Over the past decade, few acts in music have been more prolific than the Oak Ridge Boys. In addition to performing 150-plus shows each year, the quartet has released eight albums—A Gospel Journey (2009), The Boys Are Back (2009), It’s Only Natural (2011), Back Home Again: Gospel Favorites (2012), the 2012 holiday CD, Christmas Time’s-A-Coming, the live album Boys Night Out (2014), Rock Of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites (2015), and another holiday release, Celebrate Christmas (2016).
A couple of years ago, the Oak Ridge Boys decided to set their sights on really making a statement with their next studio release. “We were inducted [in 2015] into the Country Music Hall of Fame,” says bass vocalist Richard Sterban. “After that, we felt like we wanted to do something special, something different, something kind of monumental to commemorate.”
Photo by Jon Mir
The Oak Ridge Boys (L to R): Joe Bonsall (tenor), Duane Allen (lead vocals), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Richard Sterban (bass)
As Sterban, lead vocalist Duane Allen, tenor vocalist Joe Bonsall, and baritone vocalist William Lee Golden pondered what kind of project could achieve that lofty goal, one idea kept coming up: Producer Dave Cobb.
The Oaks first worked with Cobb on The Boys Are Back, and that experience remains etched in their memories. “He took us down some roads musically we had never traveled before, like doing a cover of the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army,’ and [John Lee Hooker’s blues classic] ‘Boom Boom’—songs we would not have done on our own, but Dave kind of just took us in that direction.”
He has since become arguably the hottest producer in country/Americana music, thanks to his work with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and the Zac Brown Band. So getting back in the studio with Cobb—who these days can pretty much take his pick of acts to produce—would be a coup.
As it turned out, Cobb enjoyed his work with the Oak Ridge Boys, which during the late 1970s and ’80s, became one of country music’s most popular acts, reeling off 17 No. 1 country singles and, at one point, ten straight top 10 albums, including three that topped the country album chart, but had been unable to maintain momentum since.
When the group met with Cobb to discuss the project, he already had a clear idea for the kind of album he wanted to make with them. “[He said,] ‘What I want you guys to do is I want you guys to think about Elvis. Think about Ray Charles. Think about Jerry Lee Lewis. Think about the old blues guys. What was it that turned them on?’ And the common thing they had between all of them was the fact that...their first singing was done in church...The project does not have to be all gospel. A lot of it will be, but he said the most important thing is I want to capture that feel of that old-time revival meeting.”
The original Oak Ridge Boys began in the 1940s as a gospel group. By the time Golden and Allen joined in 1964 and 1966 respectively, the Oaks were a leading gospel act. In 1972, Sterban became the next of the current members to join, leaving a gig with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, singing backup for Elvis Presley during a period when The King enjoyed some of his biggest popularity. Bonsall followed Sterban into the Oaks a year later.
While their shift to country in the late 1970s brought about their huge success, the group’s gospel roots have remained. It is certainly the primary ingredient on 17th Avenue Revival, giving old-time tunes like “I’d Rather Have Jesus” and “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow” a suitably reverent treatment that highlights the four-part harmonies.
Elsewhere, their brand of gospel is something a bit different. The early rock elements in gospel tunes like “Brand New Star,” “God’s Got It,” and “Let It Shine On Me” give these songs a shot of rootsy energy. But 17th Avenue Revival is not a one-trick pony. There’s some rich soul flowing through “There Will Be Light,” while “Pray To Jesus” is a rollicking country tune with a Jerry Lee Lewis feel and clever lyrics about praying to Jesus and playing the lotto as the two ways to change one’s life.
The Oak Ridge Boys will perform April 19 at Black Bear Casino in Cloquet. Tickets are available online at BlackBearCasinoResort.com.