On a rainy morning in Nashville, Tenn., the Oak Ridge Boys’ idling tour bus is parked outside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where they’re scheduled to sing a little later. For the moment, however, the members of one of the longest-running and most successful vocal groups in musical history are relaxing in the bus’ forward cabin, recalling one of the darkest—yet most life-affirming—days of their four decades together.
Last April 7, a deadly tornado ripped through the Oaks’ hometown of Hendersonville, Tenn. (pop. 40,620), and demolished a portion of the historic 221-year-old house owned by William Lee Golden, the quartet’s bushy baritone.
“It was a wild experience,” recalls Golden, 68, who rode out the storm in the basement with his wife, Brenda, and their 5-year-old son, Solomon. “You hear it taking the roof off and blowing the windows out. We feel fortunate that we survived it.”
After the twister cut a swath of destruction directly across Golden’s property, his singing partners worked feverishly to get to him. Lead singer Duane Allen, 63, who lives two miles away, tried to drive to Golden’s home but was stopped by downed trees that blocked the roadways. Bass singer Richard Sterban, 63, managed to navigate the chaos and arrived on site, followed soon after by tenor Joe Bonsall, 58. “The house looked like al-Qaeda hit it,” Bonsall recalls.
Stronger than ever
Within eight months, Golden had rebuilt his home, making improvements so the structure is sturdier than before. It is an apt metaphor for the Oak Ridge Boys. Like Golden’s historic house, the group has weathered storms—both personal and professional—and today stand stronger than ever.
The Oaks’ roots date back to 1943 with the formation of a gospel quartet named for the East Tennessee town where they first performed regularly, Oak Ridge (pop. 27,387). The group’s lineup changed as years passed, with more than 30 members coming and going before the current lineup fell into place. Golden joined in 1964, Allen in 1966, Sterban in 1972 and Bonsall in 1973.
In 1974, the foursome shifted to country music—a transition met with significant opposition from their gospel fan base—and, after a difficult start, eventually began a run of radio hits that included their signature upbeat harmonies on “Elvira,” “Bobby Sue,” “Fancy Free” and “American Made,” as well as a dozen other chart-toppers. They won five Grammys, two Country Music Association awards and four Academy of Country Music awards.
But tension in the group led to Golden’s exit in 1987 over concern that his hairy “mountain man” appearance didn’t fit the Oaks’ image. There were struggles with record labels and lagging sales. By the 1990s the group had fallen out of favor with mainstream radio, and it seemed that the Oak Ridge Boys’ best days were behind them.
After several years dabbling in music publishing and recording studios, the group sold most of those business ventures and worked to regain their focus and direction, returning eventually to what drew them into the business in the first place. “We got back to what we all dreamed of doing as little boys,” Allen says. “Singing in a harmony group.”
Real American values
Most importantly, Golden was welcomed back into the fold in 1997. With its most popular lineup again in place, the group recorded a string of well-received albums. Last September, the quartet released Front Row Seats, filled with songs that reflect the small-town life and real-America values they’ve witnessed through decades of cross-country touring, averaging some 150 days on the concert trail each year.
On the road, they’re once again a hot ticket. “We have sold-out houses just about everywhere we play,” Bonsall says with pride. “People know that when they come, they’re gonna see a good, fast-paced, wholesome, clean show with a lot of music and a lot of fun.”
Fans of all ages fill their audiences. “The typical Oak Ridge Boys fans would probably be baby boomers,” Allen says. “But now we’re seeing their kids and even their grandkids.”
Some of the folks who grew up on the Oaks have formed singing groups of their own. “I remember my mom, my dad and me riding around in our big 98 Oldsmobile with an eight-track of the Oak Ridge Boys, jammin’ out,” recalls Jimi Westbrook, a member of the new country music quartet Little Big Town, who fulfilled a childhood dream when his group sang with the Oaks last summer.
And their audience is expanding. The Oaks recently took part in the National Association for Music Education’s National Anthem Project, which is devoted to ensuring that schoolchildren learn “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“For the last year, the Oak Ridge Boys have been appearing at grade schools, middle schools and junior high schools, so those kids are now familiar with the Oaks,” says Jim Halsey, the group’s longtime manager.
Country and community
The National Anthem Project is only one of the deserving endeavors supported by the Oaks. They try to connect their fans with charities such as the relief group Feed the Children and America Supports You, which encourages communication with soldiers abroad.
The Oak Ridge Boys headlined a United Way fundraiser that netted $100,000 for Golden’s fellow Sumner County tornado victims and joined in the rebuilding of a Hendersonville family’s home, as featured on ABC-TV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Their love for their country and community reflects the love in their own households. All are married with children: Allen has a son and a daughter; Bonsall has two daughters; Golden has four sons; and Sterban has three sons and two daughters.
Having journeyed across four decades together in the roller-coaster music business, group members consider their relationships with one another like those of a family, with the same fellowship, friendship and frustrations that accompany blood relations.
“We all love and respect each other,” Bonsall explains. “That doesn’t mean we all get along every minute of every day. All four guys are as different as night is from day, but we’ve all learned how to be men. You not only have to be solid oaks, you have to be willows. You have to learn to bend a little bit.”
They also have come to appreciate that, working collectively, they create a beautiful synergy. “When we come together as the Oak Ridge Boys, we think as one,” Allen says. “It makes us bigger than any one person can be.”
Because of that attitude, the group has forged a powerful bond that withstands the tests of time, trouble and tornadoes. The Oaks have no intention of retiring, or scaling back their touring schedule.
“We’re not the young guys on the block anymore,” Bonsall says. “But we’re singing good, we’re feeling good, we’re making new music, we’re constantly reinventing ourselves and people still come out to hear the Oak Ridge Boys. Why would we quit?”