Group also talks Gospel album, working with Merle Haggard & Joe Bonsall's new book.
Just like 2014 -- or any of the years prior to that -- life and music is full steam ahead for the Oak Ridge Boys. Four decades into their magical run together, the quartet continues to find themselves on the road with new projects to promote.
Musically, the Grand Ole Opry stars have just released a brand-new Gospel collection called Rock of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites. After an exclusive introductory run at Cracker Barrel, the album will be available at all outlets later this month. Joe Bonsall, tenor singer for the group, told Billboard that while they have released Gospel records before, this one is a little different.
"Over the years, we've recorded some hymns on the gospel projects we've done from time to time, but we've never done an album of predominantly hymns. Bill Gaither calls us one day, and said, 'I'd love to hear the Oaks do an album of the old hymns.' So we decided to do that."
There are a couple of new songs on the album: "Peace Within," which features the Isaacs, and "Sweet Jesus," which was written by one of the Oaks' heroes. "Merle Haggard wrote a Gospel song for us about a year ago. He was doing The Marty Stuart Show, and he asked Paul Martin -- who plays bass for Marty, and is Duane's son-in-law -- if he could get a song to Duane for him. He wanted us to listen to it. We were all blown away. It's a very simple song, and with Merle Haggard singing it, it was just incredible."
Bonsall said the group wanted to record it immediately, but the timing wasn't right. "We had just released a live album, so we were working that, so we just held on to it. Then, we started working on this album, and we asked if he'd sing with us on it. He told us that we could use anything we wanted from the demo. We cut a new track, which was the same tempo, and pulled the recitation and put it on our track and put him on the last couple choruses with us. I think that's a highlight of the record, an epic collaboration. We've sang with so many people over the years, but have never done anything with Merle Haggard. We're excited about it, The Hag's excited about it, and the label is too, so who knows, maybe it will win a Grammy," he said hopefully.
Another project Bonsall is excited about is the release of On the Road With the Oak Ridge Boys, a new book that documents life behind the scenes with the group. "A bunch of people from Harvest House Publishing came to one of our Christmas shows about a year and a half ago. Some of the people had read my book GI Joe and Lillie and another one I wrote called From My Perspective. They asked me for a meeting and wanted to talk about me writing books for their company, which I'm honored to do, and they also wanted a book on the Oak Ridge Boys. A few years ago, we came out with a book called An American Journey, and I wrote all the text. My first thought was, 'I've kind of done this. I've written about the Oak Ridge Boys. How much more can I write?' They said they wanted a book about life on the road with stories people had never heard before. I started writing, and all of a sudden a fresh new approach came to me. It's a fun, inside, inspirational look at the group. It's a good study in the music business. We're a group that has endured for 42 years. I think that music students could read this and learn a lot besides being entertained. It's kind of a Point A to B to C look at what we've done and how we've done it. I think it's a good read."
One of the group's triumphs not documented in the book is the recent announcement that they would become members of the Country Music Hall of Fame this fall -- something Bonsall is still getting used to. "I must admit I am still reeling from the Hall of Fame inductee ceremony. Every once in a while it hits me like a freight train. Little Philly Joey and his singing partners and brothers will be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. It's all pretty mind-boggling for a bunch of boys who just wanted to sing songs in harmony since childhood. Now the legacy of all that we have created and accomplished is set in stone, so to speak… like forever! I am thankful and humbled … and I always will be.