John Oates’ video “Arkansas” takes him to a cotton field in the small town of Wilson. (Courtesy photo)

John Oates feelin’ bluesy on ‘Arkansas’

John Oates likes to sing the blues.

The rock star known for hits with Daryl Hall is focusing on his love for traditional American music on his new, seventh solo album “Arkansas,” which he’s promoting in concert in The City this week.

“This is the music I grew up with,” says Oates, 69, mentioning that the album began as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt (1892=1966).

“He just always appealed to me; his guitar playing, his singing, were unique, he had a sense of humor — something about him was different,” says Oates, who, as a young man, spent some time with the bluesman, whom he met through his friend and teacher Jerry Ricks, a blues artist who booked talent in Philadelphia coffee houses in the 1960s.

Oates, who incorporated Hurt’s entire songbook into his acoustic guitar repertoire, even bought the guitar his hero played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.

In addition to Hurt tunes (“My Creole Belle,” “Spike Driver Blues,” “Stack O’Leel”), “Arkansas” also has songs by Emmett Miller Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Blake, as well as original music.

“The album was an evolving thing, becoming almost a snapshot of early American music at the beginning of the recording industry,” says Oates, who made it in Nashville (a town he says is unmatched for high-quality musicianship), where he’s lived since 2000.

He calls his Good Road Band — Sam Bush on mandolin, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Steve Mackey on bass, Nathaniel Smith on cello and Josh Day on drums — “superlative musicians playing an unusual combination of instruments, giving the songs a completely new character, but without losing the authenticity of the music.”

The title track, one of two original songs, is a country-folk tune reminiscent of material on Hall and Oates’ first records in the early 1970s; Oates says it nicely sums up the feeling of the album.

It even has a sexy video in which Oates plays acoustic guitar, knee-deep in a blooming cotton field in Wilson, Ark., population 903, while a crop duster romantically flies by.

Oates says the video was filmed in 2017 on his second visit to the Wilson; on his first, he played a concert “to which all the farmers came out” at the request of a colleague also working as a promoter for the town.

That show, as well as this week’s Great American Music Hall gig (in which he’ll be backed by two “legendary” musicians, Bush on mandolin and Paul Franklin on pedal steel), provide a big contrast to Oates’ plans for the spring, a “giant” Hall & Oates and Train arena tour that comes to San Jose on May 4 and Oakland on Aug. 7.

Oates, a consummate performer, likes playing stadiums and clubs: “Both are equally good; they’re just different,” he says.

John Oates
Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 11
Tickets: $36 to $41

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