Q&A: John Oates says he's 'always been a roots musician' ahead of St. Pete show with Guthrie Trapp

Oates wants to be remembered for more than his ‘80s hits.

click to enlarge John Oates - Photo by Michael Weintrob
Photo by Michael Weintrob
John Oates
There’s a special place in John Oates’ heart for the pop-rock hits he wrote with Daryl Hall, which defined the 1980s. But he doesn’t want to only be remembered for that side of his storied career.

“I’ve always been a roots musician, but people don’t realize it because the success of the big hits has always overshadowed everything that I’ve done individually,” Oates recently told Creative Loafing Tampa over the phone.

The 74-year-old isn’t lying, either. One of his earliest musical experiences was going to see Bill Haley & His Comets perform live at a Pennsylvania amusement park as a preschooler. Oates’ most vivid memory of that gig includes bassist Al Rex pretending his standup bass was a horse while playing it. “It was the first time I ever heard live music in my life,” he recalled.

Ever since a move to Nashville just over a decade ago, the 74-year-old has been taking advantage of his legend status by splitting time between touring—and possibly recording—with his best friend of over 50 years, and getting down and dirty with roots music he grew up with. The acoustic vibes he blends into his recent work even goes back to 2004, on Daryl Hall and John Oates’ most recent non-Christmas album, Our Kind of Soul, loaded with soul and R&B covers that were around in their own days of youth.

But despite Hall’s absence, Oates is far from alone in his Americana excursions. While Hall recently got off a co-headlining tour with Todd Rundgren—also a mostly acoustic affair—Oates has been bringing guitar maestro Guthrie Trapp on the road with him for backup. While a far less unicorn-esque figure than Rundgren, Oates admitted that he was so taken aback by Trapp’s performance at an installment of Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he offered to just give him his guitar. “I said, ‘Hey, man, you play this thing better than I ever will. Here, take it,’ and he kinda laughed. He didn’t want to take it,” Oates chuckled.

On Thursday, Jan. 19, the duo plays its first gig of the year—out of four currently booked U.S. dates—at the Mahaffey Theater  inside St. Petersburg’s Duke Energy Center for the Arts.

If you think that’s an historic feat, his most recent gig at the Mahaffey—strangely enough—was even more of an essential evening in Oates’ more recent performing life. Last year, he opened for Beth Hart at the theater, doing so only once on the U.S. leg of Beth’s Thankful tour last year.

“We went down there and did it, and everyone loved it. That started the ball rolling,” Oates recalled. This led to a smallish European tour that launched last fall, and another one currently being planned for this summer.

See our full Q&A with Oates below.
Guthrie Trapp will be by your side at your gig at the Mahaffey Theater, and you guys have known each other for almost 20 years. Do you remember how you guys met?

I remember exactly how we met. It was at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colorado. I was there jamming with the Sam Bush Band. At the end of a night at the festival, they always have kind of a super jam, where all the artists get together and play some songs on stage. And I was on one side of the stage and he was on the other end. I had seen him play and I didn't know him at the time, but I was like “I’ve never heard anyone play guitar like this guy.” And, after the show, we hung out and I was blown away by his playing.

I gave him my guitar. I said, “Hey, man, you play this thing better than I ever will. Here, take it,” and he kinda laughed. He didn’t want to take it. It's funny, because one of the guys, I think it was Sam Bush, was just like “take it, take it!” *laughs* That’s kinda how we met, and then we were hanging out afterwards, and we jammed in a hotel. He and I knew a lot of the same material, because he grew up on a lot of roots music, the way I did.

And so, we have a lot in common, musically, and we just became friends. He's a great guy and he's an amazing musician, obviously. And then over the years we've been recording together, playing together, touring together, and everything's kind of distilled to this thing where all the other stuff fell away, and he and I just said, “you know, wouldn't it be cool if we just…” I mean, I know I'm rambling, but every time we would sit in the living room and just play, it sounded so good. And we were like, “man, wouldn't it be cool if we just did this on stage?” Just basically bringing the living room to the stage as well.

And we did and people went nuts, so it's evolved from there, really. It's become a singer-songwriter, storyteller show, and it's very loose. It's very casual. And I think for me, it's all about authenticity. It's about you know, especially in today's world, the way things are going, it's really a chance to break down all our surrounding performances. There's no real light show, there’s no bill, there are no effects, there are no amplifiers. We just play, and there's something.

You were talking about how you and Guthrie grew up with some of the similar roots music, and I definitely want to go back to that, and the tunes you listened to as a kid. I heard that you saw Bill Haley & his Comets live at an amusement park when you were four years old. Do you have any recollection of that whatsoever?

Well, the most faint, but very powerful memories. It was the first time I ever heard live music in my life. I was born in New York City. My father was relocated at his job to Pennsylvania. We had literally just moved from New York City to Pennsylvania. And there was an amusement park not far from this little town where we lived in Pennsylvania. We went to the amusement park, and I was four years old. How did I know? I didn't know anything.

There was a band playing, and it was Bill Haley & his Comets. And I was just barely aware of the early days of rock and roll, but I do remember as a little kid running down to the front of the stage, which is only two or three feet high, being this tiny, outdoor band show. I remember just being awestruck, looking at these guys. And the thing I remember the most that is still in the back of my mind was that the bass player turned his big [standing] bass fiddle on its side and rode it like a horse while he was playing. And that was one of the things where I was like “wow!”

