In a year when Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson dusted off their mics to release new material, country legends the Oak Ridge Boys have done the same on “Front Porch Singin’ “ to wholesome and admirable results.
The album that started with a simple “front porch” inspired studio session spurred on by producer Dave Cobb became a steady, wise and resonant gospel record featuring 11 tracks of both new material and covers, with traces of rockabilly added in for good measure.
As a whole, the album serves as a humble, country regal and peaceful effort from a band that’s been singing together since the current lineup was established in the 1960s.
The gospel sound is pervasive on the album, with its simple and familiar resolving melodies carried along at thoughtful, measured pace not only by the iconic vocals of the Oak Ridge Boys quartet, but also by softly sustained organ, carefully played piano and bits of twanging guitar where fitting.
“Front Porch Singin’ “ has much to impart in terms of both religiously based and life experience gained wisdom through a number of independent writers who have lent their pens to the effort.
Duane Allen sings about a father and the lessons he imparted to a son on “Good Old Ways”:
“Hard times are hard, but they make you who you are. And the lessons you’ve learned along the way are meant to be used often, lest they be forgotten. Life ain’t always made of good ol’ days. And I’m a proud member of the old ways.”
Recorded at RCA Studio A with the aid of Cobb before the U.S. was perceived to have crested the hill in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the album’s inherent positivity might serve as much-needed mental and emotional medicine for those needing an intangible boost to lean across the proverbial finish line of the trying era.
“Love, Light and Healing” speaks on the necessity of peace, calm, comfort, home, family and faith in a soulfully sung prayer of simplicity:
“We pray for peace, we pray for calm. We wish you open hearts and open arms. Please grant us mercy and happiness. Let us rejoice in the joy we have.”
Echoing vocal reverb gives a few of the songs, particularly those sung without instrumental backing, a timeless feel, such as on the moving spatial harmonies present on the quartet’s takes on “Life’s Railway to Heaven” and “Swing Down Chariot.”
And there are a few purely fun jaunts along the way, too.
“Rock My Soul” serves as the greatest exception to the purely country gospel rule, picking up the tempo with considerable classic rockabilly pace and guitar licks that wind in and out to provide definition while staccato harmony accents and Richard Sterban’s bass vocals take the lead. It’s a similar style on the Oak Ridge Boys’ rendition of “Swing Down Chariot,” though the latter is executed without instrumentation.
The quartet’s version of “Unclouded Day” was the first track laid down upon Cobb’s request for a “front porch” sound. Its mid tempo, trotting head bob with a steady beat harkens to a simpler, happier place far away with honky-tonk guitar riffing underneath.
While there are moments that see various group members showing their unavoidable vocal aging, it’s more along the vine of a fine wine than miscue.
Even when the occasional sustain turns into a vibrato warble of sorts, it happens much in the same way it does for the old-timer who has sat behind you in church for three decades yet still manages to impress you with their capability and well-earned self-confidence every week.
Particularly impressive is Sterban’s “still got it” bass lead performances on “Red River Valley” and “Rock My Soul.”
And the record offers not only its experience and accompanying wisdom, but also its non-begrudging acceptance of the woes of the world and death. It meditates on the innate hope and victory one can find within those things, though the latter is largely through a religious lens.
Either way, hearing men in their 70s sing on being prepared for and even embracing the inescapable march of time as they ready themselves for the other side and those who might wait for them is as soul stirring a combination of artist and subject matter as there is, particularly when the trials of the day are considered.
Such musings can be found on tracks such as “Promised Land,” “When He Calls” and the tear-inducing “Till I See You Again,” which contains the passage:
“Here I am dreamin’ again. Another sunrise remembering when. We used to write them all down. Through all the space and the time. Somewhere above all the stars in the sky. Patiently wait for my hand. Till I see you again.”
When considering what is officially the group’s 66th studio album and potential albums to come, country and gospel fans alike might count themselves lucky for each passing effort the group has left to share with the world.