After 40 years together, the Oak Ridge Boys continue to find ways to reinvent themselves and appeal to younger audiences.
They’re heading out on tour behind their newest Christmas album, Christmas Time’s A-Coming, and will bring their holiday show to Spotlight 29 Casino on Saturday, Dec. 14.
The Oak Ridge Boys came together in Oak Ridge, Tenn.—the birthplace of the atom bomb. The group evolved from a group that original member Wally Fowler was in. The Oak Ridge Boys would form their signature sound by combining gospel with country—which, at first, earned the group the scorn of both gospel traditionalists and country-music fans.
“Back when we first came on the scene, people were saying we weren’t country enough,” said bass-singer Richard Sterban during a recent phone interview. “They were complaining we were too pop-sounding. It’s kind of ironic that now, the way country music is changing and has evolved, we are considered ‘classic country.’ It’s mind-boggling that back then, we weren’t country enough.
“When I watch the award shows now and listen to country radio … I can see where we don’t fit in there any longer. That’s not really us. We don’t do that, and we’re much more traditional. My 18-year-old daughter and her girlfriends listen to country music, and today’s country music has become today’s pop music.”
At a time when they were feeling a bit uncertain about their future, the Oak Ridge Boys found themselves recording with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family (which included Johnny’s wife, June Carter Cash). The Carters were gospel singers while also being influential in folk and country music. They made the Oak Ridge Boys feel right at home.
“They were wonderful people, there’s no doubt about it—especially Johnny Cash,” Sterban said. “If it wasn’t for Johnny Cash, I don’t think there would be the Oak Ridge Boys today. Johnny and June took us under their wing and made us part of their family in a lot of ways. They put us on live dates with them and helped us out financially when we were struggling and starving.”
Sterban also said that Johnny Cash gave them some advice that took them to the next level.
“He could tell we were discouraged. So one day, he called us up to his hotel room in Las Vegas at the Hilton, and he gave us a little bit of a pep talk. He said, ‘You guys have something very special. I can tell it, and you guys know it. If you guys give up, no one else is ever going to know about it. What you guys have to do is find a way to stick together and keep going. I promise you if you do that, good things are about to happen to you guys.’
“We walked into that room with our heads were hanging, and walked out of that room with our heads held high.”
Sure enough, the Oak Ridge Boys went on to find commercial success after taking Cash’s advice. Of course, like any band that’s been around for four decades, the Boys have gone through lineup changes and record-label drama.
“I think the most important thing is that after all of these years, we still enjoy doing what we do,” Sterban said. “We still look forward to getting onstage, and taking our music live to our audiences. … We enjoy being Oak Ridge Boys. In a way, we reinvent ourselves a little bit when we create new music. We’ve been able to record music that is relevant to today’s marketplace.”
The Oak Ridge Boys have indeed managed to stay relevant. They did a cover of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” for their 2009 album The Boys Are Back; it earned the group praise from audiences young and old.
“That may be the best example of what I was talking about with reinventing ourselves,” Sterban said. “We recorded a song with Shooter Jennings and met his producer, David Cobb. We were able to work it out with David Cobb. It was his idea to do ‘Seven Nation Army.’ He said, ‘Trust me, fellas. This will be a good song for you guys. You guys are a vocal group, and we want you to stay true to that.’ We did a lot of the instrumental stuff on that song with our vocals.”
Last year, the Oak Ridge Boys released Christmas Time’s A-Coming, their sixth Christmas album. They decided to make it more acoustic and traditional, recording Christmas classics along with songs that explain the story of Christmas.
While their upcoming concert is indeed a Christmas-themed show, fans of the Boys’ classics can rest easy: A set of “regular” music will be followed by an intermission and then the Christmas set.
“Our Christmas shows are a real bargain—it’s two shows in one,” Sterban said. “We come out, and for about 45 minutes, we perform our regular music. We do a lot of the hits people expect to hear. Then we come out and do a complete Christmas show, and we cover every aspect of Christmas. We cover the romantic side of Christmas; we cover the fun side of Christmas; and then we do a segment … we call the “Rocking Chair Segment,” and the four Oak Ridge Boys take turns, one by one, talking about childhood Christmas memories and what Christmas music means to the four of us. It’s a great chance for people to get to know the Oak Ridge Boys, because we talk about ourselves and our childhoods.”
The Oak Ridge Boys will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14, at Spotlight 29 Casino, 46200 Harrison Place in Coachella. Tickets are $45 to $65. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5566, or visit www.spotlight29.com.