Oak Ridge Boys Talk Hopeful Hall of Fame Induction, Friendship with Kenny Rogers and the Story of ‘Elvira’
The Oak Ridge Boys have survived all the changes in country music with a large and loyal fan base that still keeps them on the road today. It’s amazing that these four guys, who’ve been together since 1973, still have a busy touring schedule and just became official members of the Grand Ole Opry. On top of that, on September 19, they are releasing a new collection of music through Cracker Barrel stores titled ‘It’s Only Natural.’
Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys recently took the time to chat with Taste of Country about the group’s history, Kenny Rogers and ‘Elvira.’
Around 1944, a guy name Wally Fowler put the original group together, and of course it survived a fluctuating line-up through the years to the four we know now. Would you say that the Oak Ridge Boys, going back to the beginning, would be the longest running group in music today?
Well, I do know that there has been as you mentioned and alluded to, an Oak Ridge Boys group since World War II when the original Georgia Clod Hoppers became known as the Oak Ridge Quartet from singing over at the Manhattan Project secret installation, where they were working on the atomic bomb and the war. That’s where it all started for the Oak Ridge Quartet. Wally Fowler became involved, they moved to Nashville, ran the Friday Night singing convention at the Ryman and changed members throughout the ’50s, changed the name to the Oak Ridge Boys and William Lee Golden joined the group in ’65, Duane Allen in ’66, bass singer Richard Sterban in ’72 and myself in ’73.
So I mean like, for instance, I joined the Oak Ridge Boys when I was 25-years-old and I’m 63 today, so that’s a lot of years of being “one of the,” as I write about in my book. That’s my middle name: “one of the.” It is, for all of us it is. But the fact of the matter is, when we come onstage or you see the Oak Ridge Boys sing, yes I think that we probably bring as much or more history to the stage than any other act you might know. I got to think that the Sons of the Pioneers may go back that far. I’ve tried to rack my brain a few times on that, but again, there’s no original Sons of the Pioneers; well, there’s no original Oak Ridge Boys either, what am I talking about? I’m just saying, there may be an act or two that, whose history goes back there. People like the Chuck Wagon Gang, some of the gospel acts like the Blackwood Brothers — I mean, I know they go back to the ’40s. The Statesmen were singing in the ’40s. So there are some groups whose history goes back that far, I believe; we’re not the only one. But probably of the really more popular acts over the decades, I would say we probably bring more history with us than anybody.
We appreciate the fact that you’re still active, and so do the fans, because classic country music is harder and harder to find … It’s great you’re still out there on the road, offering that live music to your fans.
Well, that’s the cool thing about the Oak Ridge Boys. You know, everybody’s feeling good, singing good. I mean, of all of the acts from our era, so to speak, there’s very few out there playing right now. Kenny Rogers and us … I can’t even hardly think of too many more that go out like we do. I mean, we’re still playing 150 dates a year, we’re still doing a big Christmas tour every Christmas season and we’re still making new music. We’re still in the studio, we’re still out there putting on a big time show every night. So, I think it’s a real blessing and it’s a just very forward thinking group right here, the Oak Ridge Boys. It’s always like, “How do we next year, how do we do it better than we’re doing it now? What new songs can we find to freshen things up? How can we freshen up the stage show?” It’s just the way the guys think in this group, and it’s really been a pleasure and an honor to have spent my life with the Oak Ridge Boys. To be honest with you, it’s a great place to be.
Two of your biggest hits were about women: ‘Elvira’ and ‘Bobbie Sue.’ They were both big No. 1 hits. Did you guys really know anybody named Elvira or Bobbie Sue that inspired these songs?
Well, I’ll tell you the truth. Dallas Frasier wrote ‘Elvira,’ and he got the idea from a street name in Madison, Tennessee, so there was not even a woman involved in Elvira. ‘Bobbie Sue’ actually came from the songwriter’s baby who was trying to say bottle and was going “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,” and the songwriter, one of which was Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn, came up with the idea for “B-b-b-b-bobbie Sue” after they heard their baby asking for the bottle. So I guess there wasn’t even a girl involved in that, to be honest. To the best of my knowledge, there is not an Elvira or Bobbie Sue, except all of those poor girls born in ’81 whose parents named them Elvira because of the song. We still hear from them; they’re still mad at us.
Now, Joe, in my humble opinion, I think the Oak Ridge Boys should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and we know that will happen one day. When you do go in, what would you say or who would you thank?
Well, I’ll tell you what. I try to keep my expectations low. We’ve been very fortunate. You know, we’re in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame; we’re members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. The four of us are individual members of our various states; Richard and I are members of the Philadelphia Music Alliance Hall of Fame, William Lee Golden is in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and Duane Allen is in the Texas Music Hall of Fame. So we’ve had a lot of these type honors bestowed upon us, but I’ll be real honest with you: The Country Music Hall of Fame would be ultimate honor. I think it would be very moving, and I think would put an incredible cap on a great career, to be named to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I think that our track record is deserving of it. I think that over 50 charted hit records, a constant career, the things we have accomplished all of these years, are probably worthy of the Hall of Fame … but I’m not on that Board. I don’t know how they see it and how they don’t. see people in the Hall of Fame that have not had near the career we have had, so I think that there’s a chance and opportunity.
