The Boys are Back in Town

The Oak Ridge Boys have always been about reinventing themselves to keep up with the times, while still respecting their history and those tight harmonies that put them in the spotlight in the first place. Along the way, the “Boys” have earned respect for their longevity, their work ethic and a body of work that continues to sustain a career that dates back to the ’60s.
The “original” Oak Ridge Quartet vocal group performed gospel in the 1940s, then took the calculated move into the realm of country music during the 1970s. Duane Allen joined the Quartet in 1966 as the lead singer, then along with William Lee Golden, Joe Bonsall and Richard Sterban, the four of them breathed new life into that old group. They propelled the group further into the pages of musical history even they could not have imagined. During that evolution, they changed their image and their gospel heritage and took on more of a modern pop country sound. This move proved to be controversial at the time but it also proved to be the right one.
The Oak Ridge Boys’ four-part harmonies and upbeat songs spawned dozens of country hits such as “Y’All Come Back Saloon,” “American Made,” “Bobbie Sue,” “Dream On,” “Thank God For Kids,” and their mega-hit, “Elvira.” In addition to racking up so many hits, they’ve won just about every music award out there including Grammys, Doves, CMA and ACM trophies. They also made it into the Grand Ole Opry, and into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
Along the way they continue to record, many times stepping out of their comfort zone to slip into different formats and genres. They’ve recorded with George Jones, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles and even Shooter Jennings, the son of their old friend Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter.
But this latest album project sees the Boys taking a step back and returning to their gospel roots. The project also sees the mighty Oaks working with producer David Cobb once again, who first produced their 2009 album The Boys Are Back.
Every year the Oak Ridge Boys make their annual trek to the Riverside Resort for the 11 shows they perform during their seven-day engagement and ever year one of the guys grants us an interview. This time we talked with Richard Sterban about this new project, the music, and more. Here’s his take…

Where in the world are you guys today?
We’re home, getting ready to leave this evening. We’re going to Texas for a few days, then somewhere in Arkansas. We’ll be home for a few days and take off again. We’re about to come into a busy time of the year for us.

If you’re not cruising, you’re touring appearing somewhere, working. There are always irons in the fire. Do you ever slow down?
We do. Every year we do a Christmas tour which is the biggest part of our year, and we work right up until Christmas. But since Christmas, we played New Year’s Eve, and we did a couple of days last weekend, but the last two or three weeks have kind of been a chance for us to relax just a little bit. We never take a long, extended period of time off…we do not do that. But the way our schedule is, we average about 150 days a year on the road, and this coming year is gonna be no exception. But the first part of the year, is usually not as busy as the second part of the year. The second half of the year, especially fall and Christmas, is when we really, really get busy.

Last time you were here Duane Allen said you guys were in the studio working on a new album.
We have a new album coming out, I believe on March 16 and we’re going to be spending a lot of time here in the next couple of months promoting the new project. We went into the studio with Dave Cobb, and it’s something a little different for the Oak Ridge Boys. We’re really excited about it. This new album is called 17th Avenue Revival. We recorded the album in a very historic studio on 17th Avenue South, Nashville’s RCA Studio A. Elvis recorded there, Hank Williams recorded there, and Willie Nelson — some of the biggest names in country music over the years have recorded there, so it was a very historic project and it turned out to be very retro in a lot of ways. There was very little overdubbing, no stacking of voices or anything like that. It’s just pretty raw and pretty basic, which was precisely what David tried to do. A couple of the songs on the project we actually recorded with just the four of us gathered around just one microphone and just Dave Cobb playing his guitar. So it turned out kind of neat. A lot of it is gospel, there’s some country on there, but David wanted to take us back to our roots, and that’s kind of what we did. We recorded some of the songs we grew up on as kids and some of the songs that were influenced by old rock and roll guys. It turned out really nice, it really did.

What was cool about working with David Cobb.
Working with Dave Cobb is always quite an experience. He’s kind of an unusual guy, he’s not in the usual “Nashville mode,” if that makes any sense. He’s just a little bit different and he produces some of the hot acts in country music right now, like Chris Stapleton. This will be the second time we’ve worked with him. We worked with him, in 2009 — we did an album with him called The Boys Are Back, and he took us down some roads musically that we’d never traveled, so we wanted to work with him again, just to do something a little bit different. And that is certainly the case. It’s just us — you get what you get. You’re gonna get the four Oak Ridge Boys and it’s a paired down kind of a thing. There’s not a lot of loud music or guitars, there is some, certainly, but it’s mainly the four voices just out there, kind of in your face so to speak.

