STORY WRITTEN BY KRISTIN M. HALL
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When Kenny Rogers announced that he was retiring from touring, the Oak Ridge Boys were saddened.
“I have always thought, if Kenny Rogers can still be doing it, we can still be doing it,” said Richard Sterban, the group’s bass singer. “After next year, Kenny won’t be doing it and there will be a void.”
Added Joe Bonsall, “I can’t imagine Kenny Rogers not being out there.”
But don’t expect the four-part vocal group to follow Rogers’ lead anytime soon. They are as busy as they have ever been, traveling to Branson, Missouri, almost every weekend to perform at the theater named after them and getting ready to do a 31-city Christmas tour that kicks off around Thanksgiving. Locally, they will be at Sellersville Theater on March 6.
On Sunday, Bonsall, Sterban, Duane Allen and William Lee Golden, who have all been performing together since 1973 as the Oak Ridge Boys, will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as one of the few gospel acts to successfully transition to secular music and become hit makers in multiple genres. Also being inducted this year: the late Jim Ed Brown; his sisters, Maxine and Bonnie Brown, and the late Grady Martin.
The band’s origins date back to the Oak Ridge Quartet formed in 1945 by gospel icon Wally Fowler. The name of the band and the members changed during the ’50s and ’60s, but by the early 1970s, the band’s current lineup started outgrowing the genre. They had four Grammys for gospel performances already, but signed to a new label in the hopes of reaching a wider audience.
“We were sort of the renegade gospel band,” Bonsall said. “We grew our hair longer. We didn’t dress alike. Our songs were cooler. We hired a band and had a rock n’ roll drummer. We drove people crazy in Southern gospel in those days.”
They were helped out by artists like Johnny Cash and Rogers, who invited them out to play arenas with him on his Full House tour with Dottie West in 1979. They started having country hits like, “Y’All Come Back Saloon,” ”I’ll Be True to You,” and then their biggest hit, “Elvira,” which took off in 1981. In the 1980s, they headlined arenas and amphitheaters and even Garth Brooks opened for them.
Bonsall, who recently put out a book called, “On the Road with The Oak Ridge Boys,” said the key to their longevity is recognizing that no one individual is greater than the group.
“We are spokes in the wheel and the wheel turns,” Bonsall said. “Each individual spoke brings individual talents and ideas and different personalities to the table that makes this group go.”
And the wheel is still turning.
“The best part about this is we are still going strong after all of these years and we do not plan on retiring,” Sterban said. “We are still having fun doing this and we love what we are doing. At least for the short term certainly, we plan to keep on singing.”