Oak Ridge Boys Interview: Duane Allen Discusses ‘Rock of Ages’ Gospel Album
The Oak Ridge Boys' recently released album, Rock of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites, is a project that band member Duane Allen had been considering for quite some time -- but it took gospel music icon Bill Gaither to set things in motion.
"Bill Gaither called and said, ‘You know, I listen to country music a lot, and secondary country and classic country plays you all the time,'" Allen recalls to The Boot. Gaither continued, "'... When you have a lead, you’re so identifiable, and when you sing together, you have a sound like nobody else ... I wonder what it would sound like if we got those voices that everybody recognizes, and you sang the old hymns of the church. What would that sound like?'"
The 15-track record includes songs that each Oak Ridge Boys member -- Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban -- chose for the track listing. Allen explains that he instructed his bandmates, "... I want you to imagine yourselves as a little boy in a country church. There’s three pews in the choir, and you’re in the front row, and you’re singing at the top of your lungs, just imagining someday you’ll get to sing in a quartet."
Each of the Oak Ridge Boys selected their favorite gospel songs and classic hymns, songs "that you can almost do from memory. A song that you love, that means something to you," Allen says, further explaining his instructions. The songs each of the men are featured on are the ones that they picked out for the project.
The end result, Allen says, is one of the most heartfelt recordings that the award-winning group has ever completed, featuring classic hymns like "In the Sweet By and By" and "Blessed Assurance," as well as guest vocals by Merle Haggard and the Isaacs.
"I turned to Joe, and I said, ‘I want to hear you do "I Love to Tell the Story." I want to hear you sing that song," Allen recounts. "He said, ‘Well, I want to hear you sing "Farther Along" like you did at George Jones’ funeral. And Golden said, ‘I want to sing "Time Has Made a Change in Me," because it has. I said, ‘Well, that’s not a hymn, but I think it will work with these hymns, because that’s what we’re trying to say in these songs. It’s the same message."
The group used Ben Isaacs, a member of the Isaacs who is also a producer, to record the project, in a studio that Allen built in 1970 and has since sold to Ricky Skaggs. They decided to break the mold that the award-winning band has used for decades and instead record the project with all four men singing live in the studio.
"I wanted to do a stripped-down album," Allen says. "The way we normally record in Nashville, we hire all of the greatest musicians in the world to come in and punch in the time clock, and they work for three hours and try to get as many songs as you can in that period of time. You don’t really record with them; you just do a work track. But you basically come in days after, and you sing your part. You’re basically doing karaoke to your own tracks. That’s the way we’ve done it for years, and we’re successful at it. [But] that’s [only] one way of doing it."
Still, Allen's vision for Rock of Ages was a formidable undertaking, even for seasoned singers.
"I told Bill, ‘I want to do it backwards. I want to bring the Oak Ridge Boys in with very simple instrumentation and record the Oak Ridge Boys first,'" Allen recalls. "'I want to get the magic of the four-vocalist, four-part harmony. I want to hear the magic in the singing right in your face. I want to capture that before I even concentrate on anything instrumentally. And have basic instrumentation. No flowers, no bells, no whistles, no production. I want to capture vocal magic.'
"It was all through feeling," Allen continues. "It was all emotion. The whole thing came out like that."