The Oak Ridge Boys bring their live show to Country Tonite

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 04:28 PM

"When we first heard it, we thought it was a hit song," said Oak Ridge Boys bass singer Richard Sterban of "Elvira," the group's signature number. "But I don't think we realized how big it was going to be."

In 1981, the rollicking tune was a country and pop smash for the group, which performs at Country Tonite on Saturday, June 14. Shows at the Pigeon Forge theater are scheduled for 3 and 8 p.m.

The Oak Ridge Boys debuted "Elvira" live at a show in Spokane, Wash. "It was our first date on the road after we had spent some time in the studio," Sterban said. "We decided to try the new song, so we stuck it in the middle of the show."

The audience went wild, Sterban recalled. "We had to encore that thing several times, right there in the middle of the show," he said. "We could tell, wow, this was a killer."

"Elvira" appeared on the album "Fancy Free" and was the culmination of the Oak Ridge Boys' effort to attain pop stardom.

Starting with the group's breakthrough 1977 country hit, "Y'all Come Back Saloon," the Oaks released a series of increasingly popular recordings that combined tight Southern gospel harmonies with sophisticated songwriting and sleek country arrangements.

"It opened up so many doors for us," Sterban said of "Elvira." "We went from being a regular country act to being a major country act. We went to playing coliseums and stadiums."

The Oak Ridge Boys' origins date back to the 1940s, when the Southern gospel group the Oak Ridge Quartet was formed. By 1973, the Oaks had solidified their now-famous lineup of Sterban, tenor Joe Bonsall, and baritones Duane Allen and William Lee Golden.

They still were focused on gospel, but country beckoned.

"We were happy with what we were doing, but we wanted to expand our outreach," Sterban said. "We wanted to reach more people with our music, and felt the best way to go was country."

The Oaks were one of the most successful country groups of their time, earning multiple Grammys and numerous recognitions from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. Their CMA honors include the 1978 Vocal Group of the Year Award, which ended the Statler Brothers' six-year streak in the category.

Both the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Brothers triumphantly brought a Southern gospel vocal sound to enthusiastic country audiences. Few other groups have done so.

"A lot of other acts tried to copy it but have not been able to do it," noted Sterban. The Oaks succeeded, he said, because they resisted "'gospelling' out – over-singing, with too much vibrato."

To thrive in country, he added, "you don't have to be a great singer. It's communicating the message of the song. You can't over-sing. The lyric is more important."

There's a difference between a great gospel song and a great country song, Sterban said. "We pride ourselves that we can do both."

After "Elvira," the Oak Ridge Boys continued releasing hit singles into the 1990s. Beginning in 1987, Golden, the group's unmistakable "mountain man," was replaced by Steve Sanders. Golden returned in 1996.

The Oak Ridge Boys have put more emphasis on gospel in recent years, and they have recorded patriotic music. Their 2009 CD "The Boys Are Back" featured a lively cover of "Seven Nation Army," by rockers the White Stripes.

The Oaks' latest release, "Boys Night Out," is their first live album. "It's something we've wanted to do, something the fans have asked for," Sterban said. The 14 tracks on "Boys Night Out" include the group's biggest hits, like "Elvira," "Bobbie Sue," "American Made" and "Come On In."

The Country Tonite sets will feature material from the live album. "And a big part of the show is gospel," Sterban said. "We like to pay tribute to our gospel roots. We also are very patriotic guys, and we'll honor our country, the veterans, the troops, the flag."

Sterban encouraged parents to bring their kids: "There's something for every member of the family at an Oak Ridge Boys show."

kburns@themountainpress.com