Creative minds are rarely idle, and The Oak Ridge Boys have demonstrated that again and again during their hit-filled decades long career. And it seems their producer Dave Cobb is cut from the same cloth. During a relaxing outing to see the Oaks’ Christmas show, inspiration struck and Cobb hatched a plan for their new album, Front Porch Singin’.
“We have a part in our show where we are sitting in our Cracker Barrel chairs in front of the fireplace,” Oak Ridge Boy Duane Allen says of the Christmas concert he and fellow Oaks Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban performed during the holidays. “We tell stories, and we sing songs that many people know. We talk a little bit about where we came from individually and then we sing a familiar song like ‘Silent Night.’ It’s very homey, very relaxed. Dave saw that and just freaked out and he said, ‘Man, this is exactly where we need to go!’”
The result is a totally satisfying new album that combines beloved classics such as “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” “Red River Valley,” “Unclouded Day” and “Swing Down Chariot” with engaging new songs like “Life is Beautiful,” “Old Ways,” “Rock My Soul” and “Love, Light and Healing” that comfortably take their place among the Oaks’ best work.
“One writer in particular, Aaron Raitiere, headed up a whole bunch of writers and just got them all writing for this album,” Allen says. “We gave them titles that we wanted it to feel like such as ‘Unclouded Day’ and ‘Swing Down Chariot’. . . We wanted new songs that would fit that because that’s what the Oak Ridge Boys do. We try to take our music not only where we come from but take it a little further. We wanted it to remain in that whole vibe of singing on the front porch.”
They credit Cobb with helping them get the sound and feeling they were looking for on the new project. A Grammy winning producer known for his work with Chris Stapleton, The Highwomen, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, Cobb first worked with the Oaks on their 2009 album The Boys Are Back. “He was producing Shooter Jennings’ The Wolf album and Shooter had a song on there that he wanted us to sing on with him,” Bonsall recalls of their first meeting with Cobb. “We went down there to sing with Shooter and Dave was producing that album, so we hit it off well with Dave.”
Later after the Oaks had performed with Jennings during a showcase at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley, Cobb approached them with an idea. “That’s when Cobb said the magic words to us,” Bonsall recalls with a grin. “He said, ‘You guys may think I’m crazy, but I swear I think I hear you guys doing ‘Seven Nation Army.’”
The White Stripes cover became the first single released from The Boys Are Back and the Oaks’ relationship continues to flourish. Front Porch Singin’ marks the fourth album they’ve done with Cobb. “We have a lot in common with Dave,” Allen notes. “He was raised in a very spiritual family. In fact, his grandmother was a Holiness evangelist. He was raised in that Pentecostal Holiness Catholic church, so he has a gospel background like we all have had and feels like that we should embrace our foundation and not in any way run from it or shun it or anything else. That’s a part of who we are, and he doesn’t look at gospel music as anything different than country or rock and roll or anything else. Dave just feels like we can do anything we want to do if we’re honest about it and we sing about what we believe in.”
Of course, The Oak Ridge Boys achieved early success as a gospel group before crossing over to mainstream country music in 1977 with the hit “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” Since then they’ve won five Grammys as well as numerous ACM, CMA and Dove Awards. They became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 2011 and were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
The Oaks recorded Front Porch Singin’ at RCA’s famed Studio A in August 2020 when the country was shut down during the pandemic. “There were only three instruments when we recorded that album—drums, rhythm guitar and bass guitar, nothing else,” says Allen. “The only other instruments were added later. He wanted to get the intimacy of us. He didn’t want anything to get in the way. So if you’re listening to ‘Swing Down Chariot,’ there’s nothing on there but a bass guitar. That’s just us and an upright bass guitar. That’s it. Dave played the rhythm guitar, and he was probably no more than six or seven feet from us sitting right there playing in the middle of us and the bass guitarist was sitting right there by him. The drummer was in the glassed off partition and we were all right there in the room together. It feels intimate because it was. I’m really happy with it.”
