On their new album, Back Home Again, William Lee Golden, Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall and Richard Sterban reconnect with songs that have come to feel like old friends. “We set out to recreate the songs that inspired us to be singers and it really worked out great,” Golden says. “It was a great idea, and when we were in there singing it, sure enough it just took us back to childhood, hearing some of these songs. It was a thrilling thing to do. It truly goes back to the heart of the music that inspired us to be the Oak Ridge Boys — to sing gospel music before we expanded our repertoire to add country.”
From Golden’s heartfelt take on John Denver’s gem “Back Home Again” to Bonsall’s poignant cover of Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” to their vibrant revival of the Oaks’ own classic “Heaven Bound,” their latest collection has all the warmth and easygoing charm of a sun-splashed porch swing on a hot summer day.
“I’m not exactly sure what we have except I know we have a good project,” Bonsall says, acknowledging the album’s diversity. “We’ve got some really cool old-time gospel songs. We’ve got some great harmony, great acoustic-driven production and a little touch of classic country with Ban-Joey here singing ‘Coat of Many Colors.’”
Bonsall, a.k.a. Ban-Joey, admits he was initially hesitant when producer Ben Isaacs suggested he cover the vintage Dolly Parton hit. “Are you crazy? ‘Coat of Many Colors?’” Bonsall asked incredulously. “There are just some things in life that you don’t touch. I have so much love and respect for Dolly.”
In coaxing him into recording the tune, Isaacs appealed to Bonsall’s love for the banjo and invited him to play some banjo on the track. “I played on ‘Coat of Many Colors’ — just put a little texture in,” says Bonsall, who also plays banjo on “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” “I think I caught a little groove that made it work. I was afraid of it, but Ben Isaacs is a good man. He convinced me that I could sing this song — that I could find a place in my voice where this song will really work. He said, ‘Trust me on this’ and I trusted him on it, and then when he said I could play banjo on it, I said, ‘Alright let’s go!’”
Isaacs was thrilled about producing the Oaks for the first time. “It was a blast. The guys are amazing. They still sing as good as they did years ago,” he says. “For me, it was a treat.”
Bill Gaither and Gaither Music Group president Barry Jennings enlisted Isaacs to produce the Oaks’ new album. “It was an honor to even be asked,” he says. He made the choice to employ a retro approach in capturing the gospel numbers. “They wanted to revisit some hymns and familiar songs. I tried to take them to where music was somewhere between the ’50s and ’60s quartet-wise, but maybe a little more modern.”
It was Isaacs’ idea to have Golden sing “Back Home Again.” “I have always loved that song,” he says, “and when I was thinking about songs for them, it’s one I thought about for William Lee, just to hear his country drawl on that song.”
“I love that song,” Golden says, “and traveling like we do, it just rings home to me.”
Longtime Oaks fans will appreciate the fact that they’ve included the rousing “Heaven Bound.” “Sometimes we’ll end the show with that song, after we do ‘Elvira,’” Golden says. “I’m sure we’ll do it more often since it’s going to be on the new gospel project.”
“That was a big song for us back in the ’70s,” Bonsall adds. We’ve sung it on our show ever since — it’s a fan favorite. When our fans see that they are going to have a recording of ‘Heaven Bound,’ they are going to love it. The song has stood the test of time.”
As with all Oaks projects, each member has an opportunity to shine on the album. “Richard did an outstanding job on ‘Why Me Lord,’” Golden says. Another highlight is Allen’s compelling rendition of “I Get To.” Isaacs took the song to the Oaks more than a year ago and suggested it for the new album. Since then it’s become a huge hit for Jeff & Sheri Easter.
In listening to the album, one of the tracks that jumps out of the speaker is “Gettin’ Up Morning.” “Ben wanted me to go in and lay some of that down, so I just went crazy,” Bonsall says with a laugh. “I came in and Ben says, ‘I think we’ve got it!’ and I said ‘You’re kidding me? I thought I was messing around.’ He says, ‘No, that thing you’re doing right there, I think it’s cool.’ I was just playing. I was growling and stuff, but Ben loved it.”
Whether cutting loose and having fun in the studio or performing in front of a sold-out crowd, the Oaks continue to infuse everything they do with passion and professionalism. They also continue to be one of the most prolific acts in the business. It’s been less than a year since they released It’s Only Natural through Cracker Barrel, which spawned the single “What’cha Gonna Do,” featuring a video with YouTube sensation Keenan Cahill. Never resting on their laurels, the Oaks are heading into the studio this spring with Isaacs to record a new Christmas collection.
“This will be our sixth Christmas album and we have a very successful Christmas tour each year,” says Golden. “It’s become so successful, we used to not do Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, but we ran out of dates from Thanksgiving until Christmas because we were working every day! A lot of the promoters were still wanting us to come to their cities to do Christmas shows, so we had to back it up and this past year we started doing Christmas shows the second week of November!”
The Oaks show no signs of slowing down. Between the fans, the music and the friendships they’ve forged over the years, the rewards are too great to consider retirement. “The friendship with Bill Gaither has just been enormous for us because it brings us back full circle to our roots,” Bonsall says. “Nobody loves great gospel music like Bill Gaither, and no one has done more for the gospel music genre than Bill and Gloria Gaither. They are top shelf of everything and to be friends with Bill and have him appreciate what we do, it has just been mind-boggling.
“This has been a fun project and I’m just honored to be a part of it,” Bonsall continues. “It’s great to work with Ben Isaacs, and I really appreciate Bill Gaither giving us the reins to go on this.”
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