Has there been a music special on television in the last few years that didn't feature the Oak Ridge Boys or Alabama? The video appeal of these two phenomenally successful acts is just one indication of their significance to country music. For good or bad, the Oak Ridge Boys and Alabama represent the vanguard of modern country music. Here's where country plunders rock style and image and becomes contemporary in sound and visual appeal.
Both acts are groups in the rock tradition, emphasizing the individuality and identifiability of their members. Their dynamic and well- choreographed stage shows are designed to work on television, in a Vegas showroom or on the stage of a county fair. Intricate vocal harmonies, special lighting effects, electric guitars and keyboards, big pop hooks and a circus atmosphere all supplant the fading tradition of a misery-ridden hillbilly solemnly pleading into a microphone.
Within the context of rock music, there is certainly nothing new or startling about the Oak Ridge Boys' post-doowop pop sound. Their most famous hit, "Elvira," was really little more than a reworking of the Coasters' "Searchin'," minus the classic buffoonery.
Their latest album, "American Made" (MCA-5390), shows how thin their chart-busting formula is. The moment this ex-gospel quartet strays from its forte--up-tempo rock 'n' roll that exploits four-part vocal playfulness and one catchy line--it falls into anonymity.
In fact, the album's title song sums it up. The Boys trade verses until they reach the unforgettable, if inane line, "My baby is American made," which they manage to squeeze in 11 times in 2 1/2 minutes.
Only a few songs are effective on "American Made" and they are all rockers that take advantage of the group's exuberance. "Heart on the Line" is a piece of "Elvira"-like rhythm and blues featuring sax and piano work, while "Love Song" features some dramatic, gospel-style singing and insistent horn charts. Almost everything else here can be tossed onto the heap of overarranged, grandiose pop ballads that have become Nashville's forte.
If some of these songs aren't bad, especially Troy Seals' sinful "Down the Hall," the fact is, the Oak Ridge Boys don't have a single convincing singer. They are only persuasive when they act like they are rediscovering the immense charms of vocal group rock 'n' roll and, unfortunately, that's not often enough.
To rock fans, there's nothing revelatory about Alabama's music, either. Alabama plays an orthodox brand of country-rock, not unlike that of the Eagles and other West Coast groups of the early '70s. The crossover success (from pop to country) of the Eagles and their hits like "Lyin' Eyes" probably laid the groundwork for this quartet's success.
Alabama's latest release, "The Closer You Get" (RCA AHL1-4663), is filled with pleasing country-rock confections, all granted a soothing veneer through the band's rich harmonies. Throughout, there is a youthful conviction in the deliveries and a sincere commitment to the southern way of life that helps bolster the otherwise predictable musical and lyrical ploys.
The hit-bound title tune, "The Closer You Get," is exactly the kind of mid-tempo rocker Alabama specializes in. However, despite an irresistible hook, soaring harmonies and tough guitar lines, this song as well as the rest of their love songs are a lot less fun than the band's vibrant tributes to country life. "Red River" and "Dixieland Delight" are just two of their paeans to the pleasures of a rural raising. Both songs feature Charlie Daniels-style mountain guitar picking and fiddling, as the band rambles over the joys of skinny-dipping, catfish stew, bullfrogs and so on.
As easy as it is to like Alabama, its artistic future depends not so much on sacrificing its obvious commercial knack as on deepening compositions lyrically and stylistically. One song here, "She Put the Sad in All of His Songs," provides a hopeful prelude to this type of growth. It is the kind of haunting ballad, full of melancholy and even some alienation, that the Eagles mastered. Moreover, unlike the Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama's lead singer, Randy Owen, has a strong country voice with more than a touch of Merle Haggard's rich baritone.