By Jon Mir
Oak Ridge Boys
By Alan Sculley
Sunday, March 10, 7 p.m.—RUTLAND— 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 explained in in a 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 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 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 these days 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 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, think about Ray Charles, think about Jerry Lee Lewis, think about the old blues guy,” Sterban recalled. “What was it that turned them on?’ And the common thing they had between all of them was the fact that they grew up going to 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.)
While the shift to country in the late 1970s brought the Oak Ridge Boys their huge success, the group’s gospel roots have remained present.
Gospel is certainly the primary ingredient on “17th Avenue Revival,” but the brand of gospel on several songs 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. 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 said the Oak Ridge Boys figure to perform at least a song or two from “17th Avenue Revival in their live shows this December. But since this is the group’s annual holiday tour, there will be plenty of holiday fare in the set to go with their country hits. And fans can expect a suitably joyous show.
“In our Christmas shows, we deal with the secular side of Christmas quite a bit, Santa Claus and the fun side of Christmas,” Sterban said. “But we also make sure we deal with the real true meaning of Christmas, which we believe to be the birth of Jesus. So our Christmas music is that way as well.”
Tickets: $42 – $72. For more information or tickets, visit paramountvt.org.