The Oak Ridge Boys have been going for 75 years next year. Today the vocal quartet are the lead Duane Allen (a Boy for 55 of those 75 years!!), the tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Golden and all the way down in the bass clef, Richard Sterban. This lineup have been going since the 1970s on and off (Golden took a decade off) but this is the crew who sung Elvira, the Billboard top 10 hit and CMA Single of the Year 1981 which was released 40 years ago this month at the very zenith of the Urban Cowboy era.
They have spent 10 years as members of the Opry and are also members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (which includes the likes of Ricky Skaggs, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Amy Grant, Al Green, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton).
We know what the Oak Ridge Boys do because they’ve done it for so long. There’s no Indian nose flute or digeridoo. Producer Dave Cobb is in the control room pressing RECORD and grabbing the tea because there’s not much production needed throughout the 30 minutes of music that I imagine needed no patched vocals or overdubs.
Cobb has a go at writing two tunes for the quartet. Til I See You Again is a stately waltz where the boys reminisce over a rootsy arrangement, while the other original brings rockabilly to the album. Rock My Soul is a perfect take on the way gospel and hillbilly were brought together in the 1950s and, like Canadian folk song Red River Valley, highlights Richard in bass, whose lead vocals are in the style Lee Marvin used on Wandering Star.
The echo reverberates around the studio on Promised Land, as do the harmonies on Love Light and Healing (‘home, family and faith’), which opens with the chorus and approached gospel music. Unclouded Day, from way back in 1879 and giving its name to the debut album by the Staple Singers, is unadulterated front-porch gospel music with touches of twang; it could have been made any time in the last 60 years which suggests a timeless quality to the group. Like The Temptations, no matter who sings the tunes, the tunes will last forever.
The universalism of Life Is Beautiful (co-written by Charles Esten’s good friend Colin Linden) kicks off the set in an appropriate manner and there are times on the album where you think the four elements are making music, as on the old Baptist hymn Life’s Railway To Heaven and Swing Down Chariot, both delivered without accompaniment.
The album closes with When He Calls, which Cobb surrounds with a soft arrangement over which the foursome pray for salvation and a safe passage to heaven. For all the money that Elvira must have made, this is the purest form of country music.