Before the The Oak Ridge Boys became a full-fledged country act in the mid-1970’s, current members Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, Richard Sterban and William Lee Golden sang a totally different tune, the music of Southern gospel. All had performed in gospel groups during their younger days, with Sterban most notably providing the prominent bass voice for J.D. Sumner & The Stamps Quartet, which became famous for backing Elvis Presley.
Through the years, the Oaks have released full-length gospel records along with their numerous country recordings. Now, with their latest album, “17th Avenue Revival,” the quartet has once again dug back into its gospel roots. But it’s a slightly different style of gospel. Lead singer Allen and bass vocalist Sterban talked about the new record with “S&E Nashville” backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
“We had been doing different types of records,” Allen begins. “We were doing what we wanted to do. But we also wanted to really stretch our boundaries.” After more than four decades of recording, though, you have to figure that there isn’t any musical path that the Oaks haven’t traveled. The group turned to producer Dave Cobb, who had worked with the Oak Ridge Boys on their 2009 album “The Boys Are Back,” for a fresh idea.
For those who may not be aware, Cobb is arguably the hottest producer in Nashville. Cobb has helmed projects for such acts as Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown Band, Jason Isbell and Jamey Johnson, and keeps a schedule that would likely rival a political figure’s. “We didn’t know if he would have time for us,” Allen candidly relates. “But we called him and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We had to wait another year before he was available. When we met with him, Dave started talking and you could tell he had something in mind. He had a vision for us.” Cobb was up-front with the group, leveling with the foursome that country radio airplay was likely out of the question. So, why focus on that?
Instead, the producer offered up a nostalgic scenario. “He said that he wanted all of us to trip back to when you were little boys and first got turned on to rock and roll,” recalls Allen, grinning broadly at the memory. “Well, for us, that was Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. What did they all have in common? They all grew up in church singing gospel. But they went back to the black gospel. So, everything on this record had to fit into that mold. We just kept channeling that period of time.”
For the project, the Oaks under Cobb’s direction recorded at the legendary RCA Studio A on Nashville’s Music Row. That accounts for the “17th Avenue” portion of the album’s title. “We’ve done some things there before,” Sterban notes. “That is a special place for us.” From the outset, the recording took on an organic feel.
“We actually recorded a couple of the songs with the four of us around one microphone,” Sterban recalls with a smile. “No one does that anymore. There’s very little high-tech stuff on here. I mean, if there was an obvious mistake or wrong note, that got fixed. Outside of that, there are not too many bells and whistles.” Allen adds, “[Cobb] wanted it to feel very open. He wanted to capture the energy of the voices when we sing together.”
Standouts from “17th Avenue Revival” include “Brand New Star” and “Pray to Jesus,” the latter written by two of Music Row’s most prolific songwriters, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. The rollicking, cleverly-penned tune contains some wonderful lines like, “So we pray to Jesus/And we play the lotto/’Cause there ain’t but two ways/We can change tomorrow.” Allen says, “That is a fun song, but we didn’t cut it nearly the way Brandy did on her [“12 Stories”] album. Hers is pretty straight ahead while ours sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis playing boogie woogie.”
The opening track, “Brand New Star (Up in Heaven Tonight),” has been described by the Oaks’ Joe Bonsall as “the happiest song I ever heard about dying.” The group also addresses such temporal subjects as drinking and cheating on “If I Die,” written by Vince Gill and Ashley Monroe. “That is such a piece of poetry,” raves Allen. “William Lee does the lead and he just owns that song. It talks about ‘If I die drinking’ or ‘If I die cheating,’ but it has a great turn at the end, where it says, ‘If I die prayin’ I ain’t afraid to go.’ If a song has a really good twist or turn, we’ll do it. Our first big country hit, ‘Y’All Come Back Saloon,’ had one of those.”
Certainly, fans have come to embrace the Oak Ridge Boys for their country smashes like “Saloon,” their first No. 1 hit “I’ll Be True to You” and the classic “Elvira,” a staple of every concert date. The foursome has scored 17 career No. 1 singles, picked up a Grammy for “Elvira” and won the CMA Vocal Group of the Year award in 1978. In 2015, they received the ultimate honor, induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But going back to gospel for “17th Avenue Revival” proved a rewarding trip to musical heaven. “It turned into something very special,” says Allen. “Dave Cobb told us that there’s nobody out there who can do this like we can, because nobody else comes from that.” Sterban smiles and chimes in, “I think Elvis would have loved this project. He loved gospel quartets.”
“I look at this as we’re getting another shot,” Allen sums up. “We’re all very grateful for this.”
The Oak Ridge Boys’ “17th Avenue Revival” is available now.