Sunday, 25 October, 2009 11:06 AM
Deep Roots and Spreading Branches:
The Oak Ridge Boys Are Back (CMA)
by Jarrett Gaza
Oak Ridge Boys
2009 CMA Close Up News Service
If anyone has proven
the merits of the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t
fix it,” it’s The Oak Ridge Boys.
For more than 35 years,
the internationally renowned quartet has been making hit records,
collecting honors that include three CMA Awards and selling out
concert halls with much the same ebullient blend of Country, pop
and gospel — and, except for one late ’80s interruption,
the same four voices.
So what’s with
the version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”
on the quartet’s new Spring Hill Music album, The Boys are
Back? And not just that, but what about the hip-hop-inflected rhythms
on the title track and producer David Cobb’s blues- and rock-influenced
arrangements elsewhere on the album?
It all started with Shooter
Jennings, according to group members Duane Allen and William Lee
Golden. Jennings, they explained, wrote “Slow Train,”
a song from his 2007 album The Wolf, with the idea of having the
Oaks sing on that track. Not long after the group did, Jennings
invited them to join him onstage during a gig at City Hall, a now-shuttered
rock club in the trendy Nashville district, The Gulch.
“We went down and
performed with him,” said Golden, who sings baritone in the
group. “And then he and his band backed us up on ‘Elvira’
and ‘Bobbie Sue,’ and man, that young crowd was just
so enthusiastic about the music.
“After that, we
were thinking about doing a new album,” he continued. “We
got to talking to Shooter’s producer, David Cobb, since the
music we were doing that night was so much fun and the audience
it appealed to was such a hip audience. The music had that edge,
that Country-rock feel.”
“Those kids were
Shooter supporters and they sang along to our songs,” added
lead singer Allen. “They responded so well, we got offstage
and looked at each other and said, ‘We can do this.’”
The Boys Are Back, the latest Oak Ridge Boys album — and nowhere
near the second coming of “Elvira.” With fresh arrangements
of songs from artists as diverse as blues great John Lee Hooker,
classic rocker Neil Young and alt rock troubadour Ray LaMontagne,
the Oaks’ latest is as bracing as it is inspired.
“We make no excuses
about going for that youth market that Shooter appeals to,”
said Allen. “But to do that, we knew we had to be relevant.
We knew that the only way to get them to follow us in a new day
was to record something for them, with them in mind. So we went
with a young, hip producer who could take us in a new direction
and yet who still respected our past, much to the tune of what Rick
Rubin did with Johnny Cash.”
The gamble paid off,
at least if early reports from the road are any indication,
including house-rocking performances before a young rock-leaning
crowd at Austin’s annual South by Southwest music festival
in March and an eclectic audience at CMA Music Festival in June.
Even so, none of the group’s members — who, besides
Allen and Golden, include tenor Joe Bonsall and bass vocalist Richard
Sterban — knew quite what to make of it when Los Angeles-based
producer Cobb brought “Seven Nation Army” to the table.
“David said, ‘I
want to get y’all singing things that you maybe haven’t
done before,” Golden recalled. “When the bass comes
in — bum, bum, bum — I want Richard to match that vocally.
And then on the chorus, where those guitar lines are, I want that
chord that Jack White played done vocally, with harmonies.”
The result, an ominously
atmospheric track that sounds like the Oaks are ushering in Judgment
Day, sounds nothing like the White Stripes’ original. “I
had a funny feeling about covering that song,” Allen remembered.
“But David said, ‘We’re not going to cover this,
we’re going to take these licks and do them like The Oak Ridge
Boys would do them. We’re going to reinvent it.”
Golden admitted that
Cobb had to push the group at times to get those kinds of results.
“David would sing the parts if we were not getting it,”
he said. “He would teach Duane how to put the inflections
to his voice, to get the rhythms to flow not like a metronome, the
way we usually do it, but to lay back and push. David wanted us
to sing with more of a rock-type phrasing than we use when we’re
singing Country or gospel.
