The Oak Ridge Boys... Have Arrived

First published in Country Music People, October 1980

Rating right at the top of the American country music scene, THE OAK RIDGE BOYS have—during the course of the past half dozen years—transformed themselves from a good-selling gospel outfit to country superstars. Now they’re widening their reputations even further by moving into the international markets. ALAN CACKETT investigates …


If I ever had any doubts about The Oak Ridge Boys being one of the very best vocal groups currently working in contemporary music, they were dispelled one warm June evening in 1979, when they appeared at The Dominion Theatre, London, and took the place by storm.

The Oak Ridge Boys just about wrecked the place with a blistering act that climaxed with huge layers of bluish-grey smoke overflowing like a small waterfall into the front rows of the audience. Previously, they had sung and pranced to the ‘metal’ country-rock sound of The Oak Ridge Band, a musically solid band, whose ability to play and communicate is not hype.

Seeing The Oak Ridge Boys in concert is an electrifying sight—a visual spectacle of colour, sound and energy, all syncopated to the beat of the band, the smooth-flowing harmonies of the four Oaks themselves. Their records are good, but The Oak Ridge Boys on stage are very much in tune with the times.

A couple of days before that show I met up with the four Oaks—Duane Allen, Richard Sterban, Bill Golden and Joe Bonsall, plus band members Don Breland, Skip Mitchell and Garland Craft.

We sat in the lounge of their London hotel and over several cups of coffee discussed The Oak Ridge Boys and what they had achieved within country music over the past few years.

Although Duane Allen is the leader of The Oaks, all seven people scattered around me were equally vociferous when it came to discussing The Oak Ridge Boys. The guys were all dressed casually and presented the feeling of being hell-raisers, in the nicest sense of the term. They were having fun doing something they enjoyed in the music business, yet were totally committed to The Oak Ridge Boys' future.

It was Joe Bonsall (sporting a thick moustache) who laid it on the line that the group was committed to establishing themselves in Europe.
“We've come over this trip at our own expense,” he explained. “We don't expect to make any money, in fact we will certainly end up out of pocket. But it seems to be the only way to establish ourselves over here. We intend to come back again and again, until we reach our goal. And that is to see The Oak Ridge Boys as popular in your country as we are back home in the States.”

There’s no doubt that the group is popular in the States. They’ve been named Vocal Group Of The Year by the Country Music Association, each single they release gets into the country top ten, and even cross over to the pop charts, and their latest two albums have also been major sellers.
“We’ve been over here three or four times in the past three years,” said Duane, the group's lead vocalist, “and it is already beginning to pay dividends.”
“It sure is,” came in Richard, the bass singer. “On the radio this morning they played our record (Sail Away), not just once, we heard it three times. Now we’re just keeping our hopes up that the record takes off.”

As it turned out, Sail Away, a Rafe VanHoy song from the aptly titled THE OAK RIDGE BOYS HAVE ARRIVED album, didn’t make the charts in Britain, but it certainly brought the group’s sound and name to a much wider audience.

For more than 20 years, since their formation back in the early 1950s, the group was regarded as a purely gospel group. Appearing often on weekends at the atomic energy plant in Oak Ridge, near Knoxville, Tennessee, for workers not permitted to leave the facility for security reasons, they were soon dubbed The Oak Ridge Quartet. The most popular selections performed by the group proved to be gospel songs, and fans eventually began to think of them as a gospel group. 

The longest-serving current member is baritone singer Bill Golden, while still in high school at Brewton, Alabama, he saw The Oak Ridge Boys in concert. Attracted by the inventiveness and enthusiasm with which the Oaks performed, Golden knew then that he wanted to become a member.
“They were singing gospel music, but unlike other groups around at that time the music and message were alive. It just made me feel good to watch them and listen, and I felt if I could be a part of that, I'd have achieved something satisfying. And now, all these years later, I think I’ve made it.”

Duane Allen, a young singer from Taylortown, Texas, who had been working with a group called The Prophets in Knoxville, was the next to join, Slowly the group was evolving into today’s line-up, with Richard Sterban from Camden, New Jersey, joining the group. He had previously sung with another well-established gospel group The Stamps Quartet backing Elvis Presley both on record and in concert. The newest singer in the group is Joe Bonsall, a tenor, who was a regular on Dick Clark's American Bandstand while in junior high school in Philadelphia. He’s been with the group for the past seven years, but even band-member Don Breland has been around a little longer, so the current line-up is quite well established.

“We've all come from different backgrounds,” said Joe. “Some of the guys have always been in gospel music, but I come from a strictly rock background, and Richard here used to sing in pop bands. And of course members of the band have backgrounds in country, soul and rock. That’s what make the sound of The Oak Ridge Boys so unique, so different from anyone else.”

