On January 21, 2017, John Oates and three members of the soon-to-be Good Road Band arrived at the Delta School Great Hall in Wilson, Arkansas. Awaiting their performance—a gathering of 50 Arkansas Delta residents settling in for an intimate, live night of music. Less than a year later, Oates will have written, produced and recorded a blended album—titled Arkansas—of traditional American classics and originals, inspired by the striking scenes and ambiance he gathered from his visit to Wilson.
The album, what Oates calls “the record I have always wanted to make,” is the culmination of his most recent musical journey with his early musical influences, an assemblage of all-star musicians, and time spent in Wilson all playing an important role.
“That performance sparked the ability to make this record. It was the combination of the performance, my visit to Wilson, and the connection to Mississippi John Hurt that all began to blend together,” says the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member.
Arkansas began as a tribute to country blues singer, Mississippi John Hurt, but would later expand to include works from other musicians of the era, including Jimmie Rodgers, Emmett Miller, and Blind Blake, with a sound that Oates describes as “Dixieland, dipped in bluegrass, and salted with Delta blues.”
Initially approaching the covers as a solo guitarist and vocalist, Oates instead chose to bring in a collection of heavy-hitting musicians, including Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Pahl on pedal steel guitar, and Nathaniel Smith on cello—the results were staggering from early on.
“Once the band began to play, I saw the potential that was there,” said Oates. “The first track we cut was ‘Stack O Lee’ and afterward I looked at my engineer, he looked at me, and he said, ‘Man, I don’t know what this is, but it’s cool. Let’s just keep doing it.’”
“What you hear on the record is exactly what we did; there are no overdubs, no fixes. It’s recorded live to analog tape the way records were made back in the day. I wanted to preserve the purity of that style of recording and the magic that was happening in the room.”
The entire recording process for the album concluded in a collective week and a half. And where production wrapped quickly, Oates’ writing of the titular single began just as immediately. After his Wilson Music Series performance, the artist said, “I couldn’t get it out of my head. I went back to Nashville the next day, and that evening I sat down and began to write.”
“The first thing I wrote down in my journal was ‘snow white cotton fields of Arkansas.’”
“I had never stood in a cotton field,” said Oates. “Here I was in the moonlight, in the fields with the Mississippi River and it seemed to crystallize this rural American experience in a way… What it means to be American swept over me.”
Oates would again visit Wilson to find that same inspiration when filming his music video for the song. An evocative experience for him, the imagery contained in his lyrics were accented by the landscape of the town.
“I’m happy that this unique area in America is getting a chance to be reborn in a way,” said Oates. “It’s cool to see these towns aren’t going to fall by the wayside, and that they have the opportunity to reinvent themselves.”