“It was a real raw, emotional thing he was after,” Golden
continued. “There would be times when we’d be trying
to do it too straight and, standing in the control room, he would
mash that button and sing it for us until what he was after sank
Cobb doesn’t remember
being quite the taskmaster that Golden describes, but he does agree
that he was going for something different in the studio. “If
anything, I was trying to get them on the edge of not being in control,”
the producer said. “If you look at the way that Duane sings
that last verse of ‘Seven Nation Army,’ he really blows
“The main thing
I got out of them was that fire and I think some of the phrasing,
like on the title track, the song Shooter wrote,” Cobb continued.
“It’s a really interesting rhythm. It’s very modern.
They had to learn some rhythms they weren’t accustomed to,
but they were down for everything and anything, and it sounds like
it. If you could have seen Richard singing ‘Boom Boom’
[written by John Lee Hooker], there was such energy to it. He was
cracking up, just laughing. Everyone was just having a blast.”
Cynics might write off
all of this carrying on and these newfangled rhythms as pandering
to the youth market. But that’s not how the group sees it.
“We didn’t sell our soul,” Allen insisted. “We
just found another way to get to it. David provided us with the
bridge to get us to another place without abandoning where we’d
been all along.”
Even a cursory listen
to The Boys Are Back bears this out. By turns tender and robust,
“Hold Me Closely” and “You Ain’t Gonna Blow
My House Down,” written by Ethan Johns and LaMontagne, find
the quartet drinking deeply of the Southern gospel music well.
“I wanted to pull
from gospel because that’s where they came from,” said
Cobb, whose cousin, Brent Cobb, wrote “Hold Me Closely.”
“I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and I wanted that one
to feel like a church service with gospel piano. I thought there
was nobody better to play church piano than Jessi Colter, so we
brought her in to play on it.”
In an amusing turn of
events, Cobb, until then playing the role of producer/teacher, found
himself in the role of student while working on that track. “I
said, ‘We should do this like a Stamps Quartet thing. Y’all
know what I’m talking about, right?’” he began.
“And then Richard comes over and says, ‘Well, you know,
Dave, I sang background for Elvis with the Stamps.’
“I felt like such
an idiot,” Cobb said, laughing.
Gonna Blow My House Down” likewise brought the group full
circle by reuniting them with “Elvira” writer Dallas
Frazier, who came out of retirement to co-write the song with Glenn
Ashworth for this album. Taking the Oaks back even further was the
Jennings-penned title track, which name-checks gospel great Wally
Fowler, who assembled the very first version of the group, the Oak
Ridge Quartet, back in the mid 1940s.
All of which is to say
that for all its new wrinkles and twists, The Boys Are Back is undeniably
an Oak Ridge Boys album.
“The song selection
is different, and the production is maybe rawer than what they’ve
usually done, but it still sounds like them,” insisted Cobb.
“They’re maybe just opening up a little bit more.”
In any event, it’s
not like the group, which has recorded with Ray Charles, George
Jones and Bill Monroe and sung on Paul Simon’s “Slip
Slidin’ Away,” hasn’t reinvented itself before.
“We crossed over from gospel,” said Allen, alluding
to how the Oaks recast their church-bred harmonies on their 1977
breakthrough hit “Y’all Come Back Saloon.”
“When we did that,
we sang [Glen Campbell’s] ‘Try a Little Kindness’
and [The Youngbloods’] ‘Get Together,’ all kinds
of songs that talked about the good life, even if they weren’t
necessarily about Jesus. They weren’t really Country songs,
they weren’t really gospel songs.
“This is really
something we’ve done all along,” Allen elaborated. “And
the new album is no different. It has a modern Country song written
by Jamey Johnson [‘Mama’s Table’], a classic by
Dallas Frazier and a mix of blues, rock and other stuff aimed directly
at the youth market we met through working with Shooter.”
This synthesis of different
strains of classic American music is what made so many people fans
of the Oaks over the years — including Cobb’s father.
blues, bluegrass — they’re all American music,”
the producer concluded. “At the end of the day, that’s
what Southern people like. We have broad tastes, and I think with
the Oaks and those rhythms, it’s a very Southern approach,
even if it has a little hip-hop in it. That’s what people
listen to in the South.”
On the Web:
by Jarrett Gaza
Oak Ridge Boys
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