An Interview with John thomas Oaks + FREE Christmas Music!

JToaksIf you dig through the background of the Knoxville music and theater scene, chances are you’ll find John thomas Oaks. John thomas has been writing musicals and soundtracks, playing bluegrass, and adoring Joss Whedon’s Firefly for longer than most local bands last. While on a regular basis, he gets on a plane to New York, where playwrights go to swim in the big pond, he still collaborates largely with his family. He’s a fabulous multi-instrumentalist and an extraordinarily kind, humble human being. We’re excited to let you in on our conversation with him.

FH: Tell us a little bit about the path of choosing to work alongside your family.

JtO: I feel very blessed to work alongside my family, and I wish I could even be more involved with them. I collaborate mostly with my father, but I also work on writing projects with my mom, and my brother and I have collaborated as songwriters, and performance art partners. In a country and a world where family is breaking down at an alarming rate, I feel very blessed to work with my family, and I have no desire to see that diminish.

FH: What place do you feel like you occupy in the arts community?

JtO: I love all forms of art, and I aspire to encourage its expression locally. However, I do not feel that I am very successful at encouraging it. Mainly because my work keeps me out of town a lot.

FH: Right, because you’ve spent a lot of time in New York with your plays. How does your particular brand of Appalachian-tinged musical theater strike that audience?

JtO: I would say that I have been well received in New York, but that answer includes the fact that the people I have encountered in New York City are never afraid to tell you exactly what they think of your work. I had to develop a thick hide and learn to take harsh criticism, but I fell in love with the experience and the people.

FH: Doing this for a while, it would be difficult to survive without a thick skin. What was the first play you wrote? Do you still like it?

JtO: Star Queen (a musical about Queen Esther). I do still like it. It continues to change and evolve, but it’s still pretty true to the first draft I wrote in 1993.

FH: How has it matured as a piece?

JtO: The last time we did a full cast performance, we added a new song for Esther to sing, because we didn’t feel like she was getting enough of the spotlight. She is, after all, the star of the show! This year is our twentieth anniversary, so we are doing our thirty-fifth and final performance of 2015. We have added some new and adapted lyrics, improved some of the rhymes, and the pop culture references have morphed over time to keep it current.

Stephen King once said something to the effect that his work is never finished, that it always can be revised and revisited. I feel that way about musicals and plays, too. It seems like I’m always realizing that there is a better way to tell or sing something. Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” but I think live theater can always be reworked. We have designed Star Queen to be presented creatively, and with a lot of artistic license. I’ve never seen two productions of Godspell that were identical. It’s always done in a different setting, and I love that. Now, I’ve seen Les Misérables about 8 times, and it was the exact same show every time, so I guess that one has been abandoned.

FH: In what ways do you see yourself as a servant of the plays and the music and the people who see and hear them?

JtO: I hope people enjoy what I write. I know there are deep issues to be tackled, but my primary goal is to entertain. While I am fond of preaching and prophetic, on-the-nose songwriting (Keith Green and Rich Mullins are two of my heroes), subtext is still one of my favorite words. That’s why I am also a Steve Taylor and Stephen Sondheim fan. Subtext layered under subtext. That kind of writing thrills me. One time in class, I wrote an on-the-nose theater song, and somebody in the audience said, “If I want to hear a sermon, I’ll go to church.” That doesn’t mean I don’t ever want to write another sermon in song.

As a matter of fact, I’ve been cooking up an idea for about a year now that I am quite certain will offend and enrage a large number of people. I’m kind of excited about that prospect, to be honest. Last year, I wrote a song that was very close to being preachy, but I felt like the story I told in the song overshadowed the sermon and carried the listener along so that they didn’t mind being preached to a little bit. That’s a difficult trick to pull off, and I guess the jury is still out on whether or not I succeeded. I got a lot of heated feedback for it, that’s for sure. From both sides of the issue.

FH: What criticism do you hear from those accustomed to sermons, and what’s the best response to that?