The stripping away of too many sounds and instruments is refreshing.
The thing about this project — with all of the technology that’s out there and there’s a lot of it — we use some of it, don’t get me wrong. but at the same time, there’s not a lot of computerized stuff happening on this project. It’s pretty raw and pretty basic, and that’s what Dave Cobb was going for. At the same time, we do not want to put out anything that is off-key or off-pitch, so there was a little tuning done, don’t get me wrong. But we kept it very much to a minimum, and one thing that’s interesting about this project, it’s available on vinyl as well.

Did you also use “old” equipment to add flavor to the sound?
We used the old RCA 44 microphone, the microphone that’s been in the music business for years. We just tried to keep it very raw and historic — and retro which is the best way to put it.

It’s pretty cool that you guys are still so much a part of the music scene. We caught your performance with Home Free doing an a capella version of “Elvira.” What does that mean to you guys? Their base guy Tim Faust and you had a little bit of a friendly competition…
It was a battle of the base players, wasn’t it? We actually did a video with them and it was a lot of fun. It was kind of fun for us old guys to hang out with the young guys for a while.

The passing last year of Glen Campbell and Mel Tillis, has to get you guys thinking about the future, right?
It is one of the things we think about. We’re not young guys any longer but all four of us are still enjoying good health and that’s a blessing in a lot of ways, it really is. And as long as we continue to feel good and as long as we’re able to still sing good, we’re gonna keep doing this. We’re not planning to retire any time soon. We still look forward every night to take our music live on stage to our fans and to our audiences and that has not changed at all over the years. As long as that continues we’re gonna be out here doing it because it’s really, really what we love doing.

No other act, individual or solo does 11 shows in seven days, except the Oak Ridge Boys.
I think we’re a glutton for punishment. (He laughs) Playing at the Riverside is a special thing for us, it really is. It’s become a tradition, we’re there every year and we do it about this same time. As you know, and a lot of our fans all over the country plan for this every year and a lot of our fans plan their vacations around this week and they converge in Laughlin. It’s really a big time for our fans. We usually have a lot of fun on stage, but don’t get me wrong, it’s also a lot of work. Two shows a day makes for a long day. But once we get on that stage and the people respond from the audiences, it kind of turns you on and we end up having a lot of fun. We really do.

Do you miss traveling with Elvis?
Well that’s been so long ago, but you’re right, I do miss it. About two years prior to joining the Oak Ridge Boys, I sang with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, as you know. I sang with Elvis for about a year and a half. I have some really fond memories of the times I spent with Elvis. I got to know him a little bit, and I think even though Elvis was the King of rock and roll, I really believe his favorite kind of music was gospel music. He loved it. Some of my fondest memories with Elvis was singing gospel songs with him. It seems like almost every day we were on tour he wanted to try to find a piano somewhere. We’d all get around the piano and we’d sing gospel songs with Elvis. He loved the gospel quartets songs and he really loved the black spirituals — and believe it our not, he would have loved this new project of ours. We go back and do some black spirituals, which is what Dave Cobb wanted us to do on this one. Elvis loved those spirituals and we would do them quite often. And if we could not find a piano, Elvis would just start singing and he would expect us to get around him, join in and harmonize with him. That’s exactly what we did.

Keeping it real for your fans probably means as much as your music.
Well, I hope that’s the case. We pride ourselves on the fact that we put on a good stage show ’cause it’s not work, it’s fun. We get up there and we really enjoy doing it and I think that comes through in our performance. Fans will hear what they expect to hear from the Oak Ridge Boys. We’re gonna do a lot of our hits, including “Elvira” of course, they’re gonna hear me do “oom papa mau mau,” every night. We are going to do some gospel — our fans expect to hear gospel music from us, and we’re going to do some of the new material on the show as well. We’re not going to get carried away with that and do a lot of it, but we’re going to try out some of the new songs, as well. We’ll probably do some patriotic songs. We’re patriotic guys we love this great country, we’ll honor our country, our troops and our veterans. Just because it happens in a casino, it’s going to be family entertainment all the way. That’s what the Oak Ridge Boys are all about. And one thing we’re going to do in Laughlin, we’re gonna do 11 shows. No two shows will be exactly the same. We have a wealth of material to pull from, and there are a lot of songs we have to repeat, like “Elvira” and “Y’All Come Back Saloon,” and “Thank God For Kids,” some of those songs will be on every show, but we’ll change some things around and do some different songs as well and hopefully on some of those days where there’s just one show, we might go in there in the afternoon and rehearse a little bit and maybe add a few new things we haven’t done in awhile.
We just plan to have a great time. I can speak for all the Oak Ridge Boys, I can tell you we’re looking forward to coming back to Laughlin and there’s not a bad seat in the house it’s a great place to see a show we plan to have a great time.


Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Wednesday-Sunday, Feb. 7-11 (7 p.m.)

(3 p.m. matinees on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday)

See “Showtimes” for tickets