Album Review: The Oak Ridge Boys’ ’17th Avenue Revival’

It’s not on “official” count, as the group has been together since the 1940s in one form or another, but a look at the discography of The Oak Ridge Boys reveals a staggering seventy-two studio albums released since 1958. Now, keep in mind that the current – and most known lineup of William Lee Golden (joined in 1965), Duane Allen (1966), Richard Sterban (1972), and Joe Bonsall (1973) have been together for a little over 40 years. Many of those records, such as Y’all Come Back Saloon, Deliver, or Monongahela have been critical and sales successes in the world of country music – establishing them as one of the top vocal groups in the format’s history.

But, before those albums – and sprinkled in some since – the Oak Ridge Boys have been one of the top recorded acts in gospel music, with many hit albums and Dove Awards to their credit. They have returned to that many times over the years, so you might wonder about the new record, 17th Avenue Revival. Okay, another gospel album from the Oak Ridge Boys, right?

Well, you’re wrong. For the second time in their recorded history, the Country Music Hall of Famers turned over the recording keys to the white-hot Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile), and the result is much like the first – 2010’s The Boys Are Back – an album that shows that, well in their fifth decade of recording and touring together, the ‘Mighty Oaks’ still have plenty of fuel in the creative ignition.

In laying out his vision for the album, recorded at RCA Studio A, Cobb urged the Oaks to go back in time a bit, imploring the quartet to retrace their paths to getting inspired by music. More often than not, the names of Presley, Lewis, and Charles came to the forefront of their musical memories – all three artists who turned rock and soul on its ear in the 1950s, yet all with their roots in gospel music.

So, another Oak Ridge Boys gospel record, right? Think again. On 17th Avenue Revival, the group sounds like a quartet who just happened to be dialing their radio stations into a AM channel out of Clarksdale, Mississippi circa 1957. There’s a definite soul to these nine recordings that can be heard on tracks such as the thumping “God’s Got It” or “Walk In Jerusalem,” where the Oaks sound like they bumped into the spirit of one Pops Staples (and if you don’t know who that is, please find out). Cobb has this group re-energized sounding as tight and as crisp as ever.

One of the musical stretches on the album is “Pray To Jesus,” a track co-written (and originally recorded) by Brandy Clark. On paper, it looks like an odd choice for a gospel album. “Pray to Jesus and Play The Lotto,” the song’s lyrics say. Keep in mind, however, that the Oak Ridge Boys pushed the envelope in the 1970s with such adventurous cuts as “Freedom For The Stallion” or “Dig A Little Deeper,” so new ground is not uncharted territory. With their trademark harmony and Cobb’s production, it all fits.

Then, there are cuts such as “Brand New Star” and a beautiful version of “I’d Rather Have Jesus” that seem like cuts you could put anywhere in an Oaks collection. That being said, the group took a decidedly old school approach on the former, gathering around the microphone much the same way the Speers or the Stamps once did some forty or fifty years. That sense of togetherness makes the cut one of the highlights of the collection.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many collections for Lightning Rod / Thirty Tigers, who have developed quite the unique way of running a label over the past few years – much the same way that Dave Cobb has developed a new “old” sound from this band that never seems to tire of re-invention. And, I hope there are more collaborations from that partnership. I still haven’t given up my idea of the Oaks doing an album of old folk/mountain songs from a bygone era – such as “16 Tons.” I think that would be a success, much the same way this is going to be!