Oak Ridge Boys’ country harmonies
at BMI Speedway


The Boys: (L-R) Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban

By Alan Sculley

Over the past decade, few acts in music have been any more prolific than the Oak Ridge Boys. In addition to performing 150-plus shows each year, the vocal quartet has released eight albums–five studio releases, a live album and two Christmas records–in that span.

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,” Oak Ridge Boys bass vocalist Richard Sterban says. “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 2009 album “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 says. “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 these days pretty can pretty much take his pick of what acts to produce—would be a coup.

As it turned out, Cobb must have 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 10 straight top 10 albums, including three that topped the country album chart.

Sterban reports 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 reports.

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 recalls. “What was it that turned them on?’ And the common thing they had between all of them was the fact that they grew up in church. They went to church and their first singing was done in church.”

The gospel emphasis for “17th Avenue Revival” was a natural enough direction for the group. 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. (Sterban joined in 1972 and Bonsall a year later.)

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.  And a couple of tunes give “17th Avenue Revival” some welcome variety. 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 being two ways to change one’s lot in life.

Sterban says the Oak Ridge Boys figure to perform perhaps five songs from “17th Avenue Revival” in their live shows, while covering plenty of other musical ground.

“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 says. “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 Oak Ridge Boys “Shine the Light Tour” rolls into BMI Speedway, 769 E. Main St., Versailles, on May 5 at 6:30 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 937.526.9544, or visit bmikarts.com.

 

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Alan Sculley
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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