Who would I thank? First of all and foremost, I would thank my dear departed mother, Lilly Bonsall, because if not for her, I would not be singing today or be doing anything positive today. So, my mother would get my thanks and my God would get my thanks because I think God has blessed the Oak Ridge Boys with incredible health, great talent, great brotherhood, and great fellowship. The ability to be able to keep this group on the road depends on good health. We’re four guys that are not the young kids on the block anymore, but we’re doing good out there and we’re singing as we’ve ever sang; maybe better, singing strong. So, you know, you go hear the Oak Ridge Boys, [and] it ain’t like you’re seeing an Oak Ridge Boys tribute act, or you’re not hearing a bunch of old guys trying to sing anymore. You got a bunch of guys up there that still care about what really matters in this business, and that’s doing it really right. And if that’s criteria to be in the Hall of Fame, then so be it. And I think it would be the highest honor that we could possibly achieve if it ever happens.
If you look back, who was your favorite artist to tour with or what was your favorite tour during the height of your career?
Well, my favorite tour had to be the Cookin’ Tour in 1982, riding ‘Elvira,’ ‘Bobbie Sue,’ ‘Thank God for Kids’ and everything else. I mean, we were selling out coliseums every night and we had all kinds of great acts with us. I remember Exile toured with us a lot back in those days and they were fun, fun tours. But I gotta go back to the tour before that in ’78-’79 and into ’80, the Full House Tour with Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. We were the hot young act in the business. We were getting the awards; we were getting the accolades. Dottie and Kenny had the big duets; Kenny was riding ‘Lucille’ and ‘The Gambler.’ Between all three of those acts, we played 90 cities, 90 coliseums … the first big production coliseum tour in the history of country music. Nobody had done it like that before. And so, the Full House Tour — I like to say of ’79, but [it] actually stretched into ’80 and part of ’78. I think that was the most meaningful tour of our career, and we learned so much from Kenny Rogers and we love Dottie West, bless her heart. And it was just a big, big deal thing to be a part of and it was our first really taste of the big, big time. I think it kind of set the peg for us to be able to go out on our own tour in ’81, ’82, and ’83 on the heels of ‘Elvira,’ ‘Bobbie Sue’ and so forth.
At Kenny Rogers’ 50th year anniversary celebration, you were there with him, and you guys all seemed thrilled to be together like old friends. Why do you like or admire Kenny Rogers?
Well, Kenny’s a great act. I mean, I go back personally to loving the First Edition. They sang big time harmony and they sang cool songs. Funny thing is, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition cut ‘Elvira’ years before the Oak Ridge Boys. They also cut ‘Sail Away’ before we did. So, I mean, I always looked up to Kenny and the First. And that night, as you know, they were all together there too; I thought that was really cool.
We got to know Kenny after ‘Love Lifted Me’ came out, and we did a few dates with Kenny — I think it was in Virginia,where Kenny invited us to do a show or two with him out there. The chemistry worked so well. That’s what set the road and pathway for the Full House Tour. And I’ve just always liked Kenny. He’s a good man, he got a big heart, and he’s really smart. He knows what a good song is and he knows how to perform it, and he knows how to get as much out of his talent as he possibly can. And again, like the Oak Ridge Boys, [he's] very forward thinking. Here’s a guy right now that ain’t no young chicken anymore either — and he’s got a bad back. He can’t hardly get out of his bus to the stage, but you know what, he gets out there and still puts on a big Kenny Rogers show. [Kenny's show] ain’t always my cup of tea as much now as it used to [be] because Kenny’s not spontaneous anymore. I used to the love the Kenny spontaneity. He pretty much puts on the same show every night now, but he still makes it work so I have respect for him for that. I like a little more spontaneity. I like the change the set list every night, I like to keep it open for something we might throw in. I don’t know that Kenny does that as much anymore, but I still love and respect Kenny Rogers and he’s probably been one of biggest influences on the Oaks.
I wrote a book years ago called ‘An American Journey: Thirty Years on the Road With the Oak Ridge Boys,’ and I’ve got a chapter in there that talks about Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean, Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers being the most influential people in our lives. And they all took us on the road with them. We learned something from all of them. When it came to Johnny Cash and Jimmy Dean, we weren’t even worth taking on the road back then but they did it anyway. They just loved us for what we were worth, and I learned a lot from being around people like Johnny Cash. I sometimes wonder how the kids today … I think there’s still a fellowship out there; I see it sometimes.
I know last year we did a bunch of dates with Miranda Lambert, and I know Blake Shelton is a big historian and a real fan of the older acts and he taught that to Miranda. So sitting around with Miranda and her band, we were toasting Merle Haggard. I know when we were a younger act we really relied on the older acts to help us out.
Watch the Oak Ridge Boys Perform ‘Elvira’