One of the longest-running groups in country music, the Oak Ridge Boys started life as a gospel quartet before gradually modernizing their style and moving into secular country-pop. Yet even at the height of their popularity in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s - when they were big enough to cross over to the pop charts - their sound always remained deeply rooted in country gospel harmony.
Their existence dates all the way back to World War II, circa 1942-1943, when a Knoxville, Tennessee, group began performing gospel songs in nearby Oak Ridge, the home of an atomic bomb research facility. The group’s members also performed in a larger aggregation called Wally Fowler & the Georgia Clodhoppers, which recorded for Capitol. However, lead singer Fowler decided to focus on gospel music in 1945. Dubbed the Oak Ridge Quartet, the group first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry that year and made their first recordings in 1947 with a lineup of Fowler, Lon “Deacon” Freeman, Curly Kinsey, and Johnny New.
Numerous personnel shifts ensued over the next few years, particularly in 1949, when the entire group split from Fowler; at that point, he hired a completely different group, the Bob Weber-led Calvary Quartet, to assume the Oak Ridge name. With a core of Fowler and Weber, plus a revolving-door cast of supporting vocalists, the group became one of the top draws on the Southern gospel circuit, continuing up to the end of 1956. At that point, Fowler disbanded the quartet and sold the name to group member Smitty Gatlin, who organized a new lineup in early 1957. In 1961, Gatlin changed their name to the Oak Ridge Boys, made them a full-time professional act, and started to modernize their sound on record with fuller arrangements and elements of country and folk. Future mainstay William Lee Golden joined as the group’s baritone vocalist in 1964, and when Gatlin retired to become a full-time minister two years later, the group, acting on Golden’s recommendation, hired ex-Southernairs singer Duane Allen as his replacement on lead vocals.
With bass singer Noel Fox and tenor singer Willie Wynn, the Oak Ridge Boys continued to broaden their appeal by adapting their sound to the times, adding a drummer to their backing band and incorporating bits of pop and even rock into their country gospel style. As a result, they grew into one of the most popular gospel acts of the late ‘60s, despite purist criticism over their secular influences and increasingly long-haired image. They even won their first Grammy in 1970 for “Talk About the Good Times”. Fox and Wynn were replaced by Richard Sterban (ex-Keystone Quartet) and Philadelphia native Joe Bonsall in 1972 and 1973, respectively, and this lineup would remain intact for the next decade and a half.
In 1973, they recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family called “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup”, which brought them their first appearance on the country charts. In 1975, they opened a series of tour dates for Roy Clark, whose manager was highly impressed and encouraged them to try their hands at secular country. The Oak Ridge Boys signed with Columbia later that year but found the initial transition a rough one: they split their time between country and gospel, and without a strong identity their sales dropped. The resulting financial problems nearly forced them to disband, and a discouraged Columbia gave up on them after the 1976 single “Family Reunion” barely charted, even though label mate Paul Simon had tapped them to sing backup on his hit “Slip Slidin’ Away”.
Fortunately, they got another chance with MCA and scored a breakout Top Five hit in 1977 with “Y’all Come Back Saloon”, the title song from their label debut. The follow-up, “You’re the One”, reached number two, and their next album, 1978’s Room Service, gave them their first number one hit in “I’ll Be True to You” as well as two more Top Five hits in “Cryin’ Again” and “Come on In.”.
Thus established as country hitmakers, the Oak Ridge Boys embarked on a run of chart success that would last through the ‘80s. Golden stopped cutting his hair and beard altogether, giving the group a hugely recognizable visual signature as well. They hit number one again in 1980 with “Trying to Love Two Women”, but it was the following year that would make them a genuine phenomenon. Their recording of “Elvira”, an obscure, doo wop-style novelty song from the ‘60s, became a major, Grammy-winning crossover smash. Not only did it hit number one on the country charts, but its infectious “oom-pop-a-mow-mow” bass vocal hook boosted it into the Top Five on the pop charts. Its accompanying album, Fancy Free, became their first to top the country charts, not to mention their biggest seller ever. The title cut of their chart-topping 1982 follow-up, Bobbie Sue, also went number one country and nearly made the pop Top Ten as well. American Made’s title track also topped the charts in 1983, as did its follow-up, “Love Song”. In early 1984 Deliver became their third number one country album, and they landed two more number one singles that year with “Everyday” and “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes”. The Oaks scored three Number Ones in 1985 with: “Little Things”, “Make My Life with You”, and “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend”.
