Band: The Oak Ridge Boys
Date: Thursday, Feb. 22, 7 p.m.
Venue: Mobile Civic Center, 401 Civic Center Drive, www.mobilecivicctr.com
Tickets: $30 to $65, available through Ticketmaster
Country music in the early ‘80s was populated by a number of groups that featured layered vocal harmonies. The Oak Ridge Boys were one of the most prolific of them all. After the release of their breakout hit “Elvira,” this vocal quartet established a permanent place in country music that continues today.
The Oak Ridge Boys are on the cusp of releasing “17th Avenue Revival,” produced by one of Nashville’s most sought-after producers, Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton). This collection of gospel tracks is proof that time has not sullied this group’s impeccable harmonies. Vocalist Joe Bonsall gave Lagniappe an inside look into the creation of this album.
Stephen Centanni: When The Oak Ridge Boys broke out with “Elvira,” harmonies were hot in country music. There were you guys, Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers, The Statler Brothers, Alabama — the list goes on. Why do you think that’s become so rare in today’s country music?
Joe Bonsall: Well, you know, that’s a real good question, brother, and I don’t know if I have the answer to it. Music constantly changes, and the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. I think that’s what keeps it interesting, but you’re right. There’s not a lot of harmony out there now. I think The Oak Ridge Boys is one of the few acts still out there doing it. Alabama is still on the road, and Diamond Rio does it pretty well. They’re still out there, and Restless Heart. Those guys are celebrating 35 years. It’s still out there, but in the modern culture of country music, it tends to be all solo acts. It’s bigtime solo guys like Luke Bryan or Blake [Shelton] or girls like Carrie Underwood.
I don’t know where it’s going. There’s a new group called Midland. They’re brand new and gaining traction. They have a harmony sound. Maybe, it’s not dead yet.
I might add, though, that nobody does harmony like The Oak Ridge Boys because we have the one thing that nobody else has since the Statlers went away: We’ve got a big, bad bass singer. Nobody has one of those, man.
Another thing about The Oak Ridge Boys that’s been different from most of the harmony groups over the course of history is that all the guys can sing solo. So many of the groups like Alabama and The Statlers were one-voice oriented. The Oak Ridge Boys has had big hit records with all four voices out front.
We could change the harmonies around and restack and put one guy out in front and stack the other guys around him. We don’t lose the identity of The Oak Ridge Boys, but different guys can step out and add a whole new dimension to what we’re doing. It keeps us from being boring, too.
Centanni: “17th Avenue Revival” will be out soon. How did those sessions in Studio A on 17th Avenue turn into not only a creative situation but also a religious experience, both literally and figuratively?
Bonsall: Well, you know, you just nailed it, Steve. It turned into exactly that. We had a young, great producer named Dave Cobb who had an incredible vision for The Oak Ridge Boys. His thoughts were, “Let’s do a monumental album here. Let’s not worry about what country music radio will or won’t play. They don’t play The Oak Ridge Boys anymore anyway. Let’s just do something special. What was it about the early ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis that excited us and turned us on? It all came out of gospel.”
He said, “The album doesn’t have to be gospel, but I’m hearing a lot of gospel feel on it. I’m hearing inspiration from that on this project. You guys have sang gospel in your career, and you came from gospel. I want to do gospel like you’ve never done before.”
That’s what we did. We delved into some of the old black gospel from way, way back and early Jerry Lee Lewis recordings. For instance, we recorded “I’d Rather Have Jesus” on this album. That’s an old hymn written by George Beverly Shea. We’ve sang hymns before, but this time, we channeled Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s got two cuts of it on YouTube. One of them is him singing the song. The other one is him with a guitar and four black guys behind him harmonizing. We channeled that feeling and that attitude. It did make the album different.
We’re calling our tour the “Shine the Light” tour because so many songs on this album are so meaningful and shining a light of some kind. The song “Brand New Star” is a new song, but it’s telling everybody in a certain way, “Hey, man, there’s a brand new star in Heaven.” Everybody is dealing with death in their lives, and it helps you deal with it better. It’s a happy song. There’s another song called “Brand New Light” written by Jamey Johnson. It’s a brand new song, too, yet, it feels so poignant when we do it.
I think we accomplished the goals that Dave set out for us to do. We happily followed him down the road and went with him on all this stuff. I think the record is very special. After we were inducted into the [Country Music] Hall of Fame, we wanted to do a new album that was really special and something that was meaningful and something that would be a legacy kind of album.
You never know when an album will be your last one when you’re our age. You never know. This could be it, and it could not be it. If it is, let’s make it really meaningful and seek out Dave Cobb and see if he’ll work with us.
Dave produced us on an album about eight years ago when we did “Seven Nation Army,” and the music industry said, “What?” That was Dave Cobb back then before he produced Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. He was back there taking us down some different roads than we’ve been on in a while.
Centanni: In addition to music, you’ve also established yourself as a writer. One of those books is “On the Road with The Oak Ridge Boys,” which is a collection of road stories. What’s it like getting on the road these days?
Bonsall: In the “Elvira” days, it was always so frantic. I remember 1982 was the stuff of legends. We had just toured a couple of years with Kenny Rogers on the first arena tour ever with us and Kenny and Dottie West. It was the first big production, arena tour in country music history. All the kids do it now, but nobody did it then.
Kenny was writing “Lucille” and “The Gambler.” You had the big duets with Dottie West. The Oak Ridge Boys were the hot young guns in town with hit records and awards. Then, ironically enough, when that tour ended, “Elvira” hit. With what we learned from Kenny, we had the vehicle to take it as far as we could, and we did. We went out there with a big tour in ‘82 and ‘83 with lasers and everything you could imagine.
We were the only act to use the computer Vari-Lite system that was developed by the group Genesis. Genesis was the only act on the planet using Vari-Lites, and we got the rights to use them on our trip. It was the first time that everybody saw those moving lights like everybody uses now. Back then, it was new and fresh. With lasers and smoke and everything else, we went out there and sold out arenas every night ourselves.
We’re older now and more seasoned, but in some ways it’s the same. It’s not as frantic now. We’re not that big, gigantic, Garth Brooks kind of act like we were back then, yet there’s that legendary status thing among the guys to keep it going as long as we can.
We love being The Oak Ridge Boys. We bring more history to the stage than anyone else. Each guy brings something different to the table. Each guy wants to keep moving forward. That’s the attitude in the group. The thing that we had together back then that we have together now that’s exactly the same is, “Hey, man, let’s go sing.” That’s The Oak Ridge Boys thing. Let’s go sing.