Oak Ridge Boys bring 40th anniversary tour to Walworth County Fair

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Ann Fiore
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

JANESVILLE—Richard Sterban, the deep voice of the Oak Ridge Boys, follows a far busier schedule than most 70-year-olds.

He had a couple of media telephone interviews scheduled this particular morning, despite being up late performing at the Kentucky State Fair the previous night. It was the band's 35th year playing there, and “we nailed it,” Sterban said.

Now, he and the boys—Duane Allen, 70; Joe Bonsall, 65, and William Lee Golden, 74—are on to the next thing: preparing for the rest of their 40th anniversary tour and working on a live album.

As if that weren't enough, Sterban just had a book released this month.

The 40th anniversary tour will bring the Oak Ridge Boys to Elkhorn on Friday, Aug. 30, during the Walworth County Fair.

Even after 40 years with the Oak Ridge Boys, Sterban sounds energized and excited. He believes the country-gospel quartet has never sounded better.

“We are, in some ways, a phenomenon,” said Sterban, best known for his “giddyup-oom-papa-oom-papa-mow-mow” refrain on the 1981 hit “Elvira.”

“I think, in some ways, we're singing better than we've ever sang.”

The Oak Ridge Boys started in the 1940s as the Oak Ridge Quartet, a Southern gospel group. Membership has changed over the years, but the current group has been together since about 1972. Around that time, the band also began its switch from gospel to country, and a string of crossover songs followed, including “Elvira,” “Bobbie Sue” and “Thank God For Kids.”

“Elvira,” in particular, was an instant hit and earned the band its fifth Grammy Award in 1982.

The Oaks' new compilation album—“The Oak Ridge Boys 40th Anniversary: Celebrating Faith, Family, & Freedom”—embraces that history with both country and gospel songs, along with a few patriotic numbers.

Sterban has been around long enough to watch country music grow from a niche market in the 1970s to a mainstream force today. While he's happy about that, he admits that the Oak Ridge Boys don't exactly fit in.

“The fact that we're still doing this, and still doing it at this level, boggles my mind,” he said.

Live shows continue to be the group's strength, Sterban said. The band is on the road about 150 days a year, playing concerts and meeting with fans.

“Being good onstage is very, very important,” he said. “We pride ourselves that when we walk onstage, we give people their money's worth.”

Author Scott McKain agrees that part of the Oak Ridge Boys' appeal is their live shows.

In a recent blog post titled “Why Your Business Should Be More Like the Oak Ridge Boys,” the business writer noted that the band has three principles that have kept it successful: It distinguishes itself from other acts; it lets each member shine, and it treats its customers right.

“Why are the Oaks still filling auditoriums, when groups—some with just as many hits—have disbanded because they can't sell tickets?” asked McKain, who has become a fan over the years. “Simply this: the Oak Ridge Boys create an experience their customers want to repeat … and share with their friends, to the point of bringing them along!”

Sterban said the Walworth County Fair concert will feature country, gospel and patriotic hits that fans will recognize, as well as some new music.

And, yes, they'll sing “Elvira”—which at 32 years old should have its own anniversary party. Other artists have performed the song, including songwriter Dallas Frazier, but it never caught on until the Oak Ridge Boys sang it.

Sterban said the song is the biggest-selling single ever recorded in Nashville.

“It's something we're proud of—very proud of. If we don't do 'Elvira,' I don't think people will allow us to leave town.”

Sterban said the Oak Ridge Boys are still having fun and have no plans to retire anytime soon.

“It's very special, it really is,” he said. “To be able to do this for 40 years is mind-boggling. If you had told us 40 years ago that we would still be doing this at this age, I don't think any one of us would have believed it.”

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