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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Oak Ridge Boys evoke rock 'n' roll/gospel roots in new '17th Avenue Revival' album

The Oak Ridge Boys perform "Brand New Star from new album "17th Avenue Revival"

Oak Ridge Boys lead singer Duane Allen is reluctant to apply an overused adjective to his Country Music Hall of Fame vocal group’s new album 17th Avenue Revival, but the set is in fact an “organic” move for the Oaks, whose deep southern gospel music roots--along with early rock ‘n’ roll/R&B energy-- have always been the bedrock of their unique country sound.

“We recognized that there’s a period of time that’s not being addressed in the music business today--as well as where we fit in it,“ says Allen, specifying the time period as “the era we all grew up in, when we got turned on to rock ‘n’ roll.” He cites three seminal rockers in particular: Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis.

“We [he and fellow Oak Ridge Boys William Lee Golden, Joe Bonsall, and Richard Sterban, who backed Presley while singing in the renowned southern gospel group J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet] all fell in love with the passion of these men that was manifest in their lyrics, and music tracks--which sounded like an old-fashioned tent revival where they just let it all go,” Allen continues. “What they all had in common is that they all grew up in church singing gospel music and were influenced not just by the words but by the feel of the music. Then we asked, ‘What turned them on?’ It was the really early black gospel music. So while some of the songs [on the album] are country, about half of them took us way, way back to the black gospel songs.”

As Allen notes, he’s collected “the entire body of work by almost every black gospel group that ever existed--the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Golden Gate Quartet, Dixie Hummingbirds, Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama,” in addition to that of “anybody who ever sang harmony--Sons of the Pioneers, Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers.”

Recorded in Nashville’s Legendary RCA Studio A, 17th Avenue Revival is again produced by Dave Cobb, who has produced the contemporary country likes of Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Zac Brown Band, and in 2009 produced the Oaks’ acclaimed The Boys Are Back album featuring their take on diverse material including White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” the old spiritual “God’s Gonna Ease Your Troublin’ Mind” and Jamey Johnson’s “Mama’s Table.”

“We were at the Pie Wagon on Music Row for “a meat-and-three” lunch to discuss our next album,” recalls Allen. “Dave said, ‘You guys aren’t going to get a chance on major country radio, so let’s not think that way, but think about recording a monumental album that only you can do.’ I saw a sparkle in his eye and knew he saw something, and that we all had to be quiet and listen to him--and we did.”

Cobb, says Allen, recognized that with the Oaks southern gospel background, they could relate to it “like nobody else can, and do it realistically and be yourself and be honest with it like nobody in this business can right now.” From there Allen went through hundreds of songs “like I usually do—and kept the garbage basket of songs I threw away as proof!”

Sure enough, he came up with some old black spirituals, hymns and gospel gems (Lead Belly’s “Let It Shine On Me,” “Walk in Jerusalem,” “God’s Got It,” and “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow”--also recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis) and George Beverly Shea’s “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” On the contemporary side, there are songs by Jamey Johnson, Larry Shell and Buddy Cannon (“There Will Be Light”); Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (“Pray to Jesus”); and Vince Gill and Ashley Monroe (“If I Die”).

Allen points to a new song, lead track “Brand New Star” by Aaron Raitiere and Mando Saenz, the “new star” being one in heaven following the passing of a loved one.

“We were all really into it when we cut it with tracks, but it wasn’t quite there yet and we saw Dave fidgeting around and he said, ‘Okay, boys, let’s go back to Studio A with the big old RCA 44 microphone,’ and we all got around it like you see in the picture on the album cover. We wanted the album to feel like we’d been at a formal dinner in black near-tuxes and happened by RCA and said, ‘There’s an old 44 mic. Let’s go sing one!’ That’s what we wanted it to sound like—that whole retro attitude and vibe you get from the photograph on the cover--all the way to the last song.”

So most of 17th Avenue Revival was cut with the Oaks singing around that one microphone—“no fixing, tuning, bringing up one voice over the other,” says Allen. “We had rhythm guitar and added a few foundation drums and bass and maybe another guitar here and there, but it wasn’t about the instruments, just [singing] raw and keeping the clams [mistakes] in. At times we get a little pitchy, but that’s us--we never sang perfectly: We’re more like getting on the interstate and four Peterbilt trucks coming right at us! We sing with energy and action and it might not be perfect but it works.”

Indeed, the whole process was entirely new for the venerable group.

“It’s never happened like that before,” says Allen. “But Dave had that gleam and sparkle in his eyes, and when we talked about fixing something he said, ‘No. That’s you—no bells and whistles.’ Everything was first or second take, with maybe two or three places where we redid a word or something and popped it in. We weren’t interested in perfection, but being real.”

Being real—and channeling those Jerry Lee Lewis piano licks.

“We didn’t start out to do a gospel record, but capture the magic about rock ‘n’ roll when we were just little boys growing up,“ Allen reiterates. “That and that rockin’ type of black gospel songs that we got into—which is what the album partly morphed into. We didn’t want the message, but to cop that attitude and channel what turned Jerry Lee and those guys on—and then be turned on by the same thing.“

“And we practically moved into RCA Studio!“ Allen concludes. “Nobody even left to go out to eat, so somebody had to go out and get us food, and we just stayed there and loved on it and kept working until we finished.”



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