Oak Ridge Boys
Oak Ridge Boys
For more than a decade the Oak Ridge Boys were among the top gospel quartets in the nation. Then, at the height of their success in the mid-1970s, the group decided to go secular and record pure country music. The move was risky—Christian crowds loved the spirited Oaks and bought their records by the fistful—but country audiences too embraced the group’s energy, sure singing, and rowdy stage shows. Named Vocal Group of the Year in 1978 by the Country Music Association, the Oak Ridge Boys managed to find a new audience in Nashville without alienating their gospel fans.
The history of the Oak Ridge Boys is a case study in the evolution of a vocal group. An ancestral ensemble called the Country Cut-Ups was formed during the years of World War Two in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The group disbanded after the war and did not form again for ten years. Then it was merely a pick-up band that served as weekend entertainment for the workers at the nuclear energy research station in Oak Ridge. Originally a gospel group called the Oak Ridge Quartet (after the atomic-energy plant that has become nationally
Band formed during the Second World War as the Country Cut-Ups; disbanded after the war and re-formed in 1957 as the Oak Ridge Quartet; changed name to Oak Ridge Boys, ca. 1960; began as a gospel group, moved into secular country-pop music, 1976; currently recording with MCA Records.
Membership has changed numerous times; current members are Bill Golden (baritone), Duane Allen (baritone), Richard Sterban (bass), and Joe Bonsall (tenor); vocals are backed up by Nashville studio musicians.
Awards: Named Vocal Group of the Year by Country Music Association, 1978; fifteen Dove Awards from gospel music industry; four Grammy Awards for gospel recordings.
Addresses: Other— 329 Rockland Rd., Hendersonville, Tenn. 37075.
famous), the members began to travel and record as professionals in the 1960s. The name was changed to the Oak Ridge Boys as the group branched into up-tempo, rollicking gospel work.
More than twenty-nine singers have come and gone through the ranks of the Oak Ridge Boys. The current group consists of Bill Golden, Duane Allen, Richard Sterban, and Joe Bonsall. Golden is the dean of the group, having been an Oak Ridge Boy for twenty-five years. Golden was a member when the band hit the top ranks in the gospel market—he has estimated that he earned a phenomenal $250,000 per year for personal appearances and religious record sales. Still, he and other members faced a creativity crisis in 1975. The gospel industry began to frown on the Oak Ridge Boys’ long haircuts and beards as well as on their rock-flavored sound. Finally the current members agreed to move into the country market.
Bonsall remembered the gospel years in a People magazine profile. “We were always the subject of gossip,” he said. “When we added a rock drummer we were talked about for months. At one time our only goal was to make gospel as prestigious as any other kind of music. The gospel establishment wouldn’t let us do it, so we took our business elsewhere.” Golden told High Fidelity that gospel music actually had an adverse effect on the group’s style. “In gospel music, you’re usually working with very little background instrumentation,” he said. “The singers compensate for the relatively thin sound by holding out phrases longer, and they tend to get over-dramatic.”
Making up for lost time, the Oak Ridge Boys incorporated a large country-rock backup band, complete with drums and electric guitars. Soon they were vying for top country honors with the ever-popular Statler Brothers. By mid-1979 they had earned five Number 1 country hits, including “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and “You’re the One,” and they sang backup vocals on the immensely popular Paul Simon hit “Slip Slidin’ Away.” The group dominated the country charts for the rest of the 1970s and had a major crossover pop hit with “Elvira,” a swinging, bass-dominated comic song.
Most critics note that the Oak Ridge Boys are best appreciated in live concert settings—they have even been called the “Beach Boys of country music.” Member Richard Sterban attributes this stage presence to the group’s long tenure in the gospel ranks. “The gospel industry is such a competitive one, we learned how not to be denied onstage,” he said. “In a gospel sing everybody is there to outdo you. I think we still carry that. We’re going to get to a crowd regardless of what it takes.” This attitude has made the Oaks perennial favorites in Nashville, where they give numerous live concerts at the Opryland Theatre.
Fortunately for the Oak Ridge Boys, their defection from gospel did not alienate them from their former fans—or from their religious roots. They still perform gospel numbers, even in such unlikely environments as Las Vegas showrooms. “A change of style doesn’t cancel off fans,” Golden told People. “They stay with you and new fans pile up. Inevitably our music will cross all borders and all labels. Some day we’re going to run across something that everybody will like at the same time.” That is a tall prediction, but one that High Fidelity contributor Todd Everett feels the group may just fulfill. Everett praises the Oak Ridge Boys for their subtle harmonies and their “shouts of melodic joy,” adding: “In all, the exultation and constantly changing textures are pretty damned irresistible.”
Sky High, Columbia.
Oak Ridge Boys, Columbia.
Old Fashioned Music, Columbia.
Super Gospel Hits, two volumes, Columbia.
The Sensational Oak Ridge Boys, Starday.
The Oak Ridge Boys, Power Pak.
Old Fashioned, Down Home, Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’, Southern Style, Gospel Quartet Music, Columbia.
American Made, MCA.
Best of the Oak Ridge Boys, MCA.
Bobbie Sue, MCA.
Christmas Again, MCA.
Fancy Free, MCA.
The Oak Ridge Boys’ Greatest Hits, MCA.
The Oak Ridge Boys’ Greatest Hits, Volume 2, MCA.
The Oak Ridge Boys’ Greatest Hits, Volume 3, MCA.
The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived, MCA.
Our Favorite Songs, Columbia.
Room Service, MCA.
Smokey Mountain Gospel, Columbia.
Step On Out, MCA.
Where the Fast Lane Ends, MCA.
Y’All Come Back Saloon, MCA.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
High Fidelity, April 1979.
People, May 28, 1979,
Stereo Review, September 1979.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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