Oak Ridge Boys “Rock of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites” Album Review

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Prime Cuts: Sweet Jesus (with Merle Haggard), In the Garden, Peace Within

Oak Ridge Boys doesn't have an expiration date.  Normally after an artists has had outrun his or her shelf life on the charts, it's a challenge for them to continue churning out fresh and invigorating records.  Often these artists will either resign to re-cutting their hits of former glory or they just become content to retire at Branson as a live act.  Not the Oak Ridge Boys.  Ever since 1973 to 1992, a year shy of 20 years, the Oaks were a formidable as far as the country charts were concerned.  Over their illustrious career, they have had placed 17 #1 songs on the chart, including "Elvira," "Bobbie Sue," "American Made," "No Matter How High," and many others.  However, with the advent of the hat acts roped in by Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black, the Oaks became an emeritus act by the turn of the 90s.  They managed to still inch their way back to the top 10 one final time with "Lucky Moon" in 1990.  Their final RCA Nashville Records album "The Long Haul" sealed their fate that they were no longer the chart blazers they once were.

Instead of retreating into semi-retirement and become disgruntle about the fickle state of the music industry, the Oaks began recording albums not for the sake of a hit record, but for the sake of music itself.  After their RCA Nashville tenure, the band recorded a whopping 14 albums each of them demonstrating a unique creative twist.  Over the last decade or so, they have had recorded country albums, a live event, bluegrass endeavours, patriotic shout-outs and a few Christian-themed albums.  Recently, they have worked out a deal with Bill Gaither's Gaither Music as well as the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel in releasing more Gospel-centered material, returning back to their mother's milk. 

"Rock of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites," as the titular indicates, is the Oaks first 15 song album filled with hymns and two newer songs.  With Ben Isaacs and the Oaks' own Duane Allen in the producers' chair, this album is a back to basics project.  Here the minimalist approach is taken where backings sound sparse at times even bluegrassy with the cynosure placed on the Oaks' four part harmonies.  Of the two new songs, Merle Haggard joins the boys in the newly written "Sweet Jesus" (a co-write between Merle Haggard & Kenny Vernon) where Haggard does a spoken recitation before joining the Oaks on this delightful tune.  The other "newer" entry "Peace Within" is co-written by Garth Brooks' producer Allen Reynolds, Susan Taylor and Dickey Lee.  Formerly cut by the Forester Sisters, the bluegrassy "Peace Within" speaks of how the storms of life can never erode the peace God places in the hearts of those who trust Him.

Of the hymns, it's the more obscure ones that really stand out. Joe Bonsall does a bouncy take of Charles Wesley's "Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee" making it into a celebrative shuffle.  Emmylou Harris had offered a definitive version of "Angel Band" in the late 80s, here the Oaks show that they can give the "Luxury Liner" singer a run for her money.  And they re-invented "Just a Little Talk with Jesus" and made it into a bluesy excursion that shows the team's creativity.  The stacked harmonies of the boys are given full display in their emotionally stirring version of "In the Garden," which is arguably the epitome of the record.  Over all, in a milieu where older acts are already hanging up their spurs and spending time in Branson, it's a blessing that the Oaks are still at the forefront giving us their creative best.  "Rock of Ages" is no exception.

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