The Oak Ridge Boys have been putting out several great albums in the past few years. When the band announced they would be working again with producer Dave Cobb on two upcoming albums, I was excited to hear the news. Cobb helped the singing legends go in a different direction on their last CD 17th Avenue Revival (where you can read the review in the archives by typing in the search engine). When the act announced that one of the CDs was going to be another Christmas record, I was a little shocked, since they just put out a Christmas release in 2016, called Celebrate Christmas (again you can read my review in the archives).
I have stated here many times that I am not a huge fan of live CDs or Christmas records. Don’t get me wrong, I am not being a Scrooge here, but most Christmas records are the same standard songs that have been done so many times that there is no new way to approach a holiday release. I do enjoy several Christmas CDs (Barry Manilow, Michael Bublè , and the last one by the Oaks), but my collection of the genre is limited for that reason, preferring original songs for the season, as opposed to the standards.
The Oaks’ CD, Down Home Christmas, is a departure from those that purchased the last Christmas release of the singing group, where not only the vocals were upfront, but a powerful group of musicians and orchestration were also featured. Here, the focus is purely on the vocals, with limited musicianship, which gives the songs its appeal and a different take on the genre, using a throwback style to a simpler era and time.
There are eight new songs out of ten, with two being the standard songs, “Silent Night” and “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing Grace” has gotten quite a bit of media attention the past year for when the Oaks sang it at the funeral of their friend and former President George H.W. Bush. A lead in description on the song by Joe Bonsall gives the ending of the album an emotional flavor to a song many have heard before, dedicating the song to anyone who had lost loved ones in the past, and giving the listener a verbal hope that the people will be connected again in the afterlife, which also expresses the band’s Christian outlook in life.
The CD opens with “The Family Piano,” a song with strong piano and guitar, written by Aaron Raitiere, who helped contribute on the last album (co-writing the song “Brand New Star”). Raitiere also has written with Dave Cobb before, where acts like the band Europe recorded songs on their albums. This opener is more geared towards a Bill Gaither style audience, in which the song is not too forceful, but still a pleasant opener that takes the listener back to the living room days of singing music with the family for entertainment.
The song “Angels” is a wonderful tune that encourages being thankful that God has given angels to those that believe in him, regardless of how good and bad life has been so far. One of my biggest complaints about the Christmas season is that many are not thankful for what they have, when a month earlier they are “thankful” for one day. Duane Allen and William Lee Golden share lead vocals on this song. This will take you back to a small country church, with the vocals stripped down to basics that you could feel the echo of the voices coming through the rafters of the wooden roof. Duane Allen has long been one of the most underrated vocalists (and arrangers) in any type of music, and he just gets better every album at an age where many just don’t have the chops anymore.
“Bring Daddy Home For Christmas” is a touching song about a child that is missing their father (for reasons not really given), but combines commentary with singing. Allen starts telling the story, as if reading from a book, giving a throwback feel to us kids who grew up watching the old Rankin/Bass specials on television, or bought the records where the narrator would set up the song, and tell the listener what was going on in between the vocals.
The single from the CD, “Reindeer on the Roof,” is a fun sing along track that will be stuck in your head long after the song is over. The video is humorous with guest appearances and even masked men looking like lucha wrestlers singing along to the song. Bass man Richard Sterban sings lead on the song, which gives the group a new standard for the holidays, and could turn out to be the Christmas “Elvira” (The biggest hit of the group’s career that made the pop charts in the early 1980s) with its simple, but easy to remember chorus. Although I feel Sterban really shines on the ballads, this is up there with his best songs, I mean really, how many bass singers are still around today?
“Hallelujah Emmanuel” is one of the few songs with stronger drumming by Chris Powell, as most of the songs are played with brushes or barely heard. Once again, the power from the last CD is not here, but is more focused on the vocals this time around. Joe Bonsall and Richard Sterban share vocal duties on here. Bonsall is known for his wonderful on stage presence, but his vocal skills shine here.
“Down Home Christmas” has all the members of the group singing together throughout the track, and is reminiscent of the style of John Denver. There is some humor in the lyrics, such as “Granny is a ‘cussin'” and that there is “Every kind of pie” a person would want on the table to eat. This song is about family and getting together for the season. This is not a religious song per say, but one that celebrates traditional family values that the band is known to promote.
William Lee Golden has gotten my respect within the past several years, where in my older age, I have gone to respect his vocal ability more than I did when I was younger. His style fits beautifully on the bluesy ballad “South Alabama Christmas,” which salutes those that do not have chimneys (the narrator lives in a double wide trailer) or snow during the holidays. Sterban can be heard nicely on this track as well, along with the nice piano playing on this song written by Jamey Johnson, Buddy Cannon, and Bill Anderson.
With the vocals being the focus on the CD, “Don’t Go Pullin’ on Santa Claus’ Beard” is another throwback to the 1950s novelty Christmas songs in style and feel. Joe Bonsall takes the lead, with help from Sterban on this humorous track. Fans of the film A Christmas Story would enjoy the style and lyrics on this song.
The Oak Ridge Boys have found a way to make a Christmas CD enjoyable with a new perspective on the over saturated genre. The run time of the total album is just around 30 minutes, with each song around the three to four minute mark, so there is nothing extended or fillers here. This is a multi-generational album, where the older fans of traditional, old time holiday music will enjoy its traditional flavor, but the current fans of the band will also enjoy the light-hearted songs. One could see the likes of Jimmy Stewart sitting in the living room with his children singing to the songs next to the piano, or the 1980s children who grew up on the humorous novelty acts while wrapping their gifts. Add some traditional Gospel music into the cookie mix here, and you have a new treat with fun, praise, and togetherness celebrating God, family, and a simple life.
For someone that has tired out of the standard Christmas releases, preferring original penned songs, this was a surprise for me, which shows the iconic Boys are still proving their talent and risk taking.
The Oak Ridge Boys Down Home Christmas is available now from Lightning Rod Records.
Track List: 1. The Family Piano 2. Angels 3. Bring Daddy Home For Christmas 4. Reindeer on the Roof 5.Silent Night 6. Hallelujah Emmanuel 7. Down Home Christmas
8. South Alabama Christmas 9. Don’t Go Pullin’ On Santa Claus’ Beard
10. Amazing Grace
The Oak Ridge Boys are: Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban.
You can find all things Oak Ridge Boys at : http://www.oakridgeboys.com