s coaching me through vocals.” She said, “Don’t worry. He’s the best. He’ll just bring out the best in you.” And it’s true.
As excited as you are to collaborate with these artists, they’re just as excited to have the opportunity to work with you.
Well, I hope so, and that’s flattering. But what I’ve found is that your name and reputation can open a door, but you gotta bring something to the dinner. You gotta bring something to the table.
But you still don’t feel like you have anything to prove, do you?
Oh, every day. Absolutely. I always feel I’ve gotta bring it. It’s gotta be better. It’s gotta be more interesting. It’s gotta be more emotional. I feel with this project, I found myself as a solo artist. I took the rootsy elements of Mississippi Mile [his 2011 solo album] and added a pop sensibility to it. I didn’t want to lose that rootsy thing [but] I thought, “I’m short-changing my experience by not bringing the pop-sensibility elements that I’ve developed over the years.” But now I think I’ve found that balance. I found a really cool balance.