Originally known as the Oak Ridge Quartet, The Oak Ridge Boys became one of the most popular country vocal groups of the 1970s and '80s, having honed their craft for several decades as gospel artists before going "pop" in the '70s. Over their career they have mixed secular, gospel and patriotic material, and also pushed the boundaries of what is "country" and what is "pop". Here's a quick look at their work...
The Oak Ridge Boys "Greatest Hits" (MCA, 1980)
These guys always struck me as one of those '80s bands that the studio engineers used as a test case for just how far they could go and still get away with calling it "country." This long-lived, sometimes-gospel group mixed a Southern Gospel quartet vocal style with the most blatant pop affectations, and even the occasional dose of doo-wop bounce. Along with Alabama, these guys were lauded as great harmony singers, although at times I'm a bit mystified why they got such great press. Oh, I'll admit I like "Elvira" (it's an old Dallas Frazier song, after all!) and even the uber-AOR "Fancy Free," but a lot of their other tunes leave me flat... The weirdest thing is how many bum notes they would hit when trying the more complicated harmonies... but nobody seems to have noticed! Anyway, these single-disc collections have a lot of hits on 'em, but most of it isn't material that really stands the test of time.
The Oak Ridge Boys "Greatest Hits, v.2" (MCA, 1984)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Greatest Hits, v.3" (MCA, 1989)
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Millennium Collection" (MCA Nashville, 2000)
Oak Ridge Boys "The Christmas Collection" (MCA, 2003)
A reissue of older material... They intro each song with the chorus to an older, traditional carol ("O Come All Ye Faithful," etc.) which then segues into a newer holiday tune. The group harmonies on the oldies are pretty nice; when they introduce the goofy new stuff, though, the album loses a little lustre... They have such great voices for the material... But the synthy, keyboard-heavy production is so darn cheesy! Well, whaddya expect from an album made in 1986? Pedal steel and fiddle? Hah! They add some new songs to the Christmas songbook, but mostly this new material is a bit strained, not nearly as catchy as it should be.
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Inspirational Collection" (Varese Sarabande, 2004)
The gospel roots of the Oak Ridge Boys run pretty deep, and this disc is a fine representation of their best work in the band's mid-1960s incarnation as Southern Gospel modernists, mixing the vocal tradition of the Blackwood Brothers with the electrified bounce of Buck Owens and the West Coast honkytonk-pop scene. This 18-song disc gathers material from several albums on the Skylite label, 1965's I Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now, River Of Life and Solid Gospel Sound, from 1966. Some of the songs are a bit sleepy and barbershoppish, but others have a surprisingly vigorous country sound; country fans may be surprised to find how engaging some of this material can be... There were major personnel shifts before the Boys broke into Country mainstream: the now-familiar low, deep bass rumble of singer Richard Sterben wouldn't be added into the mix until 1972, and it was probably his voice more than anything else that cemented the Oak Ridge sound as most folks remember it. Still, you can hear the roots of that sound here, and Southern Gospel fans should be thrilled by such a nice, compact reissue of their old, religious material.
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Definitive Collection" (MCA Nashville, 2006)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Gold" (MCA Nashville, 2007)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Y'all Come Back Saloon/The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived" (MCA)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Together/Room Service" (MCA)
The Oak Ridge Boys "American Made/Deliver" (MCA)
A twofer reissue of two albums from 1983: American Made and Deliver.
The Oak Ridge Boys "Street Gospel" (Pilot, 1973) (LP)
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Lighthouse And Other Gospel Hits" (Vista, 1973) (LP)
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Oak Ridge Boys" (Columbia, 1974) (LP)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Sky High" (Columbia, 1975) (LP)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Old Fashioned, Down Home, Hand Clappin', Foot Stompin', Southern Style, Gospel Quartet Music" (Columbia, 1976) (LP)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Y'All Come Back Saloon" (Dot, 1977)
On this landmark 1977 album, the long-lived gospel quartet "went pop" and started recording secular country music. And it paid off handsomely! This includes their first Number One hit, the gooey, goopy "I'll Be True To You," as well as several other groovy early hits, such as the title track, and a cover of Brush Arbor's fab novelty song "Emmylou," about a guy who's really, really into Emmylou Harris. The Boys sang took the sleek vocal harmonies learned from years of singing as a gospel quartet right up to the top of the charts, but here they still weren't quite as slick and popped-up as they got in the '80s. Definitely worth checking out!
