With a winning vocal blend and an ear for catchy material, the Oak Ridge Boys have brightened the country music landscape for nearly 50 years. The lineup today remains as it was in 1973, when the Oaks embodied a gospel sound that simply felt good – due in part to a lively stage presence and a pop polish that transcended the traditional boundaries of gospel.
Founded in 1945, and once known as the Georgia Clodhoppers, the ever-changing ensemble updated its name in 1962. William Lee Golden joined in 1965; Duane Allen followed in 1966. Already big fans of the gospel group, Richard Sterban signed on in 1972, with Joe Bonsall coming on board a year later. In 1973, they charted briefly on a Columbia Records single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family titled “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup.”
Despite the modest reception at country radio, they remained a concert staple, often on package tours. When artist manager Jim Halsey spotted them at a record label showcase, rousing the crowd with gospel music, he could tell these guys had something. Halsey told them they needed to go all-in on country. They heeded his advice, and under his management, the Oaks slowly evolved. “Family Reunion,” their 1976 country single on Columbia, came and went. Then, after signing to a different label, they finally had the hit they needed: “Y’All Come Back Saloon.”
Written by Sharon Vaughn and released by ABC/Dot in 1977, “Y’all Come Back Saloon” put listeners right inside of a picturesque honky-tonk. Set to a leisurely tempo, the Oaks told the irresistible story of a tambourine-playing woman and the man she knew as Cowboy. Between their four singers, the group could hit just about any note, giving them a vocal range that instantly set them apart from other new artists. “Y’all Come Back Saloon” reached No. 3 at radio and led to their first Grammy nomination in a country category. The album of the same name won an ACM Award and their follow-up single, “You’re the One,” rose to No. 2 in 1978.
Suddenly, the Oak Ridge Boys were the hottest group in country music. They collected their first No. 1 single with “I’ll Be True to You” and picked up 1978 Vocal Group trophies from the CMA and ACM. They wrapped the decade with more strong showings on the country chart for the singles “Cryin’ Again,” “Come on In,” and “Sail Away.”
In the 1980s, you couldn’t listen to country radio without hearing the Oak Ridge Boys. “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” a cinematic Rodney Crowell masterpiece, brought the Oaks their first No. 1 of the decade. Now on the MCA roster after a label merger, the group appeared unstoppable, racking up singles such as “Trying to Love Two Women,” “Heart of Mine,” and “Beautiful You.” But in the spring of 1981, everybody’s heart was on fire for “Elvira.”
Written by Dallas Frazier after he noticed a street sign for Elvira Street in East Nashville, “Elvira” – which had already been cut by a few other artists — finally had its moment with the Oak Ridge Boys. A smash hit of the era that any generation could sing along to, “Elvira” rocketed to No. 1 at country radio, became a Top 5 pop hit, received Single of the Year honors from the ACM and CMA, claimed a platinum certification, and won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
If that was the last thing that ever happened to the Oak Ridge Boys, their place in country music would be secure. But of course, the hits kept rolling in, such as 1981’s “Fancy Free,” 1982’s “Bobbie Sue,” and 1983’s “American Made.” They continued to invest in Nashville’s songwriting community through memorable compositions like Gary Burr’s “Make My Life With You,” Eddy Raven’s “Thank God for Kids,” and Randy VanWarmer’s “I Guess I Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes.”
Along with maintaining a mainstream profile on The Tonight Show and similar programs, The Oak were selling records, too. From the double-platinum “Fancy Free,” a pair of platinum hits collections, and four gold albums (including 1982’s “Christmas”), their output remained pretty consistent through the release of their 1987 album, “Where the Fast Lane Ends.” Despite the title, it actually proved a sharp reroute. The project offered back-to-back No. 1 singles but it also marked the departure of William Lee Golden as he pursued a solo career amid strife in the band.
The Oaks recruited their touring guitarist Steve Sanders to fill the vacancy. For the next few years, they carried on with chart-topping singles like “Gonna Take a Lot of River” and “No Matter How High.” However, by 1989, country’s aesthetic was quickly changing and the Oaks had to compete for airplay with a flood of artists from a new generation. They departed MCA (which became the hottest label of the ‘90s) and signed with RCA. But after their 34th Top 10 hit, 1991’s “Lucky Moon,” their profile at country radio began to wind down.
Still, for dedicated fans, the group had a major surprise up their sleeve. Just after midnight on January 1, 1996, Golden resumed his spot in the middle of an Oaks performance. (Sanders had quit in 1995; he died in 1998.) By 1999, the Oak Ridge Boys had charted their 48th single on Billboard’s country chart, with 17 of these reaching No. 1. They received the ACM Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award in 2007, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 2011 and were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
For the past 25 years, the beloved quartet has remained on the road and stayed surprisingly prolific in the studio, too. Since 2005, they have received Grammy nominations for four releases. On record, they’ve been embracing their gospel history as well as their country roots (although a 2009 cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” caught more than a few fans off guard).
In the summer of 2021, they released an album titled “Front Porch Singin’.” Allen explained that their producer Dave Cobb asked what kind of music the Oaks would make if it was just the four of them, singing on a front porch. Going with that theme, the project spans from gospel standards like “Unclouded Day” to old favorites like “Red River Valley.” Recorded during COVID-19, the Oaks were socially distanced but their voices continued to be united.
The group spent the year getting reacquainted with the road. “Traditionally, we’ve been a group that has traveled a lot, toured a lot,” Sterban told the Paris Post-Intelligencer in June. “We missed what we do because we feel what we do best is to perform live for our fans.”