Celebrating and thankful

Published 2:02 pm Friday, April 26, 2024

Oak Ridge Boys mark five decades, at Paramount Saturday night

ASHLAND, Ky. — When the Oak Ridge Boys take the stage Saturday at the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, it will be for two purposes — to celebrate the core lineup’s five decades together, as well as to offer thanks to all who have supported them in their career.

While the group’s origins go back decades, the lineup of Richard Sterban, William Lee Golden, Duane Allen and Joe Bonsall came together in 1973, producing the most popular and acclaimed hits of the Oak Ridge Boys. When the 50th anniversary of that lineup hit last year, the group announced the kickoff of a farewell tour.

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“Well, it was and it was not,” bass singer Richard Sterban said of whether it was difficult to close out the group’s touring years. “We all felt like it was time to announce our farewell tour. We’ve been very fortunate and very blessed and we’ve had had a great career.”

He talked about their aim for the road for these shows.

“We want to take time to go around to as many places as we can get to, and say thank you to people — our fans, radio people who played our records over the years — everyone,” he said. 

While it is a farewell tour, Sterban emphasized that no end date has been set for the final show and the group plans to keep going with the shows for a while.

“We do not know how long that is going to take,” he said. “The main reason we have not announced that is that we do not know ourselves. We are not retiring yet at this point. We still plan to be around for a while.”

Known for a relentless schedule of shows for decades, the group has performed many times in the area, including multiple visits to the Paramount, their annual Christmas shows at the Vern Riffe Center in Portsmouth and events such as Catlettsburg’s Labor Day celebration and Lawrence County’s bicentennial celebration at the fairgrounds in 2015.

“We have been to your part of the country many, many times over the course of the years,” Sterban said. “And we look forward to coming back and coming your way. We want to encourage as many people as possible to come out and spend some time with us.”

As for the setlist of the shows, Sterban said one thing is certain.

“First and foremast you can count on the fact you’re going to hear me do “Giddy up, oom poppa, oom poppa, mow mow,” he said of his bass line in the group’s biggest hit, 1981’s “Elvira.” “That’s definitely going to happen. There’s no question about that. That’s our signature song and what people really want to hear. We’ve had a lot of hit records over the course of years — ‘American Made’ ‘Leaving Louisiana in Broad Daylight,’ ‘Dream On,’ ‘Thank God for Kids’ — and we try to do as many hits as we can in the show.”

He said there would also be a patriotic portion honoring veterans and the group would include Gospel songs, a key part of their background.

As the tour remains open-ended, Sterban said the Oak Ridge Boys are also set to release a new album, at this point untiled, at some point this fall, the fifth produced for the group by Dave Cobb. 

“It is pretty much finished,” he said. “The overall theme is songs devoted to our mothers. We’ve been in the studio with Dave Cobb. It was his idea to do songs honoring our mothers.”

Sterban said the group has had many productive session with Cobb and enjoys his approach.

“What an honor it is to be able to work with him,” he said. “He’s producing some of the biggest names in country music. It’s a special honor for us. We have a special relationship with him and he calls us ‘his crazy uncles.’” 

He spoke of Cobb’s skills in the studio.

“He can take old songs and make them sound new and fresh,” Sterban said. “Or he can take a new song and make it sound retro. And he’s not concerned with what country radio thinks. At this stage of our career, country radio is probably not going to play us anyway. We’re just doing stuff we want to do, going into studio and having fun.”

The album will be the first to feature new member Ben James, who joined earlier this year, filling in the vacancy left when Bonsall had to leave the tour for health reasons.

“He’s a young guy — 28 years old,” Sterban said. “That’s hard to believe, compared to the rest of us. We’re not trying to get him to be Joe, and he’s brought some youth and a lot of great talent to our group.”

Sterban was asked about the longevity of the core lineup, which, other than short exceptions, remained unchanged for five decades.

“Well, even after all these years, we still love doing what we do,” he said. “We look forward every night to getting up on stage and taking our music live to our fans and our audience. During the pandemic, we got a good taste of not being able to do that. It feels good to be back doing it.”

And he said recording new material plays a large part as well in keeping them going.

“We love the creative process of going into studio and working on new music,” he said. “We get so excited and it’s very stimulating. And that new music puts energy into us and into our show.”

Sterban spoke about the long history of the Oak Ridge Boys, which goes back beyond the current lineup, all the way to the World War II era.