JtO: You know, I’m inspired by the stories I’ve heard of writers who never read any criticism, good or bad, but I’m afraid they might be lying. It’s hard not to take criticism to heart, because when you’re created to entertain, you want people to like what you do (especially if you want to make a living at it). But again, you have to develop a thick skin and let a certain amount of it roll off your back. I think it’s good to have a few people in your life that you admire and trust who will tell you exactly what you need to hear, even if it hurts, but the majority of the people who take on the role of critic need to keep their day job. It’s amazing to me how many non-musicians, non-writers, non-poets, and non-artists have such strong opinions about music, writing, poetry, and art. On one level, I understand it, because we respond to art emotionally, and it touches us at the soul level. On the other hand, the non-songwriter guy who feels compelled to tell me how I should have written a particular song would never think of going into surgery and telling the staff how to operate. Then again, you can survive a bad song. The odds for survival are slimmer in a bad surgery.

FH: True enough! What about you as an audience member? What was the first play you recall seeing? What was its effect on you?

JtO: Godspell at Johnson City Community Theatre, circa 1970. They threw Jesus on the stage and nailed Him to it, bathing Him in a vicious red light. I will never forget that image. I call it to mind a lot.

FH: How do you feel like that experience colors your writing these days?

JtO: I am a very derivative writer, and I’m not ashamed to emulate the writers I admire. Stephen Schwartz’s work has influenced me from that first production of Godspell to this very day. I aspire to write the kinds of melodies that he writes. Memorable, singable, and enduring. He is still one of the most clever lyricists of all time, and he deserves all of the fame he has won. Often, when I am working on something new, I will listen to a comparable moment in a show or a song that has made a big impact on me. Sometimes it’s a groove, sometimes it’s a rhyme scheme. There are all kinds of little tricks I play to get my writing cranked up in the right direction. I recently wrote a lyric by copying the form and rhyme scheme of an old standard show tune. If you wanted to, you could sing my lyric to that old tune, or put that old lyric to my new tune. It’s fun, and totally legal since you can’t copyright a song form!

FH: What about the outside-the-box influences? Is there anything you like that might be unexpected?

JtO: I have a seemingly limitless love for ’80s pop and rock music. I can’t get enough of it. I am inspired by my brother Amos’s artwork and thought processes, and recently I have been blown away at the cinematography that my nephew, Cal Oaks, is displaying as a filmmaker. Billy Graham, and now his son, Franklin, have always been an inspiration to me of how to be bold for Christ. My father, Tommy, and mother, Pat, are both amazing storytellers, and great lovers of humanity. I am humbled by the boundless compassion they show. There are some television writers like Joss Whedon and the people who write with him, Vince Gilligan and his crew, Julian Fellowes and the other Downton Abbey writers…I could go on, but I’m favorably impressed by the writing that is happening on television right now (especially on the BBC). There is also a new writer in Hollywood that’s coming up by the name of David Cornue that I am following. I predict he will be on several networks before too long. He’s an amazing writer. Jerome Hughes is one of my favorite avant-garde art song composers. Solbong Kim is one of the greatest symphonic writers of his generation. Sam Holtzapple is a poet and lyricist from Washington state whose writing fascinates me. Brian Woodbury is an L.A. songwriter/composer whose melodies and harmonies surprise you almost every bar, but always make sense. Greg Adkins and Adam Whipple are two local songwriters with a deep sense of region and relationship that I have admired for a long time. And, of course, my teachers in the music department at U.T.—Fay Adams, Jerry Coker, Donald Brown, Mark Boling, and Keith Brown. It might surprise people to find out that there is absolutely no one in any corner or wing of American politics,—local, state, or federal—who inspires or influences me.

If you’ve not seen it, do yourself a favor and find out when Star Queen is coming to a stage in your area. One of our editors can testify that, upon seeing it himself, he laughed until he snorted aloud. In public. In the meantime, we highly recommend you download the first two records in his excellent bluegrass trilogy at Johnthomasoaks.com.

Also, in the midst of a busy schedule, John thomas and Adam Whipple sat down to track a bluegrass instrumental rendition of an old Christmas hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” We’re giving it away to you! Download and share. Merry Christmas, all!

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