More than 60 years ago, the lengthy legacy of The Oak Ridge Boys began with a bang.
The group, known in its original iteration as “The Georgia Clodhoppers,” gained its namesake due to a series of performances for staff members of the clandestine nuclear research facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the atomic bomb was developed during World War II. “Our history goes way back,” says Duane Allen, the group’s golden-haired lead singer. “That original group sang until the mid-50s when they retired. After that, there was a short period of time where no one under that name was singing.”
As the Clodhoppers, the group would often take the stage clad in bib overalls, straw hats and other redneck regalia to sing classic country songs before taking a short mid-set break to don their Sunday best and belt out gospel tunes as the Oak Ridge Quartet. It was only after a two-year hiatus from the original lineup that a young group of bright-eyed Tennessee teens reformed the group in 1966 as the Oak Ridge Boys. Allen had come to the forefront as a lead vocalist and was joined by songwriter Joe Bonsall, the then-beardless baritone William Lee Golden and bass vocalist Richard Sterban.
“Before William Lee Golden came and went, there were several changes in our lineup,” Allen says, referencing the eight years Golden took a short break from the mid-eighties to early nineties. “But for the most part, that’s the same four that we’re singing with to this day. We mark this year’s anniversary based on the time our last current member came on in ’73.”
While the Oaks were once a quintessential southern gospel quartet known for their ultra-contemporary style, their repertoire now packs a little bit of everything, from public-domain classics like a rousing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Amazing Grace” to iconic original tunes like “American Made” and their all-time hit “Elvira.” For the past five decades, the Oaks have consistently had at least one of their tunes toward the top of the country charts.
In addition to a bevy of chart-topping hits, the Oak Ridge Boys were among the first to live the Nashville dream that so many aspiring country musicians seek today. Allen credits the group’s gospel roots for taking them to the next level and giving the group the confidence to cross genres and expand. “We got on Hee Haw and many of these other network shows while we were still a gospel group,” Allen says. “When we switched up and broadened our style, the only difference is that all of these venues we were playing suddenly became full.” This crossover success would manifest in the form of their breakout song “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” a smoky, so-long song from their debut album that was also featured alongside the antics of Bo and Luke Duke in a 1979 episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. “We had that gospel history behind us and that put us on a different level from the rest of the acts at the time who were just doing one thing,” Allen says. Fortunately for us, that made us stand out from the crowd.”
From the rolling hills of East Tennessee to Hee Haw, the honky-tonk proving grounds of famous country acts like Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs and Conway Twitty, the Oaks have seen the rise of the sounds of the South. But for Allen, the stage is the same but the actors change. After 40 years, little surprises the well-traveled quartet. However, instead of calling it quits from boredom, they live life on the road by a simple mantra: The Oak Ridge Boys is a friends’ business. It’s the people Allen and company have met along the way that makes the whole experience special.
“After all these years, all the highways begin to look alike. You can look at the sign over a restaurant and tell what the food’s gonna taste like before you even step foot inside. The hotel beds are all made up to look similar, albeit with different prices. Even the venues – arenas, gymnasiums, stadiums and performing arts centers – we all know what they look like. Really the only thing that amazes us now is the friends we’ve made along the way,“ he says.
The group is currently making rounds across the South to promote their 40th anniversary album and complete another year of performing more than 150 days. “And it is certainly a year of celebration,” Allen says. So much so that a recent performance in Sedalia, Missouri warranted a patriotic welcoming as the group was greeted by stealth bombers courtesy of a local Air Force base packed to the brim with fans. This unexpected flyover was arranged to herald the coming of “Oak Ridge Day,” as declared by Mayor Elaine Horn. Future plans for the group include a themed cruise with several live shows and a network television special. “It seems like everybody’s doing something special for us these days,” Allen says.
Arts & Culture | Music | October 2013
The Oak Ridge Boys ease into a new era with the same old Southern sound.
Story by Casey Hilder