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 vocal quartet has released eight albums – A Gospel Journey (2009), The Boys Are Back (2009), It’s Only Natural (2011), Back Home Again: Gospel Favorites (’12), the 2012 holiday CD, Christmas Time’s-A-Coming, the live album Boys Night Out (’14), Rock Of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites (’15) and another holiday release, Celebrate Christmas (’16).
Every album, naturally, was important to the group, but 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,” The Oak Ridge Boys bass vocalist Richard Sterban explained in a recent phone interview. “After that, we felt like we wanted to do something special, something different, something kind of monumental to commemorate now being members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
As Sterban, lead vocalist Duane Allen, tenor vocalist Joe Bonsall and baritone vocalist William Lee Golden pondered what kind of album project could achieve that lofty goal, one idea kept coming up. The group could work with producer Dave Cobb.
The Oak Ridge Boys first met and worked with Cobb on The Boys Are Back, and that experience in the studio had remained etched in the memories of the four singers.
“We were so excited about that project, because he took us down some roads musically we had never traveled before, like doing a cover of the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army,’ and ‘Boom Boom’ [the John Lee Hooker blues classic]–songs we would not have done on our own,” Sterban said. “But Dave kind of just took us in that direction.”
Since that 2009 album, Cobb has 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 can take his pick of what acts to produce these days–would be a coup.
As it turned out, Cobb must have enjoyed his work with The Oak Ridge Boys, a group that 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, 10 straight Top 10 albums, including three that topped the country album chart; the quartet had been unable to maintain that momentum since then.
Sterban reported that when The Oak Ridge Boys’ manager contacted Cobb about producing the group’s next album, Cobb was all in. “He said ‘Sure, we’re family now, man. I’d be glad to work again with you guys,’ ” Sterban related.
When the group met with Cobb to discuss the project, the producer already had a clear idea for the kind of album he wanted to make with The Oak Ridge Boys.
“[He said] ‘What I want you guys to do is, I want you guys to think about Elvis [Presley], think about Ray Charles, think about Jerry Lee Lewis, think about the old blues guys,” Sterban recalled. “ ‘What was it that turned them on?’ ” And the common thing they had among all of them was the fact that they grew up in the church. They went to church and their first singing was done in church.
“He said, ‘I want to go back and revisit that,’ ” the singer continued. “ ‘And even further back, I want to dig into maybe some old black gospel as well.’ And he said ‘I want to capture that feeling and that attitude. The project does not have to be all gospel.’ A lot of it will be, but he said the most important thing is … to capture that feel of that, that old-time revival meeting. And that’s what we did on this project.”
The gospel emphasis for 17th Avenue Revival was a natural-enough direction for the group, since 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 one of the leading gospel acts going.
In 1972, Sterban became the next of the current members to join, leaving a gig in which, as a member of the gospel group J.D. Sumner & the Stamps, he was singing backup for Elvis Presley during a period in which “The King” enjoyed some of his biggest popularity. Bonsall followed Sterban into the Oaks a year later.
While the shift to country in the late 1970s brought The Oak Ridge Boys their huge success, the group’s gospel roots have remained in their hearts and minds.
Gospel is certainly the primary ingredient on 17th Avenue Revival, and the Boys give old-time tunes like “I’d Rather Have Jesus” and “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow” suitably reverent treatments that highlight their four-part harmonies. Elsewhere on the album, the brand of gospel is something a bit different for the group.
The early rock-and-roll elements infused into 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 musical 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 believing that praying to Jesus and playing the lotto are the two ways to change one’s lot in life.
“We had a great time doing it,” Sterban said of the recording sessions, which were completed at Cobb’s facility, the legendary RCA Studio A, where a who’s-who of country royalty cut some of their most famous songs. “He [Cobb] made sure he got the voices first. The voices come out front, and then he added some music later on, not a lot. There’s not a lot, nothing that will cover up the voices. That’s the way the thing was recorded. There was very little [vocal] tuning on this project. Of course, we did some tuning. We’re not going to put an off-pitch note out there. But we kept the tuning to a minimum and we tried to capture that raw, earthy feeling.”
The new album will be nicely represented in the live shows The Oak Ridge Boys play this summer, with perhaps five songs from 17th Avenue Revival in the show. But Sterban said fans can expect a well-rounded show that’s suitable for all ages.
“We realize that people want to hear the hit songs. So you can count on the fact that when we come to town, you’re going to hear ‘Elvira.’ That is the law. That is our signature song,” he said. “You’re going to hear ‘Thank God for Kids.’ William Lee Golden does such a great job on that. It’s just a special song. You’re going to hear our first hit record ever, ‘Y’all Come Back Saloon,’ ‘Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight’ … I can list all of our hits and you’re going to hear most of those hits. We always change it around. We never do the same show twice. But we always include … there are several songs we have to do on every show, like ‘Elvira’ and ‘Y’all Come Back Saloon.’”
The Boys perform 8 p.m. Friday, July 20 at the Thrasher Horner Center in Orange Park. thcenter.org.