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John Oates: a reflective look at life

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Woody Creek singer-songwriter John Oates appears in the Aspen Writers Foundations Lyrically Speaking series Wednesday at Belly Up Aspen. (Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times)
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ASPEN In the most recent installment of the Aspen Writers Foundations Lyrically Speaking series, David Crosby said the sources of musical inspiration were a mystery to him. Where a song came from, why they came at certain time and in certain ways, he couldnt put a finger on.Not quite so with John Oates, who appears in a Lyrically Speaking event at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Belly Up Aspen. Last summer, the Woody Creek resident and half of the pop-soul duo Hall & Oates wasnt even thinking of making an album, and didnt have the songs written if he were so inclined. And then came a series of deaths to people close to him Arif Martin, Hall & Oates first producer; Jerry Ricks, Oates guitar mentor; and Jerry Lynne Williams, a songwriting partner followed by his father suffering a mild heart attack. (His father, he said, is now fine.) Boom. Instant inspiration.I started feeling the pressure of time, said Oates, whose appearance tonight will feature an onstage interview followed by a full concert. My feeling was, theres no more time for rehearsal. I started writing like Id never written before. I had this incredible creative rush that I couldnt control. I almost got overwhelmed trying to keep up with myself.The 59-year-old musician had never before been especially prolific. Some songs have come to me quickly, but usually I have to craft them. Thats what I do, he said. But this was different. Things were just flowing. Id sit down with a guitar, and there was a song.Oates didnt want that creative surge to end merely with a batch of songs sketched out. He kept the ball rolling by enlisting the help of engineer Bil VornDick, booking studio time in Nashville, and rounding up a bunch of Nashvilles finest, including banjoist Bla Fleck, dobroist Jerry Douglas and mandolinist Sam Bush. The resulting album, the still-to-be-released 1000 Miles of Life, was created in similar fashion to the onrushing way the songs came to Oates: There were few overdubs, no doubling of instrumental parts.The emotional tone of 1000 Miles of Life, however, doesnt reflect the fast-paced way the album came together. As the title hints, Oates is taking the long, reflective look at life. The songs rendered in Oates familiar blue-eyed soul style, but with elements of bluegrass, gospel and country contemplate the passage of time, the way the good and the harsh in life are intertwined, and the effort to keep searching for the brighter side of the path.Its a spiritual record, without being overtly religious, said Oates who, with his longtime musical partner Daryl Hall, was awarded the BMI Icon Award last month for their career achievement in songwriting. It represents where Im coming from, what Ive found through my family. There are things that are dark but not depressing dark. Dark with hopefulness.The highlight of the album is also the biggest stretch for Oates. Ghost Town, apparently inspired by Hurricane Katrina mornings gonna come when the waters gone/ And the zydeco is playing features a dense, swirling production with banjo, organ, and harmonica by Blues Travelers John Popper. The song fades away on a brass passage that suggests a New Orleans funeral.Oates tried an experiment in songwriting with Good Son. The chord changes and melody came to him first, and put him in mind of his relationship with his son. But after he spoke with Jed Leiber, a close artistic associate who is co-producer and keyboardist on the album, he began seeing a different angle on the song. Oates was thinking about Leibers complicated relationship with his own father, Jerry Leiber, who co-wrote such hits as Hound Dog and Stand By Me.I called him and told him it was about him but I didnt know just what its about, said Oates. So I threw the gauntlet at him, and told him if it resonates with you, write the lyrics. I told him to reach inside and pull something out thats never been heard from him before. And he did. It became this heavy, emotional thing, Jed Leibers story.Oates says that he can probably count on one hand the songs hes played that he didnt write. But he adds to that total with Sometime, a song from Daniel Lanois gem of an album, Shine. The reflective lyrics Sometimes I wanna take a pill and hide/ Sometimes I wanna shut down and write and go where no man should go seem to fit ideally with the themes on 1000 Miles of Life.As the album became more of a reality, I thought, OK, Ive got enough songs that Ive written, said Oates, noting that his wife, Aimee, is a Lanois fanatic. Those lyrics sounded like it almost could have been my song.Oates is warming crowds up to the new songs. He spent last weekend at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where he appeared with Sam Bush, singing I Found Love (When I Found You), a folksy ballad from the new album. (Also in the set: a bluegrass version of the Hall & Oates hit Maneater, which he says drove the crowd wild.) He also participated in a songwriters workshop in Telluride.Oates will release 1000 Miles of Life in September. He plans to release it without the backing of a label, but he aims to do most everything he can to make sure the songs get to listeners.Its absolutely the only thing I care about. I want these songs heard, he said. The album is everything Id want it to be.stewart@aspentimes.com

Aspen Writers Foundations Lyrically Speaking, with John Oates, begins at 8 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St. Tickets are $30. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.


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