The Oak Ridge Boys’ sales began to slow a bit in the latter half of the ‘80s, but they still produced big hits with regularity. They hit number one in 1987 (“It Takes a Little Rain”, “This Crazy Love”), 1988 (“Gonna Take a Lot of River”), and 1990 (“No Matter How High”), giving them a total of 16 career country chart-toppers (and 29 Top Ten hits). However, by that point, the group’s longtime lineup had split - Golden, whose mountain-man appearance was increasingly supported by his rugged lifestyle, was given the boot in 1987 in an attempt to remake the group’s image. He was replaced by longtime backing-band guitarist Steve Sanders and sued his former band mates, eventually settling out of court. In 1991, the Oak Ridge Boys parted ways with MCA and signed with RCA, but after just two albums, it was apparent that their commercial prime had passed, and the relationship ended.
The group returned to traditional-style country gospel on occasion during the ‘90s and continued to tour. Meanwhile, Sanders’ marital problems worsened, causing him to leave the group in late 1995; Golden and the other members resolved their differences, and he returned at their New Year’s Eve show that year; they still performed often, notably in Branson, Missouri. Sadly, Sanders shot and killed himself in 1998. Fox moved on to run the group’s publishing arm and later became a high-ranking music executive. He passed away in April 2003.
With their latest album, the evergreen Oak Ridge Boys prove that they are not only enduring, they are evolving.
The Boys Are Back is a roots-music revelation wherein the veteran quartet explores blues, country, Gospel and rock textures. Producer David Cobb brought the group styles and songs it has never attempted before, from John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” to Neil Young’s “Beautiful Bluebird”, from Jamey Johnson’s stone-country “Mama’s Table” to the blues classic “Troubl’in Mind”. “Hold You in My Arms” comes from pop star Ray Lamontagne. Country rebel Shooter Jennings wrote the collection’s title tune especially for the Oaks. “Live with Jesus” and “You Ain’t Gonna Blow My House Down” are Nashville songs, while “Hold Me Closely” comes from Los Angeles. This album’s innovative repertoire is perhaps best illustrated by The Oak Ridge Boys’ striking version of The White Stripes’ song “Seven Nation Army.”
“We’ve been around so long,” observes the group’s Duane Allen. “We really needed this infusion of new energy.”
“As a group, we thought it was time to do something different,” adds bass singer Richard Sterban. “We wanted the chance to get outside the box a little bit and go down some roads we haven’t been down before. We all felt that now was the time to give it a try. It’s turned out to be a very good thing.”
“I think if you’re going to stay around as long as us, reinvention is absolutely, 100% necessary,” says tenor Joe Bonsall. “We’re still out here, and we’re still smokin’ along because we’ve got four guys who are always thinking ahead, looking forward.”
“It’s great after all these years that we still get to make exciting new music,” says baritone William Lee Golden. “I just feel so blessed.”
During their career, The Oak Ridge Boys have lent their distinctive harmonies to recordings by a diverse list of artists that includes Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Brenda Lee, Roy Rogers and George Jones. The Boys Are Back came about because of another such collaboration. In 2007, the Oaks recorded “Slow Train” with Shooter Jennings for his CD The Wolf.
“Shooter called me,” recalls Duane. “…I started telling him stories about his dad, Waylon Jennings. He finally got around to saying, ‘I’ve written this song. I wrote it for me and The Oak Ridge Boys, and I would be so honored if you guys would record it with me.’ We did, and we had a ball with Shooter.”
“A few months after we recorded ‘Slow Train’ with Shooter, he was doing a showcase at a Nashville club,” Richard remembers. “So he asked us if we would come. Of course, the place was packed with kids, people a LOT younger than we would normally draw at this stage of our career. They were standing and partying and screaming and carrying on with him. We were backstage wondering, ‘How are they going to accept us?’ We came out and did ‘Slow Train,’ and the place went nuts. These kids were out there hollering and screaming. Then we sang ‘Elvira’ with Shooter’s band, and the kids were actually singing ‘Oom papa mow mow’ along with me. I think that night was when the idea to work with Shooter’s producer David Cobb was born.”
“We looked at each other and basically said, ‘We can do this,’’” adds Duane. “‘We’ve got to find an avenue that will give us a chance at getting to that hip, new, young audience that Shooter is appealing to.’ We realized we’ve got to do something completely different. Sometimes you can get so old that you can become cool again. Look at Tony Bennett or Johnny Cash.”
The change in approach came easily to William Lee Golden, who probably has the most eclectic musical tastes of the four. Duane Allen, who has long been the Oaks’ producer and its repertoire scout, brought the song “You Ain’t Gonna Blow My House Down” to the table. Ironically, it came from the pen of Dallas Frazier, the man who wrote the group’s 1981 blockbuster “Elvira”.
