The Oak Ridge Boys have worked with plenty of talented producers during their Country Music Hall of Fame career, ranging from Ben Isaacs to Ron Chancey – who steered the ship during their peak commercial Country years. Sitting at the top of that list as well, is one of Music City’s finest, Dave Cobb.
Known for his work with the Zac Brown Band and ACM nominee Chris Stapleton, Cobb first worked with the Oaks in 2007 when the group laid down harmonies for “Slow Train,” a track off The Wolf, an album by Shooter Jennings. The Oaks had long been one of Cobb’s favorite groups, so the chance to work together again was too much to resist. That project, 2010’s The Boys Are Back, was one of the quartet’s most critically-acclaimed records of all time, with the Oaks turning heads with their cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” When the group was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015, they wanted to do something to celebrate that honor with the same creative zest.
Once again, they called Dave Cobb.
The producer and the Oaks met at The Pie Wagon, a famous meet-and-three just off of Music Row, and after lunch, Cobb got down to business.
“When he started talking about his vision for the album, his eyes started sparkling,” said the Oaks’ lead singer, Duane Allen. “I knew he had a vision. He asked us ‘When did you get turned on to Rock and Roll, and who were the artists that turned you on to it?’ The answers were Elvis, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to begin with. He asked us what each of those artists had in common? One of those things was that they all grew up in Church singing Gospel Music. He looked at us and said ‘Bingo.’ He said ‘That’s something that you guys can do that nobody else can do because you grew up like that too.’ What I want to do with the Oak Ridge Boys is channel that period of time when you were little boys and you had stars in your eyes. You heard these artists coming on the radio with a sound like you had never heard before. If you listen to how they phrased their lyrics, they had passion in them. That came from Gospel. If you listen to the soundtracks behind them, it sounded like there was a tent revival going on. That came from Gospel. What I want to do is throw away the bells and whistles, and record with four basic instruments – piano, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums. We did that.”
That record, 17th Avenue Revival, is out now. According to the group’s tenor singer since 1973, Joe Bonsall, the record takes Gospel Music – something that the Oaks have made a name for themselves in for years – and turns it around and inside out, a bit, something he attributes to working with Cobb.
“You’ve heard the Oak Ridge Boys sing Gospel before, but not like this. It’s a different and unique piece of work, and people are getting it. It’s been great to see the response that it’s getting. Dave takes us down this new road – he tells us that we are the only guys in the world that he can take us, put us around the microphone, and make it happen. On ‘Brand New Star,’ that’s how we did it. There’s few overdubs. There’s sparse instrumentation, and the voices are very much out front. But, Dave always makes us feel big time. We felt like we had this young creative kid leading us down the pathway and taking us down new paths. It’s like a young football team buying in to a coach’s program – are we going to buy in or pack it in? We’ve got a great coach,” he surmised, “so let’s go do this thing!”
Such was the feeling the quartet – known for hits like “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue” – wanted to impart for the record, recorded at RCA Studio A, which Cobb now owns.
“We wanted to capture the fire and passion of a revival. We wanted to get it raw, and not worry if we might be a little off-pitch here or there. The Oak Ridge Boys don’t sing perfectly. We’re not a group in perfect harmony. We never have been. With modern technology, you can tweak and tweak until you have everything perfectly pitched and aligned and everything. But, we didn’t do any of that. Hopefully, it will sound like we just went into the studio, turned on a recorder, and started singing.” The album, a collection of standards such as “I’d Rather Have Jesus” and “Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow,” as well as energetic tracks like “God’s Got It,” achieves that goal and then some!
And, when the Oaks – Allen, Bonsall, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban come together as one, there are few better at doing what they do. For over forty years, the four have made magical memories for fans around the world – and some of those fans also include many of today’s hottest artists. Bonsall says that attention also keeps that creative spark alive.
“Maybe the last few years, I have felt that a little more. Miranda Lambert has named her bus ‘Elvira.’ It’s right on the door. Little Big Town do a bluesy, swamped up version of it during their show,” he said, adding that it’s not just their classics that get attention. In 2016, they appeared with Blake Shelton on “Doing It To Country Songs,” a cut from his If I’m Honest disc that put them before the public singing a brand new song.
“He took us on the road with ‘Doin’ It To Country Songs,’ which was such a great feeling. That animated video that we did was so unbelievable. It’s all just mind-boggling.” He says that feeling is also gratifying. “I think the fact that these young kids listened to us that have been so influential like Tim, Eric, and Keith, they have been so great to us, and that means so much to us. All these kids together have taken Country Music to new levels. Country Music is the new Pop Music, and it’s because of them. Brothers Osborne, as well. They have a totally different look and sound, and it’s awesome. I’m so proud of Country Music and the acts singing it today,” he says, adding that “We had a great run – over fifty charted records – but there’s nothing that says you have to have hit records your whole career. I don’t know anyone who ever has. We had our run. We had a lot of hit records that we get to sing on stage every night, yet we still keep coming up with new ways to do things, and we’ve got big crowds every night. We’ve got new music, and we’re so excited. Don’t discount the impact that these kids have had on our business. It’s been enormous. I think the next wave is coming, as well.”