The Oak Ridge Boys - It's Only Natural
By: Bobby Peacock
Lately, it seems that Cracker Barrel, the down-home restaurant/gift shop that somehow manages a dollop of Southern charm no matter where you are, has found a new niche in exclusive album releases. Luminaries like George Jones and Dolly Parton, modern hitmakers like the Zac Brown Band, even bluegrass enchantress Alison Krauss are just a few of the acts under their umbrella. And now, The Oak Ridge Boys get their turn with their first Cracker Barrel release, It's Only Natural.
I normally try to keep my album reviews in fairly straightforward fashion, but since this is an album that offers both old and new, I'll split the review into "old" and "new". First up, new. The tuneful "Whatcha Gonna Do," co-written by Sherrié "I've had more hits for other artists than myself" Austin, is a breezy, catchy song about taking the next step in a relationship. It has a cute hook of "Now you caught her, whatcha gonna do?" and it shows off Sterban's basso profundo pipes on the "Whatcha gonna, whatcha whatcha gonna gonna do?" hook.
"Before I Die" is a beautiful, slow song perfectly suited for four old guys. It's about all the little things (go to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, sail in the Gulf of Mexico) and not-so-little things (swallow his pride and admit that daddy was right, turn to God) that he wants to get in while he's still alive. A younger person could certainly carry this song, but the slight grain of age in the Oaks' voices (Joe Bonsall, the youngest, is 63) gives it even more gravity. A spare arrangement and a lyric about not overlooking the little things in life are the key ingredients in "The Shade Comes Free with the Tree." Indeed, it's sometimes those things that you can't buy, like the beautiful country scenery, that are some of the better offerings in life.
Very surprisingly, Joe actually shows off fine some writing chops in "Sacrifice…for Me," a soft, heartfelt tribute to the sacrifices that soldiers, firemen and other heroes give. It's framed nicely into little stories about a Marine in Vietnam, and a firefighter who dies while rescuing 9/11 victims. Overall, the originals have only one weak track. "Wish You Could Have Been There" has a decent enough melody, but its unfocused lyrics stray from its theme of wishing that someone you trust in would help you, and the production inches dangerously close to Rascal Flatts levels of bombast.
Now, the re-recordings. "True Heart" and "Lucky Moon" both get amped up a little with some guitar and Hammond organ, while "Gonna Take a Lot of River" (a personal favorite of mine) gets loose and funky, with plenty of piano. "No Matter How High" goes in the opposite direction; despite its electric guitar, it's otherwise a little more relaxed than the original, with a strummed acoustic guitar as the primary emphasis. And I honestly didn't expect them to manage making the milestone song "Elvira" sound new, but son of a gun, they did. Tenor Joe Bonsall sounds like he's having a blast, and Sterban's "oom papa mow mow"s rumble just as deep as ever. However, "Beyond Those Years" suffers slightly from a less distinctive production — at the very least, couldn't they have kept the saxophone?
Most of these songs came from the late 1980s-early 1990s, when the late Steve Sanders frequently got lead vocal in William Lee Golden's absence. Surprisingly, it's Sterban who gets lead on "Lucky Moon," and despite the completely different range, he still fits the song like a glove. Bonsall is a little too strident at times on "Beyond Those Years," but the other replacement vocals are well-chosen. Lyrically, the songs still hold up too. "No Matter How High" still has its widely appealing theme of taking inspiration from anyone, whether it be a loved one or a family member. "True Heart" is still a tuneful number about fidelity. "Lucky Moon" is still about giving a crumbling relationship one more chance to patch up. And "Gonna Take a Lot of River" still has "Monongahela" in it.
The far less obvious re-recording is "Louisiana Red Dirt Highway," which Golden released in 1990 on Mercury/Polygram. Although a #1 video on CMT, this song never even charted. And that's a darn shame, because it's a beautiful, detailed song about leaving backwoods Louisiana for the big city. As he passes the one-lane wooden bridge, the tarpaper shacks and the sawmill, Golden sounds as if he's about to tear up, both on the original and on the Oaks' re-recording.
Even though I'm a big Oak Ridge Boys fan, I honestly didn't expect any surprises on this album. I mean, half the disc is stuff I've heard before. And 20 years removed from their last big hit (which, incidentally, was "Lucky Moon"), you'd think they'd have a hard time finding decent songs and production like so many other "older" acts do. But overall, the Oaks have put together another fine entry in their musical catalog. This is definitely an album to pick up while you're waiting for your chicken and dumplings. And while you're at it, can you get me some candy?
Buy: Cracker Barrel Online, or better yet, go to the store and grab a copy with dinner!