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The Oak Ridge Boys on How Producer Dave Cobb Pushed Them Out of Their Comfort Zone for New Album

The Oak Ridge Boys
Courtesy Photo

The Oak Ridge Boys

In 2010, the Oak Ridge Boys released an album titled The Boys Are Back, which teamed them with Dave Cobb for the first time. One of the group’s most eclectic albums ever (as evidenced by their unlikely cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”), working with Cobb re-energized the country veterans in a way similar to how Rick Rubin breathed new life into the career of Johnny Cash in the '90s. When the quartet was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the fall of 2015, they wanted to do something special creatively to celebrate that milestone. So, they approached Cobb – fresh off of his success with Chris Stapleton and the Zac Brown Band – about working together again. A lifelong fan of the Oaks, Cobb didn’t hesitate.

Oaks tenor singer Joe Bonsall says the producer came into studio with a definite vision. “The first thing he told us was 'Let’s not do anything commercial. We don’t care about country radio, because they’re not going to play it anyway. What was it about the early rock n' roll years – Elvis, Jerry Lee – that excited us and got us really going? Most of that was Gospel music. So, let’s go back and visit that. Let’s make it fresh. Let’s think retro. Let’s do a project that isn’t actually Gospel, doesn’t have to be Gospel, but has a basis in old Gospel. I’m not talking about the Southern Gospel that you guys have recorded for years. I’m talking about going way back.'”

The Grand Ole Opry members did just that. The result is a new album, 17th Avenue Revival, which hits stores this Friday (March 16), in which they did stretch and re-invent the wheel a bit. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of that willingness was on “Brand New Star,” in which the group went back in time and opted for an old-school approach, offers longtime Oaks lead singer Duane Allen.

“We recorded with musicians on the song first. We listened to it, and we loved it,” he said, but allowed that Cobb was less thrilled than they were. "He got us together, and said ‘Y’all come out here with me.’ We came out of the studio, and got behind one microphone. He sat us around the microphone, sat down about six feet from us with a rhythm guitar. He said ‘Now, I want you to guys to sing "Brand New Star." I want it to feel like you guys just came from a formal dinner dressed up in your tuxes and best clothing. You just happened to come in to RCA Studio A, and I was there and I said "Y’all sing one."' That’s how we recorded it. There’s a place here and there where one of the voices might be a little louder or a little softer. We went back and listened to it, and one of us asked if we could do it again, and he said ‘Remember, y’all did it on one mic. That’s what y’all sing. That’s what I wanted to recapture,'” Allen said with a smile.

In other words, you might hear a note out of place at times on the record. Obviously, Allen stresses that wasn’t their aim, but their goal was to take their fans to church – literally. “We wanted to capture the fire and passion of a revival. We wanted to get it raw. Don’t worry if you might be a little off-pitch here or there. The Oak Ridge Boys don’t sing perfectly. We’re not a group in perfect harmony. We never have been. With modern technology, you can tweak and tweak until you have everything perfectly pitched and aligned and everything. But, we didn’t do any of that. Hopefully, it will sound like we just went into the studio, turned on a recorder, and started singing.”

Cobb didn’t allow the Oaks’ resume to direct the session. In one case, Cobb brought up a standard Gospel song they all knew…..or at least thought they did.

When he brought “Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow,” we all said ‘Yes, we know that one,’ and started to warm up. He smiled and said ‘But, that’s not how I want you to do it.' He pulled out an old Jerry Lee Lewis Gospel record I had never heard before. He said ‘I want you to channel the vibe of Jerry Lee Lewis. If you listen to the piano on that song, I think you can hear it.'”

17th Avenue Revival is the latest in a long line of Oak Ridge Boys releases that dates back to the 1950s. Of course, the group’s current lineup – Bonsall, Allen, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban – have been performing together since 1973, save for a period where Golden was away from the group. Allen says that when he thinks of “The Oaks,” it goes a lot further than the four of them. “The biggest thing that I think the Oak Ridge Boys have going for us is that we stick together. We’ve been around for a long time, and have been through some rough times – like people go through in their marriages, but we got back together. We have three people in our office – Karin Warf, Kathy Harris, and Jon Mir – if you add up the time they have spent working with us, it would be over 135 years. Our keyboard player, Ron Fairchild, has been with us for 39 years. That’s pretty unusual. We don’t change personnel a lot. There are so many people around us who are key people.”

That sense of community lends itself to the group’s new recording association with Lightning Rod/Thirty Tigers. “Those guys have put together a recording team for us that makes me remember what it was like when we signed with ABC/Dot, which morphed into MCA. They were on fire for us. Right now, I feel the same way about Logan, Dave, and everyone there. They are treating us like a brand new act, and they have plans for us that are in the digital world that we’ve never gone into before. They have things mapped out for us that will blow your mind.”

Those plans wouldn’t work quite as well if it weren’t for the man at the top of the Oak Ridge Boys organization – longtime manager Jim Halsey, who has been in charge of directing the group’s career since 1975. After all these years, the group’s continuing ability to re-invent themselves is something that keeps him working. “It’s a collective effort," Halsey says. "The trick is to try to find something that keeps you current and appeals to a new audience. We try to do that, whether it’s membership into the Grand Ole Opry, which was spectacular, the 30th anniversary of 'Elvira,' or the Country Music Hall of Fame – you just can’t get a bigger wow than that.”

One amazing aspect of the group’s ability to stay afloat in such a competitive market is the fact that they haven’t tallied a top 10 hit at radio since 1991’s “Lucky Moon.” In spite of this, their last five studio albums have each hit the top 40 on the Country Albums chart, and their itinerary remains as full today as it was three decades ago. “They are performers. They are entertainers. If they never had a record, you’d go see their show, and you’d still be mesmerized by it," Halsey says. "They entertain. These guys deliver. That’s what keeps people coming back,” he says, adding that the word “end” isn’t in the group’s vocabulary.  

“We don’t even think about that. We just keep on doing what we’re doing. We’re booked for the Country Music Cruise next January, and have a lot of dates on the books for 2019, even a few into 2020. We enjoy doing it, and hopefully our creative juices are such that we are successful with it,” says the man who Golden, Allen, Sterban, and Bonsall all lovingly refer to as “The Fifth Oak.” If that is true, Billboard asks, what part does Halsey sing? “I sing the cash register,” he quips instantly. “That’s what I do.”


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