The transition from a well-established and very successful gospel group to a country-pop outfit proved to be very difficult, but the boys crossed those hurdles diligently. In fact changing direction and deserting their traditional gospel fans when they were leaders in that field could so easily have been a disaster for the group. For a while they were struggling—shunned by the gospel fraternity who were upset that their hair was ‘long’ and that they were deserting the cause, and also unable to walk straight into country music stardom without the necessary country hits under their belts. 

It was the early 1970s, after they had won a Grammy award for Talk About The Good Times, and also scooped the Dove awards (presented by the Gospel Association) for the Best Male Group and Best Album (LIGHT), that they began widening their scope.
“We set out to be accepted as entertainers,” said Golden. “We go out there with an aim to enjoy ourselves and make people happy. Whether we’re singing a love ballad, a drinking song or a gospel tune, we’ve got to feel it, and we want the audience to feel it too.” 

During the difficult transitional period when the group wase not sure whether to move right away from gospel music or try to please everybody, they certainly faced some hardships. They changed record labels, moving from the small but established gospel-based Heartwarming to the major Columbia label, where they were produced by George Richey. But they hadn’t lost that ‘gospel’ touch and they found it impossible to reach the new audiences they were seeking.

“At the time it seemed we were stuck in limbo land,” said Duane. “We couldn’t get across to the country fans, promoters were afraid to book us because of our gospel connections, and the traditional gospel promoters decided that we had strayed too far from what the fans would be prepared to accept.”

“We desperately needed a record high on the country charts,” added Joe. “And though George Richey and Columbia tried hard to find that song, it just didn’t happen.”

“Naturally, when the deal with ABC came up we just jumped at it,” continued Duane. “We can’t praise Ron Chancey, our producer, enough. He has found the right songs for us, and the country fans have really taken to music of The Oaks. I don’t know why, but we just hit it off straight away in the studios, and of course it’s so easy to work with someone who’s on the same track. We can communicate with Ron, and our records turn out a real team effort.”

The Oaks' first single for ABC, Y’all Come Back Saloon, a catchy country bar-room song, made the country top three in the summer of 1977 and was the start of a run of hit records that doesn’t look like ending for many years. 

It led to the release of their first ‘all country’ album, titled after that hit single, and also included other top ten records like You’re The One and their Number One smash I’ll Be True To You.

Producer Ron Chancey did a fine job in maximising The Oaks’ best qualities. It was an amazing versatile package, reminiscent of The Statler Brothers, and featured some moving vocals and harmonies, some very original tunes and quite varied musicianship. It’s impossible to pick out a standout track, but four deserve a special mention: Old Time Lovin’ for the quality of the singing from the baritone intro to the high pitched, delightful harmonies, Didn’t She Really Thrill Them, a soft ballad, for its breathtaking quality, Sterling Whipple’s love ballad, Freckles, with some outstanding harmonies, and the bluegrass-styled An Old Time Family Bluegrass Band. 

An album containing a strong mix of gospel, country and pop, it put The Oaks in the country spotlight after many years as one of gospel’s super groups.

“It’s true that we have been likened to The Statler Brothers,” said Joe, “but we are a lot different. We are not songwriters, though Garland, our flamboyant keyboardist, writes some good songs. We have been striving to get our own sound. Something that people can immediately say ‘that’s The Oaks.’ The only similarity we have with The Statlers is that we are four singers and both groups started in gospel. But you’ve got to remember that The Statlers never made it in gospel. We went right to the top in gospel, and now we are at the top of country. That’s some achievement, you know!”

Though they have all been involved in the music business for more than a dozen years, they still have that drive and sense of fun that you expect to find in a relative newcomer. Confidence and purposefulness pervades the whole group and envelopes anyone within range. At first you may think that The Oaks are just a little bit too cocksure, but as you get to know them you realise that it is a dedication to succeed that drives them on.

The exuberance and vitality come through on their records and stage shows. Duane Allen, who’s been with The Oaks for fifteen years, summed it all up when he said: “There is something about this group that has transpired and I have been lucky enough for it to touch my life. I actually feel like I’m with a new group now, yet I’ve been a member of The Oaks for quite some years. We are just now getting to do some things we have dreamed about.”

The second album for ABC, ROOM SERVICE, produced a couple more hit singles with the contrasting ballad style of Rafe VanHoy’s Cryin’ Again and the good-time gospel feel of Michael Clark’s Come On In. The Oaks’ unique four-part harmony style was a solid base for slick variations in delivery, as each member of the group alternated into the lead spotlight at some point throughout the album.

