Each year, the Kentucky State Fair has hosted the Oak Ridge Boys. In fact, they have been back for 35 consecutive years, bringing entertainment to the fans both young and old. I was fortunate to speak with Richard Sterban, who sings the deep bass vocals for the Oak Ridge Boys, about their adventures with the fair, as well as upcoming projects.
With the KY State Fair, there are traditions such as the funnel cakes, the World Championship Horse Show, and of course, the Oak Ridge Boys. What keeps you guys coming back each year?
It’s tradition I think as much as anything. It’s the people here; the people that treat us so wonderfully well year end and year out. Most of these people started out with us before we ever had any hit records and they were there through our big success. They continue to be there and now their families, their kids are coming to see us. So it’s become a tradition. The year would not be complete if the Oak Ridge Boys didn’t come Louisville. We’re excited about being back here for 35 consecutive years. We missed the fair one year and it was the year that we were a part of the KY Derby celebration so we didn’t come to the fair. Another factor is Dave Snowden of Triangle Talent and the KY State Fair keep booking us.
That formula is working.
Yes, they are happy with us and we’re happy with them. It’s really the people that make it all possible.
Even with Renfro Valley, there is something about Kentucky that keeps bringing the Oak Ridge Boys back.
The people in the state of Kentucky have always been good to us. In fact, when I read the article in the paper [Courier Journal], I emailed it everyone and thought, “maybe we outta move here.”
How has the crowd changed over the years?
Well obviously as we have gotten older, our crowd has gotten older. A lot of the folks are older and were here when we were filling up Freedom Hall and had to do shows twice in one day. Everybody was younger back in those days, so the crowd’s gotten older. But at the same time, you look out there and we see kids out there. That’s the thing that’s really mind boggling about this whole thing is that these people that have grown up with this, they have made it a family tradition. It’s a family celebration and now their kids are coming to see us. That tells us that we may still have a future here.
When you were first at the KY State Fair playing in Freedom Hall, what was the hit song at the time for the Oak Ridge Boys?
Actually when we first started here, we didn’t have any hits yet. The fair booked us and took a chance before we ever had “Ya’ll Come Back Saloon.” Then when we started having hit records, then things really mushroomed on us and then our career caught on. When we had “Elvira,” then we started packing Freedom Hall. I know one year for sure, maybe it was two years, we had to do two shows a day because of the crowds.
Do the Oak Ridge Boys plan on slowing down anytime soon?
We do not. We have 152 days booked for this year. That’s about right on average. We average somewhere between 150 and 160 dates a year. As long as the good Lord blesses us with good health, you’re going to see us out there doing it. Even after all these years, we love doing this. We love what we do and motivates us to continue to do it. We’re still having fun after all these years. We love having fun out there.
I know that with a lot of performers, once you have so many hit songs, you start to play medleys of shorter versions of the songs. Sometimes, it feels like as a fan you are cheated out of a full song performance. However, with the Oak Ridge Boys, you choose to play the full song.
We feel like people want to hear those hits, so we try to do as many of them as we can. We’re also excited about our new music, so we’re including new music from “The Boys are Back.” We’re doing gospel music because our fans expect gospel from the Oak Ridge Boys. We might even do a patriotic song or two. It’s just a well-rounded night of country music and great family entertainment. There’s something for every member of the family.
I think that’s one good thing with the Oak Ridge Boys, there’s something for everybody and you don’t have to worry if it is a clean family show or not.
We would never do something that would offend our kids, let alone someone else’s kids.
That’s a great thing and I know as a fan, we appreciate it. What do you think is the secret to the success of the Oak Ridge Boys?
I really think that there are several factors. We’ve been very fortunate to have hit records. But I think it goes back to the fact that we love what we do. When we love what we do, it drives us to continue doing this. We’re at a great place in our career where we can look back on a long career and a very success career. We’re still excited about our future and I think that’s important. We still enjoy the creative process of going into the studio recording new music. We have plans of going into the studio next year and record some more new music. So we’re excited about that. Like I said, as long as the good Lord blesses us with good health, hopefully you’ll see us this time next year. Hopefully, we’ll all still be healthy.
Speaking of new recordings, you have been working with Jamey Johnson on a special Blind Boys of Alabama project. What song, or songs, did you sing on?
We did one song, and the song was written by a friend of ours, Jerry Sally, who goes to my church by the way. We hung out in the studio with Jamey Johnson and the Blind Boys of Alabama all day. We had a wonderful day and got to know them for a little bit.
In the last 35 years of performing at the Kentucky State Fair, what is one memory that sticks out in your mind?
It’s so difficult to zero in on just one. I think it’s the people here. They are the ones that make it special here. For them to come out here year after year and experience this celebration. To experience that celebration with these people, it is a memory that never goes away.
These days, the Oak Ridge Boys collectively are active with social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. Do you feel that you are touching more fans or broadening your horizons with a more “insight”?
I think so. We try to take advantage of the technology that is out there today. There’s a totally different way of doing business than there use to be, but there is still a need for the old traditional ways. That’s the beauty of our group – Duane is on Facebook, Joe is on Twitter. I’m not a real technical guy. I answer emails typing with one finger, but I’m the guy that does most of the interviews. I talk to radio stations, as well as media like you. In this industry, there is still a need for that traditional media so that is really my area.
Finally, are the Oak Ridge Boys currently working on a new album?
The rest of this calendar year, we are so busy that we won’t have time to go in the studio. We are planning for next year doing a couple different projects. We’ve become known for our Christmas music over the years. Our Christmas tour is our biggest tour of the year. Every year it gets bigger. Next year we are definitely working on a new Christmas album. We’re also talking about doing another patriotic album or country album. We’re not for sure which yet, but we are definitely going back into the studio. The Christmas thing is a definite, but we don’t know what date yet.
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. The Berea College graduate has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, historical articles, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite musicians. Jessica is proud to be a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the FFA and 4-H Clubs. In 2018, she was named one of Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award Recipients. In 2019, she was a member of the Inaugural class of BRIGHT Kentucky as part of Leadership Kentucky. She has been featured on the Kentucky Music Preview podcast, Hollercast podcast, Overtones radio show, WFKY Nashville News Roundup, KET, and more. Beyond music, she enjoys traveling, helping her community, collecting gnomes, and Volkswagens.