Back in those days, the Oaks maintained an office on Music Row that was next door to the “outlaw” recording studio where Waylon Jennings created his hits. In another bit of irony, their vocals for The Boys Are Back were recorded in that very same studio. Shooter’s mom and Waylon’s widow, Jessi Colter, lent her distinctive piano playing to their rendition of “Hold Me Closely” in that room.
“We did the whole album in about two weeks,” Duane reports. “We went in every day and stayed until midnight or later. We worked out all our parts and harmonies in the control room, singing together. Then we went right out into the studio and cut it. So it’s almost like it has a ‘live’ feeling.”
For such an album to come from such a musical institution is truly impressive. This quartet came together back in 1973 as a Gospel group lauded as one of the industry’s premier artists. The Oak Ridge Boys caused an outrage among purists when they grew their hair long and stopped wearing matching suits. Then they reinvented themselves as country stars with 1977’s “Y’All Come Back Saloon”. A year later, Paul Simon recruited the Oaks to sing on his million-selling pop smash “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, “Trying to Love Two Women”, “Come on In” and other hits made the Oaks regular visitors to the top of the country charts. Then “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue” took them to the pop hit parade as well. Meanwhile, they found time to appear on such smashes as Brenda Lee’s “Broken Trust” and George Jones’s “Same Old Me”. Thanks to Oaks’ hits such as “American Made”, “Ozark Mountain Jubilee”, “Thank God for Kids” and their hit revival of The Staple Singers’ “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend”, the group racked up ten Gold albums, two Platinum ones and a Double Platinum collection between 1977 and 1987. The classic Oaks’ lineup of Golden-Allen-Sterban-Bonsall also has four Grammy Awards.
In 2000, the Oaks were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. The following year, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Since signing with Spring Hill, their recordings have earned three Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association. While recording The Boys Are Back last year, The Oak Ridge Boys were presented with the Academy of Country Music’s top honor, its Pioneer Award.
“To be honest, I had mixed emotions,” says William Lee. “On the one hand, it was a great honor. But on the other hand, it felt like you were graduating from high school. You’re getting your diploma, but you feel like you can’t go back there anymore. It felt a little like a door was closing. And at that very time was when we were recording this album, and that was a door that was opening.”
“We’re doing a lot of these new songs in our stage show now,” says Richard. “And it’s amazing how well they’re going over. We open the show with ‘The Boys Are Back.’ The first thing they hear out of the chute every night is me. Then Golden comes out, and the excitement builds as each guy comes out and adds to the song - Duane, and then Joe comes flying out.”
“This new music takes our whole show in another direction,” says Joe. “I’m pretty doggone pumped about it.” He adds that the group has also worked “Boom Boom”, “Mama’s Table”, “Beautiful Bluebird”, “Live with Jesus” and “I Want to Hold You in My Arms” into its sets and that all are enthusiastically cheered. The Oaks presented their new music, including “Seven Nation Army”, at March’s hipster confab South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. Their show was taped for repeated airing on Direct TV, which reaches 45 million households.
“We talk quite a bit about reinventing ourselves,” comments Richard. “Even after all these years, we still have that energy level on stage. We don’t quite jump as high as we used to, but there’s still an energy that is very noticeable. It’s one of the things that’s kept us in the business for so long. People know that when they pay their money to see The Oak Ridge Boys, they’re going to get their money’s worth. There’s still a spark that burns within all of us that makes us want to go out there and do it. You don’t get tired of doing what you love to do. I think that’s the key.”
“We’re still getting to do our music,” says Duane Allen. “I love to do our show. We could have all retired years ago. We invested pretty well. But retire to what? I’m already doing what I love to do. I’m still honored to be here. And who knows? The stars might be aligning for us again.”
“I’m so thankful that I’m with a group who never tries to think of a way to slow down,” adds Joe Bonsall. “It’s been a constant journey. What we’re coming out with is something new and fresh and different, and I think this new project is a big cog in the wheel of moving forward and reinventing. There’s no way I could have projected that 35 years down the road, we would still have a career.
“If you’re doing something and you don’t want to stop doing it, that’s called longevity. To me, it’s still exciting to get on the bus and go on a trip to sing. We hug each other when we get on. And we enjoy each other. The whole attitude is, ‘Let’s go sing.’”
“That’s what started it all in the first place, our love of singing,” says William Lee Golden. “We have so much respect for each other. We’re very different in styles, but we respect what each one of us brings to the group. We have this longevity because we do what we love to do. We love to sing.”