His fellow Oaks are equally appreciative of Cobb’s approach in the studio. “Dave is into the honesty of the music,” Bonsall says. “You listen to everything that he does whether it’s with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell or Anderson East or listen to what he just did with Barry Gibb on his new project. What an incredible album! I love Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees. We all do, but the Dave Cobb touch is on it. There’s a simpleness and honesty to it that he brought. Barry Gibb is one of the greatest songwriters that has ever lived, and he found a new pathway with Dave Cobb. Dave does that and what I like about Dave is he’s never changed since the first time we met him. He’s still exactly the same Dave Cobb even though he is now the hottest producer in town. He don’t give a rats behind about commercial music. He don’t care what’s on the radio. He don’t care what’s a hit. He never has and he still don’t. He brings a fresh new feel to this town.”
Sterban credits Cobb with coaxing the best performance from him as he sang lead on the classic “Red River Valley.” “He’s got a way of pulling stuff out of you and making things really happen,” says Sterban. “I remember walking into the studio that day. I had no idea that I was going to sing ‘Red River Valley,’ but they started talking about what familiar song could you guys sing that everybody would know that would be very appropriate for the feeling that we’re trying to establish here, front porch singing. Duane started singing ‘Red River Valley’ and we all started to chime in, and Dave said, ‘That’s it! Let’s do it!’ I had no idea that I’d end up singing the lead on it until I walked into the studio. We were there maybe an hour, and it was done.”
The Oaks have always had a penchant for nostalgia and one of the new songs with a classic feel is “Old Ways.” “I thought they handwrote it for Golden,” Allen says of the song, which was written by Cobb and Channing Wilson, and features Golden’s distinctive baritone on lead. “It really made me think of exactly how he described it. He and I grew up exactly like that and that story fits.”
Golden agrees. “It’s about the old ways and passing them down,” he says of the song. “Dave pitched it and I took the song home and learned it the night before we cut the first track of it. Dave wanted me to listen to the guy who was singing the demo. It was just a guitar and vocal demo. He wanted me to hear his inflections and to get into that feel and that frame of mind. It kind of throws you into a little different vocal character there in the way of expression. It was good.”
Each of the Oaks shines on Front Porch Singin.’ “Old Ways” fits Golden like a glove. Sterban takes lead on “Rock My Soul,” a song Cobb and Raitiere wrote specifically for the legendary bass singer after watching videos of him performing with Elvis Presley back in the days before he joined The Oak Ridge Boys. Bonsall turns in a soulful lead vocal on “Promised Land” while Allen works his signature magic on the opening track “Life is Beautiful.” Their award-winning vocals shimmer on the a cappella “Life’s Railway to Heaven” and the uplifting new song “Love, Light and “Healing.”
“I hear new things in everybody’s voice every time we record something new,” Allen says of working with his longtime musical partners. “I heard a different voice in Richard than I’ve ever heard before. It was a real sweet low lead voice that I just really loved and when Golden’s voice came on ‘Old Ways,’ he set me back in my chair. I grew up exactly like that and that story fits the way he grew up too. . . When Joe did ‘Promised Land,’ I don’t think I could have heard that song sung any better than what Joe did. He got down into a sweeter, lower on the scale voice that not a lot of people have heard. It’s more than what I imagined it would be.”
Having been off the road most of last year due to the pandemic, the guys say getting together to record this album was a special experience, and they felt like writers who were working on songs for it, also approached it with a renewed appreciation for the chance to create music. “The writers really got into it too because they were hurting and locked up in houses and Aaron was locked up in a cabin in Kentucky,” Allen says of Raitiere. “They were just writing their hearts. We couldn’t do anything like we normally do, so we would call them and tell them what we need and man, they got right on it. They wrote just for this project. There is just a whole lot of heart and soul that went into this front porch that came from a lot of different sources. You don’t see their faces. There are so many names that you’ll look at when you look at the back of that album. They were all writing for this project to pour their hearts into it too and we are really grateful for that. It was old guys having all these young hip writers writing new songs to fit a front porch, not going to the party and getting drunk or getting into your convertible getting naked kind of thing.”
The Oaks hope people will feel uplifted and encouraged as they listen to this collection of songs. “People need love, light and healing right now,” Bonsall says. “We need more God in our lives. He puts the love, light and healing. We need that and we deserve it. We’ve all been through so much in this past year. We’ve all been shut down. A lot of people have been sick. Some have lost loved ones. This country really needs songs like ‘Love, Light and Healing,’ ‘Life is Beautiful’ and the gospel songs that are on here. We almost inadvertently cut the perfect album for this time. Songs like this are going to be meaningful this year.”