Oak Ridge Boys to bring new, old to Howard County Fair

"Even at the height of our success, we were very careful about the lyrics in our songs. We sing about positive things – not about getting drunk or cheating." Richard Sterban


By Casandra Leff
Cresco - This year is a year of anniversaries. The Howard County Fair is celebrating 125 years, and its Saturday night (June 23) entertainment, The Oak Ridge Boys, is celebrating 45 years since its current line-up joined forces!
Don’t let this country/gospel group’s veteran status fool you, though. Despite being together longer than many of today’s country stars have been alive, the Oak Ridge Boys will bring a high-energy, family-friendly show to the Grandstand. Not only that, but they are enjoying the success of a new album produced by one of the most sought-after names in Nashville, and even after 45 years, they are unafraid of new experiences.
“We’ve played pretty much everywhere, but this is the first time I remember this fair,” said bass singer Richard Sterban in an interview with the Monitor Recorder. “It’s always exciting to try someplace new. We look forward to it.”
Since teaming up in 1973, the Oak Ridge Boys – which also includes lead singer Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall and baritone William Lee Golden – have been one of the most popular groups in both gospel and country music, and they plan to keep going as long as possible.
“The thing is, we do not plan to retire,” Sterban said. “We’re still having fun, we still love what we do. We live for bringing music on stage and to our fans.”
With that in mind, they intend to do their best to make their performance Saturday a memorable one. “We will do our best to make it a great night,” Sterban said. “We’re going to be doing what you expect. We will do ‘Elvira.’ We will do ‘Y’All Come Back Saloon.’ We will do ‘Thank God for Kids.’ You’re going to hear me go ‘Giddy-up, a oom-papa-oom-papa-maw-maw.’ That’s the law!”
There will be many special moments to look forward to during the concert. Besides “Elvira,” Sterban encourages fans to look out for Golden’s rendition of “Thank God for Kids.”
“Every day, that’s a highlight of our show,” he said. “William Lee Golden has a way of interpreting lyrics and communicating to an audience. When you look out, you can tell how much it touches people.”
Of all the songs they have recorded, which include 17 number one hits featuring all four singers, Sterban’s favorite is “I Guess it Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes.”
“It sounds like it was written by a guy going through a heartbreaking experience,” he said. “Randy VanWarmer wrote it about his father passing away. It’s a nice track, and Joe Bonsall does a great job on it. It’s a special song, no doubt about it.”
The Oak Ridge Boys have their roots in gospel music and switched to country soon after teaming up, but they’ve never forgotten where they came from.
“Gospel is who we are,” Sterban said. “We want to do a balance. It is something meaningful, something special to all of us. We were all taught right from wrong, and that stayed with us well into our adult years. We still want to sing how we were raised.
“Even at the height of our success, we were very careful about the lyrics in our songs. We sing about positive things – not about getting drunk or cheating.”
The Oak Ridge Boys’ work in recent years has resulted in them finding a new audience among younger fans. Earlier this year, they had a chance to perform on-stage with Miranda Lambert. They also performed “Doin’ it to Country Songs” with Blake Shelton in 2016 on the CMT Awards Show, ending with a couple choruses of “Elvira.” Earlier in the year, they had recorded “Doin’ it to Country Songs” together. Since then, they’ve performed with Shelton at several music festivals.
“It gave us a chance to make contact with modern country fans,” Sterban said. “We’ve seen a mixture of young and old people at our concerts – it’s been pretty exciting for us.”
17th Avenue Revival
Along with their classic hits, fans can look forward to songs honoring veterans and the United States, along with some new music from their latest album, “17th Avenue Revival,” which was released earlier this year. The Oak Ridge Boys worked with Dave Cobb, who produces some of the best acts in country music, including Chris Stapleton and the Zac Brown Band. Previously, Cobb had worked with the Oak Ridge Boys on their “The Boys Are Back” album.
The album was a special project the group wanted to do to commemorate their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“It turned out extremely well,” Sterban said of the album. “We won’t get too carried away, but we will play some new music from this album. A lot of it has been very meaningful to a lot of our fans. It affects people in a very positive way.”
In particular, fans should watch out for “Brand New Star.”
“It’s a highlight of the show,” Sterban commented. “It’s a great way, a very special way, of looking at someone dying.”
Sitting down for lunch with the Oak Ridge Boys before recording the album, Sterban said Cobb encouraged them to think of singers like Elvis, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis and what made them special.
“The first singing they ever did was in church,” Sterban recalled. “We want to capture the feeling of being in an old-time revival meeting.”
And that’s what they did. The album isn’t entirely gospel music, but many songs are. Some of them are so old, Cobb had to go to the Smithsonian to find the lyrics. 
The final product has drawn rave reviews, and Sterban credits Cobb for much of that. 
“Dave Cobb is a genius at taking the old and marrying it with the new,” he said. “He took us down roads we’d never been down before and accomplished our goal of doing something new.”
Their collaboration with Cobb has been so successful there are already preliminary plans for a third album with him. The plan is for the group to return to the recording studio sometime next year.
A Brotherhood of Individuals
