Country music elder statesman look towards future

 

Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys

In a world of fly-by-night, flavor of the month chart-toppers and one hit wonders, rare indeed is the artist that can maintain a strong fan base for more than a few scant years; a group that somehow defies the odds and draws in listeners from generation after generation is even more uncommon.

And then, there’s the Oak Ridge Boys.

The group has roots stretching back to World War II, when their original incarnation, known as the Oak Ridge Quartet, performed their unique brand of gospel music for members of the historic Manhattan Project, the top secret government program that led to the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

In the early 60s, the group changed their name to the more contemporary sounding Oak Ridge Boys and recorded a series of groundbreaking albums for the Warner Brothers record label. By the early 70s the group had won a Grammy and recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family that put them on the country charts for the first time.

With the current lineup of lead vocalist Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden on baritone and bass vocalist Richard Sterban solidifying in 1973, the group made the risky but profitable switch from gospel to country music with the album “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” in 1977, the title track provided their first country hit.

“That was a big step for us,” said Sterban, during an interview with the Daily Herald. “But it worked out great.”
Since that initial step into the country mainstream, the group has racked up an impressive 21 number 1 country hits and 48 chart records.

Through the years the Oak Ridge Boys have managed to maintain their statues as contemporary hitmakers while keeping one foot in the gospel-based music of their past, as a look at their two newest projects makes clear.

Sterban, who joined the group in 1972, spoke excitedly about the groups recently completed album, “The Boys are Back.” Sterban said the album, which will be released May 19, marks a leap forward into uncharted territory and a throwback to a more traditional sound. “This new album is what we’re most excited about. The title song was written by Shooter Jennings especially for the Oak Ridge Boys. He’s a big fan and he actually had a lot to do with this project.”

After accepting an offer to sing background vocals on Jennings’ 2007 album “The Wolf,” the group was introduced to the young artists equally young producer, Dave Cobb. After a performance at a music showcase with Jennings brought down the house, the group became convinced that the time was right for a fresh approach.

“We decided to bring Dave Cobb in to produce our new album and it’s some of the most different stuff we’ve ever done. It’s definitely taken us down some different roads than we would normally travel on our own. But it’s still unmistakably the Oak Ridge Boys.”

Comparing the album to Johnny Cash’s series of American Recordings with Rick Rubin, Sterban said the new sound is more stripped down than the group’s previous offerings. “Instrumentally it’s very spare, with our voices right out front. It’s very new for us.”

Just how new is evidenced by the album’s first single, a cover of the White Stripes hit “Seven Nation Army” that finds the group replacing the songs grungy bass pattern and guitar riff with their familiar, harmonized voices. Sterban said other surprise cuts from the album include a version of the John Lee Hooker blues classic “Boom, Boom, Boom” and a take on Neil Young’s “Beautiful Bluebird.”

The group even managed to get Jennings’ mother, Jessi Colter, to lend a hand on keyboards during recording. “We recorded in the same studio where the original Outlaw stuff was recorded, Tompall Glaser and Waylon Jennings and all those guys. So it just made sense.”

A new DVD project, “The Oak Ridge Boys: A Gospel Journey” was released April 21, and showcases the groups roots, giving older fans a chance to watch the band perform their favorite gospel numbers.

That mix of the old with the new will be on display Friday night when the Oak Ridge Boys take the stage at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. Said Sterban: “The fans can expect a lot of new music; we’ll  open with the title track off the new album. But they can expect a lot of hits, too. You can count on the fact that you’ll hear ‘Elvira,” you’ll hear “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight;” you’ll hear “Trying to Love Two Women.”  It’ll be a great night of wholesome country music that the whole family can enjoy.”

Despite the changes in the music business since the group’s inception, Sterban said he remains optimistic.  “They’re some great new artists, like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. In general we have a good feeling about country music and where it’s headed. We’ll be working 160 days this year, which is pretty great considering the state of the economy. The Oak Ridge Boys are still looking forward to the future.”

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One Response to “Country music elder statesman look towards future”

  1. great post on the ORB. They were the Georgia Clodhoppers long ago ! They are still working like crazy and their show feels very fresh while paying tribute to their history. “Ozark Mountain Jubilee” and “American Made” are still highlights as well as “Sail Away” and “Trying To Love Two Women”.

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