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Sunday, 25 October, 2009 11:06 AM

Deep Roots and Spreading Branches: The Oak Ridge Boys Are Back (CMA)

Photo by Jarrett Gaza

The Oak Ridge Boys

By Bill Friskics-Warren
© 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.’”

“This” became 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 in.”

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 it out.

“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.

“You Ain’t 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.

“Country, rock, 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.”

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Photo by Jarrett Gaza

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Copyright © 2009 All Rights Reserved.
Unauthorized duplication or use of Text, Site Template, Graphics and or Site Design is Prohibited by Federal and International laws. See our Notice/Disclaimer.