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Music / The Oak Ridge Boys

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The most famous lineup as seen in 1986. From left to right: Richard Sterban (bass), Joe Bonsall (tenor), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Duane Allen (lead).

A long-lasting Country Music group, although they weren't originally one. The band began in the 1940s as the Oak Ridge Quartet, a Gospel Music group composed of Wally Fowler, Lon Freeman, Curly Kinsey and Johnny New. The group split from Fowler in 1949, and several membership changes later, Smitty Gatlin headed a new lineup in 1957. He also pushed the band to a more country-folk sound, changed their name to the Oak Ridge Boys in 1961, and recruited baritone vocalist William Lee Golden in 1964. After Gatlin retired, Duane Allen joined as lead vocalist, and Noel Fox and Willie Wynn took over on bass and tenor.

In the 1960s and into the early '70s, the band achieved some notability in the gospel field, and even won a Grammy Award. By 1973, Joe Bonsall had taken over on tenor vocals and Richard Sterban on bass vocals, thus forming the most popular and well-known lineup of Allen (lead), Bonsall (tenor), Golden (baritone), and Sterban (bass). After a few false starts, including a guest appearance on a low-charting Johnny Cash single and a few dud releases on Columbia Records, the Oaks broke through in 1977 with the Top Ten hit "Y'all Come Back Saloon". From then until the late '80s, they would remain a constant fixture on the country charts. "Elvira" and "Bobbie Sue" netted the group a couple crossover pop hits. Golden was fired in 1987 and replaced with Steve Sanders, who remained until 1995 when Golden was allowed to return.

Although the hits dried up in the early 1990s, the Oaks are still recording to this day and remain a popular touring group, even to generations that were born well after their last hits.

Their songs are sometimes confused with ones performed by The Statler Brothers, which is understandable since they both started out in gospel and had the same vocal configuration (tenor, lead, baritone, bass). Musically, however, the most well-known version of the Oak Ridge Boys was more of a contemporary country-pop group, while the Statlers tended to stick with more traditional country, and the distinction was even greater visually, as the the Oaks typically wore their regular clothes while the Statlers favored three-piece suits.

Tropes present:

  • Attentive Shade Lowering: "It's Hard to be Cool in a Minivan" tells about an attractive woman in a shiny convertible pulling up to a middle-aged guy in a minivan to lower her shades in a smug manner and give him a self-satisfied wink, making him feel self-conscious about his dirty vehicle.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Dream On" and "Thank God for Kids", while they were big Country chart hits, have arrangements that owe more to this style than to any familiar Nashville sounds, complete with gentle openings that eventually lead to big rousing choruses, plus sentimental lyrics.
  • Basso Profundo: Richard Sterban has an impressively deep voice. The famous "oom papa mow mow"s on "Elvira" go as low as C2, but he has gone even lower: he hits an F1 at the end of "Trying to Love Two Women", and he is confirmed as having gone as low as E♭1.
  • Christmas Songs: They've recorded numerous seasonal albums over the years.
  • Dead Sparks: "Lucky Moon" has the narrator realizing through an eavesdropped phone conversation that his wife is unsatisfied, and as a result, he pleads for one more chance.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: To anyone who knows only the most famous lineup and mainstream country sound, their fully gospel albums from the early incarnations can be quite the weird listen. Also, in a visual example, William Lee Golden didn't start growing his beard out until after Bobbie Sue.
  • Forgiveness: "Come On In (You Did the Best You Could Do)":
    I dreamed I was dying in Texas
    I closed my eyes and I sighed
    Like a black and white movie I saw my days
    Playing out before my eyes
    I was crippled by a life of injustice
    I was bent from walking into the wind
    I pled guilty on the day of judgment
    God just shook my hand and grinned
    And He said "Come on in, you did the best that you could do
    There's a little bit of right in every wrong
    There's a little bit of Me in you"
  • Genre Shift: Gospel to country.
  • I Will Wait for You: "I'll Be True to You".
  • Inherently Funny Words: The name "Monongahela" in "Gonna Take a Lot of River" must've struck them as this, as they even named the album Monongahela.
  • Isn't It Ironic?: "No Matter How High" is clearly dedicated to a love interest, as the line "You've always been there for me, baby, I must confess" makes clear. However, the music video director clearly missed this line, as the video shows all four Oaks reuniting with their mothers. (One wonders why they didn't just take the word "baby" out of the song, which would make it more open-ended...)
  • It Will Never Catch On: Duane Allen said in an interview with American Country Countdown that he didn't think that "I'll Be True to You" would be successful due to the song having a Downer Ending. It wound up being their first #1 hit.
  • Long-Runner Line-up: The Golden/Sterban/Bonsall/Allen lineup, twice (1973-1987, 1995-present).
  • Love Triangle: "Trying to Love Two Women" is all about how stressful having two lovers can be on a man ("Trying to love two women is like a ball and chain").
  • New Sound Album: Y'all Come Back Saloon marked the point where they fully shifted from gospel to country.
  • Ragin' Cajun: They had a big hit with their version of Rodney Crowell's "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight", about a young Cajun woman who runs off with a drifter, enraging her parents.
  • Repurposed Pop Song: "American Made" was re-written as "Miller's Made the American Way" for Miller Beer commercials.
  • Revolving Door Band Until the Golden/Sterban/Bonsall/Allen lineup was in place.
  • Solo Side Project: Two examples:
    • Joe Bonsall sang guest vocals on Sawyer Brown's 1986 single "Out Goin' Cattin'."
    • William Lee Golden recorded solo material in the late 80s when executives forced him out of the band.
  • Soprano and Gravel: There's quite a lot of distance between Joe's tenor and Richard's bass.
  • Special Guest: They sang backing vocals on Paul Simon's "Slip Slidin' Away"; Simon had congratulated them backstage when they performed at the Grammy Award ceremonies and it ultimately led to the collaboration.
  • Subdued Section: The penultimate chorus of "Come On In (You Did the Best You Could Do)" is A Cappella.
  • Talky Bookends: Present in the video for "Gonna Take a Lot of River".
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: "Elvira" repeats the chorus several times, each repetition going a semitone higher. Sterban's vocal, however, drops down an octave on the first key change.
  • Vocal Tag Team: Although Allen is the de facto lead singer, the band hasn't shied from releasing cuts on which the other members sing lead. Among some of their bigger hits:
    • All four of them trade the lead vocal on the verses to "American Made" and "You're the One".
    • In one of the most notable examples, Joe sings most of "Elvira", with Sterban contributing the iconic "oom papa mow mow" part.
    • William sang "Trying to Love Two Women" and "Thank God for Kids".
    • Richard sang "Dream On".
    • Steve Sanders sang lead several times during his tenure, most notably on "Gonna Take a Lot of River", "No Matter How High", and "Lucky Moon".
    • Their cover of "Elvira" with A Cappella group Home Free has Bonsall, Allen, and Sterban sharing the lead with three of the latter's five members. Home Free bass vocalist Tim Foust also alternates with Sterban on the "oom papa mow mow"s.
  • Wizard Beard: William Lee Golden became a mountain man and eventually grew a long, flowing beard that rivals those guys in ZZ Top. As mentioned above, this led to him being fired from the band to help them pursue a more "youthful" image.