I kinda sang as a kid. I have a recording of me singing a children’s song at Coney Island Amusement Park, where for like, a quarter, you could make your own record, when I was four or five years old. And I began to take vocal lessons when I was five, and I started to play guitar when I was six, so I was all in.

Do you remember what your first guitar was?

Yeah, I have it. It was a guitar that was in the basement of a friend of mine’s house. His father was a woodworker, and his father had made this guitar. And it was very crude, but it was just sitting in the corner of the basement, and when I would go over to his house, I would pick it up, and finally, his father said “hey, if you want it, you can just take it.” So I still have that guitar.

Cool. So, in more recent history, the last time you were down at the Mahaffey, you were supporting Beth Hart, and almost a year down the line, you have cited that specific gig as the drive behind a European tour that you guys are doing this summer. That’s pretty amazing.

Yeah, I'm friends with Beth’s manager, who I’ve known for quite a while, and I'm a huge fan. She's an amazing talent. We had talked about the idea of going to Europe. I wanted to go to Europe because I hadn't been to Europe in about three years because of COVID and all that. I just wanted to go. You know, for me, at this point in my career, it's all about unique experiences. And I want to have unique experiences, so I spoke to her manager about it because Beth is really, really popular, especially in Germany.

And I said, “hey, you know what would be cool? Maybe if I could go over and just play an acoustic show?” And he said, “yeah, that could be really cool. It'd be nice to get a further audience.” And his suggestion was, why don't we try and see if it works? So I said that that was a good idea. She was playing the show at the Mahaffey, and he said, “hey, there's a perfect opportunity. Why don’t you go down there, be on this bill, and we’ll see how the audience reacts.” Sure enough, we went down there and did it, and everyone loved it. That started the ball rolling, and then we put together a European tour just a few months ago, actually. And now we're planning another one this summer.

Yeah, that's gonna be killer.

Yeah, it’s gonna be fun.

In recent years, you've turned mostly towards the Americana genre, and you manage to juggle that and your work with Daryl on the road and—supposedly—in the studio. So after years of doing pop rock and such, what would you say flipped that switch that made you shift your focus a bit?

I've always been a roots musician, but people don't realize it because the success of the big hits has always overshadowed everything that I've done individually. But roots music is how I started way before I met Daryl. So really, in a sense, when I moved to Nashville about fifteen years ago, it was a return to my earliest musical DNA. And so, I really don't want to pigeonhole myself. I like all sorts of music. I see American roots music as kind of the Rosetta Stone of rock’n’roll: It's where everything started. And so, I love to go back to that to retrace the musical history of American popular music. It's very interesting to me, and I know a lot about the early days of American roots and R&B music. So I like to combine all this history together. In a sense, when we do these shows, and I talk about these songs, I'm really giving people an insight into the history of where American pop music really started. Are there any

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Are there any roots/Americana musicians today that you like listening to?

Oh, tons. So many people, I don’t even know where to begin. The young ones, people like Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings are amazing. Then there are the amazing guitar players like Tommy Emmanuel. And then you know, the great legendary Americana folks like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bela Fleck. See, I listen to everything. But now, I'm also looking a little bit more towards early R&B fields. The last single I released, “Pushin’ A Rock?” The people who have heard it say that it reminds them of ‘70s R&B. And I have another single coming out February 3, which is also a little bit more R&B style. So as an artist, you know, I do a little bit of everything. I could play very authentic, old-timey music, but I also like to do contemporary, newer stuff.

Awesome, and I’m excited to hear that new single. I am running out of time on my end, so I have just a few more questions for you. A few years back Daryl revealed in an interview that the best place to get a Philly cheesesteak is actually in New Jersey. As a Philly boy yourself, can you vouch for that?

Oh, I know what he's talking about. He's talking about a place called the White House in Atlantic City. Yeah, I would agree. *laughs*

Wow, cool. I also found out that you split your time between Nashville and Denver, and I love everything about Denver. One of your favorite pastimes is hiking in the backcountry. Where are some of your favorite spots to hike in Denver?

Well, we have a home in the mountains, outside of Aspen, Colorado, so not quite Denver. We love Denver too, but we live literally in the mountains. We live on a dirt road, and at the edge of the National Forest, which extends for hundreds of square miles. So, I can literally go out of my house right into the national forest. And I do mountain biking, hiking, backcountry skiing, and I do Nordic skiing. So, I'm an outdoorsman for sure. I love being in the mountains.

Last question for you, which I ask to all the musicians that I speak with. What advice do you have to offer to young, up-and-coming musicians?

The tried and true age old method: Listen to and study the people you respect. Listen to the music you love, try to emulate it and see what you can learn from it, if you can. If you're creative, hopefully an original style can kind of evolve from that. Because that's all musicians do. When they’re young, they try to copy the people they love, and they try to sound like that. And when they realize that they're not that, they can maybe use that as a jumping-off point to create something new.


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Josh Bradley

Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay. Check the music section in print and online every week for the latest in local live music.
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