Each member of the Oak Ridge Boys has remained an individual, even after so many years on the road together.
“Each guy in our group is totally different,” Sterban said. “Each one brings something different to the table, and I think we’ve learned to respect that over the years. We have been the very best of friends. We are a true brotherhood. A special relationship exists between the four of us. Hopefully, you can tell we like each other.”
When they’re not on the road, each of the Oak Ridge Boys pursues different interests. Bonsall spends time on his farm, Golden pursues photography, and Allen listens to songs. As for Sterban, “I love baseball,” he said, adding he is a fan of Vanderbilt. He also used to be co-owner of the Nashville Sounds, a minor league team.
Keeping up with the times
The music industry has changed greatly since the Oak Ridge Boys joined forces. In the early 1970s, music was distributed on vinyl records, and a singer or group might communicate with fans through meet-and-greet events and radio and television interviews.
That has changed greatly in the past 45 years. Now, music can be purchased online or on CDs (although records have made a comeback!). 
“There was no such thing as social media,” Sterban recalled of his early years in the music industry. “You recorded your album and toured. Now, we’re very active on social media, as well as more traditional media.”
In keeping up with the changing times, though, he noted there are advantages to being in a group. Each member of the Oak Ridge Boys has his own Twitter account, and the group has Facebook and Twitter pages. Bonsall maintains the Twitter account, while Allen posts on Facebook. Sterban’s role is to talk to the press when the group is coming to town.
“There is still a need in this business for newspapers and radio stations,” he said. “There is strength in numbers. We try to cover our bases.”
Who is Richard Sterban?
Sterban’s individual story starts in Camden, N.J., as the oldest child of an Italian mother and Polish father. He began singing at age six as a boy soprano and was a tenor until the summer between his seventh and eighth-grade years, when his voice dropped to the low bass with which fans are now so familiar.
After high school and a year of college, he started a career as a gospel singer. As a member of one early group, the Keystone Quartet, he sang with fellow future Oak Ridge Boy Bonsall. The two met while Sterban was working in men’s clothing at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia and soon became best friends. 
Sterban then joined J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, whom he sang with for about two years. About three-quarters of that time was spent on the road with the King of Rock-and-Roll, Elvis Presley.
“I’m so glad God let me do that,” Sterban said of singing with Elvis. “I have some very fond memories of spending time with Elvis and getting to know him a little bit. His tour was the biggest in the music business. That was very, very exciting. He was a very special person.”
It was while on the road with Elvis in November 1972 that Sterban received a call from Golden, informing him the Oak Ridge Boys’ bass singer intended to leave the group. They were offering him the spot.
“He asked if I was interested in joining,” Sterban said. “I had to make a decision. I enjoyed singing with Elvis, but I was a fan of the Oak Ridge Boys. I thought they had a lot of potential.”
With that in mind, he left Elvis. “A lot of people questioned that decision,” he said, “but I think history has proven I made a pretty good decision. A lot of good things have happened to me personally and the Oak Ridge Boys.”
That culminated with the group’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which Sterban considers their greatest accomplishment, followed closely by their being invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.
“When you look at the people in the Hall of Fame,” he said, “for the Oak Ridge Boys to be part of that family is pretty special. Some of the biggest, greatest names ever are in the Grand Ole Opry. To be part of that list is so special – it really is.”
Roots of the Oaks
The Oak Ridge Boys’ history dates back to World War II. The original group called themselves the Georgia Clodhoppers. They formed in 1943 (the year Sterban and Allen were born!), and they were based out of Knoxville, Tenn. Shortly after forming, they started playing country and gospel music at nearby Oak Ridge, where the atomic bomb was being developed. Due to that connection, the group changed its name to the Oak Ridge Quartet. By the 1950s, they were lauded as one of the top-drawing gospel groups in the United States. 
That popularity continued through the 1960s and early 1970s, as the current line-up started taking shape. Golden joined the group in 1965, with Allen following a year later. Sterban accepted his invitation to join in 1972, and Bonsall came on board in 1973. Since then, there has only been one change to the quartet, when Steve Sanders took Golden’s place from 1987-1995. Golden re-joined the group at the beginning of 1996, and they have been together since.
In the mid-1970s, the Oak Ridge Boys started branching into country music but did not break through until 1977, with “Y’All Come Back Saloon.” Their biggest hit was “Elvira” in 1981. Among their other big hits are “Bobbie Sue,” “American Made” and “Thank God for Kids.”
They have won 11 Dove Awards, four Academy of Country Music Awards, four Country Music Association Awards and a Grammy. They were inducted in the Gospel Hall of Fame in 2000, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001, the Grand Ole Opry in 2011 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
Make sure to come out and see these country music legends at the 125th Mighty Howard County Fair!

Cresco Times

Phone: 563-547-3601
Fax: 563-547-4602

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Cresco, IA 52136

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