The subtitle for John Oates’ new solo album Arkansas should have been: No Synthesizer, No Hall – No Problem. The album of acoustic-driven Americana and folk rock is more like a Steve Earle record than anything put out by the dynamic duo of Hall & Oates in the 1980s. And that’s just fine. Oates sounds like he’s having a blast on the collection of originals and folk standards. One of the more intriguing cuts is his cover of “Stack O Lee” commonly known as “Stagger Lee.”
The “Stagger Lee” myth runs deep through the heart of American popular music. The folk tune, sometimes called “Staggolee” or “Stack-a-Lee,” has been around in one form or another since the 1890s. The main thrust of the lyrics is a fight in which “Stagger” Lee Shelton killed Billy Lyons in a bar in St. Louis. By one count, more than 400 different renditions of the song have been recorded by blues singers, folkies, pop singers, punk bands and jam bands alike. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer Lloyd Price scored a number one hit in early 1959 with his take on the song.
Oates’ version is mostly acoustic but mixes in a little bit of a slide guitar. He does his best bluesman impersonation every time he reminds us that “Lee” is a “a baaad man.” Oates told Elmore Magazine that he based his recording on a rendition by Mississippi John Hurt” “It has always been one of my favorite re-tellings of this classic story. Producing and recording it with a full band gives it a different feel and we started to take it into a more ‘rockabilly’ place by adding a much more aggressive groove.”
With this song, Oates sounds like he’s been singing folk-powered blues tunes all his life because, well, he has been. Hall & Oates started out playing folk songs, and you can still hear these influences on early records like Whole Oates and Abandoned Luncheonette. Oates is currently in the midst of a tour to promote the album, but one hopes he and Hall will include a few of the songs in their set list this summer as well.