Throughout The Oak Ridge Boys' commercial peak in the 1970s and 1980s, producer Ron Chancey earned a reputation as the fifth Oak Ridge Boy for his innate ability to harness the magic of four distinct talents' Southern gospel-style vocal harmonies.
As the quartet's pandemic project Front Porch Singin' (out June 11 via Lightning Rod Records/Thirty Tigers) pleases the ears of old fans while winning over new converts, it's high time to bestow that same crown on one of the driving forces behind The Oaks' sustained excellence, Dave Cobb.
"Dave Cobb has got a special feel for The Oak Ridge Boys," lead singer Duane Allen says. "We fell in love with how he produces, and he was brought up the same way that we were, kind of in church. Then he went into rock 'n' roll music, moved to Los Angeles. We crossed over to country music and had a career there. All at once, we decided we would like to reinvent ourselves with a little different type of approach, kind of like Johnny Cash did."
The classic lineup of Allen, Joe Bonsall (tenor), Richard Sterban (bass) and William Lee Golden's (baritone) working relationship with the Rick Rubin to their Man in Black dates back to 2009 and was facilitated by a fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member's son.
"Along the way, we booked a backup session with Shooter Jennings," Allen recalls. "We talked to him about what we wanted to do, and Dave Cobb was producing him at the time. He said, 'You guys need to meet Dave Cobb. He lives in Los Angeles. I think that would make a real, good marriage between you and him.' We backed up Shooter Jennings on a song on one of his albums. In fact, we met Dave [while he was] producing that album. We really liked him, and he asked us if we'd be interested in recording with him and pitched the song 'Seven Nation Army' to us. Said he could envision us doing that, and he had some great, new ideas about where he would like to take The Oak Ridge Boys. We liked the youthful approach and new ideas, and Shooter Jennings wrote the title song for the album, 'The Boys Are Back.'"
On Front Porch Singin', the group's usual positivity takes on a new feel as a global pandemic starts giving way to brighter tomorrows. For instance, the Biblical promises in gospel standard "Unclouded Day" hit the spot differently, for believers and fans of old folk tunes alike, after the past 15 months.
"We had that thought in our minds throughout this whole recording process because we recorded it in August at the height of the pandemic," Allen says of the album's theme of optimism in the face of unprecedented challenges. "We had been sequestered in our homes. In fact, we still were sequestered during this period of recording. I never went in the control room at all, not once. I'm usually living in there, but we had some pretty strict rules. I stayed out in the studio."
In-studio social distancing didn't stifle Cobb's creative brainstorms with the "Elvira" singers, as the five collaborators once again recaptured The Oaks' nostalgic appeal in new songs.
"There's several long tables that are kind of in an 'L' formation [at RCA Studio A in Nashville], and that's where we work," Allen says. "We get our lyrics together and our chord charts and song titles. I get in early. Some all of us get in early, and we work on those before session time. David gets in early, and he'd come out and talk to us and give us ideas.
"We came in there early several mornings, and one morning, in particular, David came in and said, 'You know, there's never been a song written about Grandma. I've got an idea about Grandma. Let's say she's just lost her husband and the kids have all come home to visit, but now it's time for everybody to leave and go home. I can just see Grandma with one hand up on the pole on the front porch and everybody else getting in their cars and leaving. Grandpa's no longer here. It's just Grandma now, and she's waving to everybody, saying, ''Til I See You Again'," Allen adds. "That song was mentioned right before a session, and by the time we had finished recording that session that day, that song was finished. It was finished during the session by two of Dave Cobb's writers."
Another selection from gospel music's back pages, "Swing Down Chariot," made the tracklist following an open-ended question from Cobb.
"With the front porch singing attitude that Dave wanted us to do on this album, he would say something like, 'If you guys are on the bus getting ready for a show, and somebody was to start singing an old gospel song and you all knew it so well that you just joined in singing. Not anything you ever, say, put on stage ever or anything else. Just singing for the sheer fun of singing it. Let me hear a song that you would do,'" Sterban says.
The Oak Ridge Boys, named for a city in East Tennessee, entered the secular music world with the 1977 album Y'all Come Back Saloon. An ongoing run as Nashville stars brought us such hits as "American Made," "Bobbie Sue" and "Thank God For Kids." The group's blend of country and gospel quartet traditions has netted five Grammy Awards plus numerous ACM, CMA, and Dove Awards honors.
Cobb made a name for himself as a producer by collaborating with such singer-songwriters as Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, and Chris Stapleton. He's also worked his magic with veterans other than The Oaks, most recently on Travis Tritt's Set in Stone.
Front Porch Singin' Track List
01. "Life Is Beautiful"
02. "Love, Light, And Healing"
03. "Old Ways"
04. "Promised Land"
05. "Red River Valley"
06. "Life's Railway To Heaven"
07. "Rock My Soul"
08. "Swing Down Chariot"
09. "'Till I See You Again"
10. "Unclouded Day"
11. "When He Calls"