The Oak Ridge Boys
First off, let’s answer the obvious question: Why, in a just-initiated summer concert season, are we even talking about the Oak Ridge Boys? After all, the vocal group whose gospel roots extend back to the 1940s but revealed a strong country-pop hitmaking pedigree that made it one of the most bankable acts of the 1980s, is always around. The Oaks plays multiple regional venues every year. In fact, the quartet long ago became such a steadfast and unsinkable performance enterprise that I once wrote, ahead of an annual appearance at the Kentucky State Fair, the list of living beings that will survive a nuclear holocaust will be cockroaches and the Oak Ridge Boys.
So why make a fuss about the Oaks in 2018? Well, here’s the deal: This year, two major Americana talents have been especially vocal in their support of the group — enough, in fact, to warrant a renewed look at its place in the modern country age.
The most recent came from an artist who lauded the Oaks as recently as last month from the very Renfro Valley Entertainment Center stage the group will return to on Saturday: veteran Americana and country renegade Steve Earle. As he completed a full performance of his breakthrough 1988 album “Copperhead Road” at the venue, he waxed quite poetic about the Oaks. The catalyst seemed to be the album’s final track, a Christmas tune called “Nothing But a Child,” which Earle said he extensively but unsuccessfully lobbied for inclusion on an Oaks holiday album. From there, he explained how the group — in particular, former bass singer Noel Fox (who died in 2003) were instrumental in getting Earle signed to a publishing contract and, later, to MCA Records so that he could he make his major label debut record, 1986’s “Guitar Town.”
“If it wasn’t for the Oak Ridge Boys, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Earle told the Renfro Valley crowd
The other hero is a producer who the Oaks hired as an unknown in 2009 to oversee the album “The Boys are Back” that began a creative resurgence for the group. He returned to produce the newest Oaks album, “17th Avenue Revival.”
The producer’s name is Dave Cobb, the Americana pioneer famous for fashioning prominent records by John Prine, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Zac Brown Band, Amanda Shires, Lake Street Dive, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Chris Isaak and dozens of other acts.
Not surprisingly, what Cobb achieved with the Oaks wasn’t unlike what Rick Rubin did with numerous other veteran artists, especially Johnny Cash — a stripped down record that peeled away the customary Nashville gloss to reveal the group’s true abilities. For the Oaks, that meant recording much of the vocal harmonizing around a single microphone with minimal overdubbing as well as a repertoire boasting songs by Brandy Clark, Vince Gill and Jamey Johnson.
Is this enough to recommend a drive to Renfro Valley on a summer weekend where all kinds of newer generation artists are vying for their share of your attention and entertainment budget? That will need to be your call. But just remember, Steve Earle and Dave Cobb both think the Oaks are pretty cool. Just saying.
A Castle, a Festival and Jerry Douglas
How fitting that the opening night of the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Parkway, falls on the same evening — Thursday, June 7 — as a return solo dobro performance by Jerry Douglas at The Kentucky Castle, 230 Pisgah Pike in Versailles.
It was roughly 25 years ago, that Douglas, a one-time Lexingtonian, found himself playing an afternoon solo set at the Festival when the entire campground and stage area was hit with a brownout. Douglas’ performance had started only moments earlier, but in an instant, all amplification was lost. A veteran of more than a few festivals, as well as the technical snafus that inevitably came with them, Douglas hardly lost a step. He took his dobro, headed out into the crowd and played in truly unplugged fashion as an audience quickly gathered around him.
“I remember that well,” Douglas said prior to a solo show at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in 2013. “I went to the only shade tree I could see. It was certainly better than whatever I would have been able to do up there onstage. Besides, it was fun. It was nice to be out there with the people.”
On Thursday, Douglas and the Festival will carry on separately. Douglas will be the second featured artist for the Concerts at the Castle series at the Kentucky Castle (7:30 p.m.; $35) while Flatt Lonesome, Junior Siskand Ramblers Choice and the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys will usher in this year’s Festival of the Bluegrass (6:30 pm.; $20-$100).