This Saturday night, the Oak Ridge Boys will take the stage in front of a sold out audience at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center. It is an annual event for the group, alongside their trip to the Kentucky State Fair in August. This year marks the 41st time that the Oak Ridge Boys will be performing at the Kentucky State Fair. Just last week, the Oak Ridge Boys performed at the CMT Music Awards along with Blake Shelton. They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as members of the Grand Ole Opry.
Recently, we spoke with Richard Sterban, known for his deep bass vocal chords, about growing up as a gospel singer alongside Elvis to singing “Elvira” with the Oak Ridge Boys. Be sure to pick up his latest book, “From Elvis to Elvira” to learn more about his upbringing, gospel influence, and the work he has accomplished over the years.
Kentucky Country Music: Of all the songs that you have performed, what would be some of your favorite gospel songs to perform live?
Richard Sterban: Well “Amazing Grace” always a great song. It’s one we’ve done for years. Anyone that’s ever been to church will recognize “Amazing Grace.” It’s certainly one of my favorites. Right now, our latest album is actually an album of old hymns. It’s called the “Oak Ridge Boys: Rock of Ages.” It’s the old hymns that we all grew up on as kids going to church and going to Sunday School. Right now we’re doing a song that I really enjoy doing. It’s called “I Love to Tell the Story.” It’s kind of the highlight of our show right now. Joe Bonsall sings the lead vocal on it and does a great job interpreting that lyric. It’s a song that touches people, including us when we perform it.
Along with “Amazing Grace,” the Oak Ridge Boys have performed “Farther Along” at funerals of dignitaries including George Jones, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and Conway Twitty. How are you able to find the strength to perform it with ease at a sorrowful occasion?
“Farther Along” is one that we have sung at several funerals. You basically have to do the best that you can and trust the good Lord above to give you some strength to get through it. That’s kind of what we do.
In your book, “From Elvis to Elvira,” you talk briefly about Elvis singing, “How Great Thou Art.” How would you describe the emotion coming from Elvis while performing that song?
I have heard “How Great Thou Art” many times from many different gospel artists. I don’t think anyone quite did “How Great Thou Art” quite like Elvis. He got into it so much. I would be standing to the side of the stage and actually getting chill bumps listening to him sing it. It was pretty impressive. He had a way to really get into that. Even though he was the King of rock and roll, I really believe that gospel music was his favorite music. He enjoyed singing gospel songs, gospel quartet songs, and spirituals. It seemed like every time there was a spare moment, he would want to get us and sing gospel songs. It’s probably one of my fondest memories of the time that I spent with Elvis was the time we spent singing gospel songs together.
After a couple of years performing with Elvis, you were offered to perform with the Oak Ridge Boys. What provided that extra push to go with them?
I was with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps singing with Elvis on the biggest tour in the music business back then. Elvis was arguably the biggest star in the world back then. When the Oak Ridge Boys called me up, I have to admit that I was a fan of the Oak Ridge Boys. I loved the group. When they called me up, I wanted to be a part of them. William Lee Golden called me up and I knew that I would take the job as soon as he called me. A lot of people questioned my move, asking ‘how can you leave Elvis to join the Oak Ridge Boys?’ I believe the Oak Ridge Boys had a great deal of potential. I don’t think I realized how much potential, but I had a feeling that I would have a good future being a part of the Oak Ridge Boys. Sure enough, history has proven that I made a pretty good decision right there. I went on to bigger and better things with the Oak Ridge Boys. It seems to be a great decision.
With the Oak Ridge Boys, you have performed 41 consecutive times at the Kentucky State Fair – setting a record. The Oak Ridge Boys have also performed for numerous years at Renfro Valley. What keeps you four coming back to Kentucky?
We enjoy performing anywhere people will buy tickets to hear us. Wherever that place is, we like that place (laughing). Kentucky is special, especially the Kentucky State Fair with the 41st year. It’s mindboggling that we’ve been coming back that long. I hope that there are many more years to come for Renfro Valley and the Kentucky State Fair. People of Kentucky are so good to the Oak Ridge Boys. They treat us so well. They are great fans and so we love performing in the state of Kentucky. I can speak for all of the Oak Ridge Boys, we don’t have any plans any time soon to retire. We want to keep doing this for as long as we possibly can. I think eventually you have to be realistic and nothing lasts forever. Some day we will have to retire. I think the good Lord up above will let us know when that time comes and He hasn’t let us know that yet. We plan to keep doing it.
It was interesting that you mentioned in your book of doing a more holistic approach of protecting your vocal chords than rely on a lot of medicine.
I kind of figured out that you have to do what works and that’s what works for me. As far as taking care of your voice, the most important thing is to get enough rest. I think that is first and foremost. Get enough sleep at night and especially on days that you have to sing, try not to talk too much. Talking wears your voice out. I do a lot of the interviews for the group, but I do them on days when I’m off and don’t have to sing that night.
Interestingly, you hear a lot of newer singers have a lot of vocal problems and surgery to help repair damage.
We have been very fortunate. We have been together for 43 years; Duane Allen and William Lee Golden have been in the group for 50 years. We have had very few vocal problems. I think the good Lord above has blessed us first of all, with good health and strong voices. We try our best to take care of our voices, we really do.
JB: When it is all said and done, what would the Oak Ridge Boys like to be best remembered by?
I think as a group, the Oak Ridge Boys would like to be known as a group that made a real contribution to the music business. I think we have done just that. More so than that, I think we want to be a group that has helped people with our music. I think we have done that as well. Especially in this day and age of social media, we get tweets and emails and Facebook messages from people that are going through difficult times that our music has uplifted them and helped them. We never know when we get on stage and look out into the audience; we really don’t have any way what a lot of people are going through. We hope that our music will touch their hearts and touch them and help them go through difficult times. If we can do that and we can help people, as a result of our music, I think we have accomplished something. I think that’s the most important thing.
When I think back to everything that has happened to us, being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame was so special. It’s difficult for me to even find the right words to describe to you how special that whole thing was for us. It was certainly a highlight of our lives. When you look at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and you look at people like Elvis, Johnny Cash, George Jones, the late Merle Haggard, who recently passed away, for the Oak Ridge Boys to be a part of that family, and to even being mentioned in the same breath, it’s very, very special. It is a great thing that has happened to us. Being a part of the Grand Ole Opry is also very special. It’s about a very special family of people and we’re much honored to be a part of that as well.
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.