“I don’t think there’s a group in the business that walks on stage bringing more history than the Oak Ridge Boys and that history propels us on,” he said.

The origins began under another name in the 1940s.

“There was a group known as the Georgia Clodhoppers,” he said. “They would go to Oak Ridge, Tennessee and entertain people there working on the atomic bomb — the Manhattan Project. Those people could not leave for security reasons, but the Georgia Clodhoppers had a security clearance and could go in and, as a result, they changed their name to the Oak Ridge Quartet.”

He said that quartet became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry, where they regularly headlined Gospel shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in the 1950s.

“Then, in the latter 1950s, the group retired and younger guys took it over and changed the name to the Oak Ridge Boys,” Sterban said.”

Over the next decade, members began to change out as the classic lineup began to take shape. First, Golden joined in 1965, followed by Allen a year later.

Sterban joined in 1972, coming off a tour singing backup for Elvis Presley with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet.

“Singing with Elvis was very exciting,” Sterban said. “I was part of the biggest tour in the music business, but, at the same time, I was a backup singer, standing in the dark on the stage, singing harmonies. My aspirations were beyond that. When  the chance came to join the Oak Ridge Boys, I felt the group had a lot of potential. It was a big decision to leave Elvis and join the Oak Ridge Boys. Back then, a lot of people questioned it. But I believed I was doing the right thing and history has proven it.” 

Bonsall joined in 1973, cementing the lineup. Sterban is amazed at the group’s longevity and accomplishments since.

“I would have never guessed it,” he said. “I never dreamed back then, when I was a young guy in my 20s singing with Elvis, that someday, I’d be in same hall of fame with him.”

Presley and the Oak Ridge Boys have displays near each other in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Sterban said he is also proud the quartet is in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and members of the Grand Ole Opry as well.

While the end of the touring road may be in sight, Sterban remains enthusiastic about the things they still have planned and says they will remain active as they say their farewells.

“No one or no thing lasts forever, and the good Lord above has not told us it is time to go home for good yet,” he said.

• • •

Last year, the classic lineup of the Oak Ridge Boys — Richard Sterban, William Lee Golden, Duane Allen and Joe Bonsall — celebrated 50 years since their coming together in 1973. (Submitted photo)

Sterban picks his favorites

With dozens of albums and a 51 year-history to their name, the Oak Ridge Boys have a deep catalog to choose from. Sterban was asked to talk about some his favorites from the group’s history.

“Thank God for Kids”

“That’s always a special moment in an Oak Ridge Boys show,” Sterban said. “William Lee Golden does such a great job communicating that lyric to the audience. It touches people, and you can always tell it.”

“I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes”

“Joe Bonsall did such a great job doing that lead vocal,” Sterban said. “That was written by Randy VanWarmer. He was great at writing songs you could take with more than one meaning. It sounds like he’s talking about a lost love affair. In reality, once we got to know him, he actually wrote that song about his father, who passed away suddenly, and he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”


“Well, we have a tendency gravitate to that,” Sterban said. “It’s our signature song. It was written by Dallas Frazier, our good friend and neighbor.

He was driving home from a session through east Nashville, and he came across a street sign that said Elvira Street. He pulled his car right up to the street sign, pulled out some paper, and jotted down ‘Elvira, Elvira. My Heart’s on fire for Elvira.’

Then he wrote the ‘Giddy up, oom poppa, oom poppa, mow mow’ to imitate the bumps on the road — it had big potholes. When he got home, he wrote verses about a woman so the whole thing made more sense. I’ve heard that street sign has been stolen several times.

Dallas Frazier recorded it, so did Kenny Rogers, when he was with the First Edition, and Rodney Crowell. I think it was done 10 times before we did it, but no one had the “Giddy up” part like we did.

Our producer Ron Chancey —when we got into the studio, it was his idea for me to do that part. What I did, I took that line and adapted it to my way of doing things. And I guess it turned out OK. If you ask people to name one of most popular bass lines in music, Elvira’s going to be near top of list.”

When the song exploded into the charts in 1981, an actress Cassandra Peterson was beginning to become popular with her horror-comedy character, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. And, for a lot of children in the 1980s, they may have wrongly assumed the song was about her.

Sterban was asked if the group had ever crossed paths with her in the 43 years since its release.

“No,” he says, acknowledging the coincidental timing. “I wish we had a chance to actually meet her. Back when we had that song, she was getting to be pretty popular.”