The Oak Ridge Boys "Room Service" (ABC, 1978)
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived" (ABC, 1979)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Together" (MCA, 1980)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Fancy Free" (MCA, 1981)
This album boasted two chart-topping singles, the irresistible "Elvira," which is flat-out the best song they ever made, and "I'm Settin' Fancy Free," a guilty-pleasure extravaganza which moves from a David Gates-like soft-pop, acoustic intro into a sleek, catchy chorus. The rest of the record wobbles around between pure '80s crap such as the Kenny Rogers-y "Dream Of Me" and slightly more robust material which, while still poppy, makes the most of their gospel-derived vocal techniques. While there are some album cuts that might be worth a listen, the rest of the record makes a pretty good case for buying their best-of collections
The Oak Ridge Boys "Bobbie Sue" (MCA, 1982)
The Boys at their commercial peak, with plenty of rock-friendly such as the oldies-esque, Chuck Berry-styled title track and the over-the-top super-sappy schmaltz of "I Wish You Were Here" and strange secular rehashes of gospel standards like "So Fine." It's archetypal '80s country-pop, with synthy elements mixing with a Sha-Na-Na nostalgia vibe... Mostly pretty fogettable, though I have to confess having a soft spot for "I Wish You Could Have Turned My Head (And Left My Heart Alone)," even if it does have that terrible lyrical bridge in the middle. And of course there's their goofy cover of The Band's "Up On Cripple Creek," which almost works... but not quite.
The Oak Ridge Boys "Christmas" (MCA, 1982)
The Oak Ridge Boys "American Made" (MCA, 1983)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Deliver" (MCA, 1983)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Step On Out" (MCA, 1985)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Seasons" (MCA, 1986)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Christmas Again" (MCA, 1986)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Where The Fast Lane Ends" (MCA, 1987)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Heartbeat" (MCA, 1987)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Monongahela" (MCA, 1988)
The Oak Ridge Boys "American Dreams" (MCA, 1989)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Unstoppable" (RCA, 1991)
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Long Haul" (RCA, 1992)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Country Christmas Eve" (Liberty, 1995)
The Boys sound a little long in the tooth, but this is about what you'd expect. A mix of barbershoppish Southern Gospel, retro-'50s rock and soft pop-country ballads, with a sleighbell here and there for good measure. No songs that really stand out, though... Most of the material is pretty strained. (Reissued in 2001 as I'll Be Home For Christmas.)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Sailing Towards Home" (Columbia, 1995)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Revival, v.1" (Halsey, 1997)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Revival, v.2" (Halsey, 1997)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Voices" (Intersound, 1999)
The Oak Ridge Boys "From The Heart" (Spring Hill, 2001)
The Oak Ridge Boys "An Inconvenient Christmas" (Spring Hill, 2002)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Colors" (Spring Hill, 2003)
As in the whole, "these colors don't run" thing... There's a saying in politics that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel... The same may be true, to a certain extent, for popular musicians who are getting a little long in the tooth... I mean, I suppose this album is okay for the OakRB true believers, but, honestly, the old duffers are dragging a little bit, and seem to have some trouble keeping things as, um... concise as they might have been. Still, it's heartfelt, and although the entire album isn't devoted to patriotic material (it might have been better if it was; the romantic material is a distraction), it does have its moments. Includes a WWII tribute called "G.I. Joe And Lillie," based on a book by the same title, which is a family history written by Oak Ridger Joe Bonsall, Jr., whose dad, Joe, Sr., went off to fight in WWII and made it back to start a family after helping fight overseas.
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Journey" (Spring Hill, 2004)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Common Thread" (Spring Hill, 2005)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Christmas Cookies" (Spring Hill, 2005)
The Oak Ridge Boys "Front Row Seats" (Spring Hill, 2006)
The Oak Ridge Boys "A Gospel Journey" (Gaither, 2009)
The Oak Ridge Boys "The Boys Are Back" (Quarterback, 2009)
The Oak Ridge Boys & The Dukes Of Dixieland "When Country Meets Dixie" (Leisure Music, 2011)
(Produced by James Stroud)
Two long-lived American heritage ensembles join forces for a fun, frollicking mix of trad-jazz and jovial country-pop. I wouldn't say this is the historymaking new genre it's been heralded as -- it sounds an awful lot like plain old Western Swing, with a New Orleans horn sound, rather than the Panhandle jazz of the 1930s -- but it is a surprisingly fun, lively outing, and certainly one of the more vigorous efforts by the Oak Ridgers in many a year. It's kinda a kick to hear some of their old Top 40 hits, like "Bobby Sue" and "Elvira" reorchestrated to make them into New Orleans piano stroll numbers; the rest of the repertoire is enjoyable as well, with a wide of American styles. Worth checking out!
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