The whole group comes over as a unit, and brings out a powerful sound. There’s a mellow interlude with But I Do, a slow, dramatic ballad, and It Could Have Been Ten Years Ago, features some amazingly well executed vocal harmonies. But it’s the up-tempo tunes like Callin’ Baton Rouge that sets the album alight. With country-gospel harmonies and a kick-up-yer-heels fiddle, they generate music that has your feet-a-dancing.

Somehow The Oak Ridge Boys have maintained a very high standard in song material. Unlike some country acts, who always seem to use the same publishing house (usually their own). The Oaks have succeeded in finding good, original songs that they have tailored for their own distinctive styling. 
“We have to thank our producer, Ron Chancey, for that,” said Joe Bonsall. “When we first started working with him he really had to search for suitable songs, but luckily he came up with gems like I’ll Be True To You and You’re The One, and our success opened doors for us, and we have plenty of good ones to choose from.”

“When we started working with Ron, the publishing houses wouldn’t send us the best of their new songs,” broke in Bill Golden, “They would save them for the established names and send us songs that weren’t quite so hot. But Ron has a good ear for a song and we are really grateful for some of the things he found for us.”

By not sticking rigidly to one publishing house, The Oaks have succeeded in coming up with fresh, varied and entertaining albums. They really showed that they were on the right track with their third album, which proudly proclaimed: THE OAK RIDGE BOYS HAVE ARRIVED.

And they had! This is the kind of stuff that groups are made of. In this era of solo performer and abundant ego trips, music made as a team effort is an all too rare event. This album was one of those red-letter days when everything falls together as a total sound. The Oak Ridge Boys were now into new musical directions, but with a firm grasp of their roots—they could innovate while still remembering the important ideals of a country group.
This sometimes lively, sometimes soulful but always well performed set of songs was instrumentally highlighted with guitars, piano, string arrangements by Bergen White and touches of fiddle, banjo and even unobtrusive horns. They hit the charts strongly with Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight, Dream On and Sail Away, the latter giving them a well-deserved British chart placing. 

Compared with their first two ABC albums, this one was much more pop-slanted, the country influence still there, but at times pushed very much in the background. Could this be another new direction for The Oaks?

“We are always striving for new directions,” answered Duane. “The plan for The Oak Ridge Boys is to appeal to as many people as possible. That’s not to say that we intend to desert our country followers, but we are first and foremost entertainers. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed, if a good song comes along, whether it be pop, gospel, country or rock, we will do it, if we can feel it.”

“Music is a universal language,” he continued “When I die, I hope through my music, someone can say I did something for peace in the world. We would like to be able to take The Oak Ridge Boys’ music all over the world. Break down all the barriers.”

It is a dream that is slowly coming true for the group. And if they continue with the same kind of vitality and enthusiasm that has marked their work during the past four or five years, then anything is possible. Their fourth album, THE OAK RIDGE BOYS TOGETHER, released this past summer, maintains the same approach as its predecessor. 

The quartet has, with the help of Ron Chancey, mastered a highly contemporary commercial country/pop/gospel style. All four members display facile voices and they fit ’em together like a shelf of matching paper shakers. From Sonny Throckmorton’s up-tempo Trying To Love Two Women to Michael Foster’s Heart Of Mine, a powerful ballad performance, they demonstrate just how ‘together’ The Oaks are.

Containing an interesting blend of pop-flavoured material with country overtones, as well as pure country songs, this album introduces country fans to the varied facets of The Oaks' climatic vocal quality, which flourishes through driving up-tempo numbers and soulful ballads alike.
The Oak Ridge Boys are an autonomous group with four distinct, strong personalities. But it is Duane who hovers over them with a finely tuned eye for any weakness or breakdown in unity.

“I think the thing that has kept us together is understanding our business and understanding each other—understanding how it all works,” he explains. “We believe in what we are trying to achieve and we believe in each other. We are all friends and we all feel that we can cause a better thing to happen in people’s minds than the news can cause. I think we can cause people to have a better day and a better night if they come to hear us. I think we can take their minds off the world’s problems and all the hassles they have, and give them some entertainment that will make them happier people.”
It might sound a little heavy, maybe even false when you read something like that in cold print, but sitting and talking with The Oak Ridge Boys, you know that they are serious about their aims and beliefs. The music they produce, with the help of the amazing Oak Ridge Band, makes you feel good and there can be no better seal of approval than that. 

(This listing comprises recent recordings and not the earlier Oak Ridge Boys Quartet releases)
The Oak Ride Boys – Columbia KC32742 (USA release)
Old Fashioned, Down Home… Music – Columbia KC33935 (USA release)
Sky High – Columbia KC33057 (USA release)
Y'all Come Back Saloon – ABC ABCL 5241
Best Of – Columbia KC35302 (USA release)
Room Service – ABC ABCL 5257
Have Arrived – ABC ABCL 5270
Together – MCA MCF 3063