By MARINA WATERS
When Tennessee Governor Bill Lee invited the country gospel band, the Oak Ridge Boys, to join in the state’s celebration honoring Tennessee’s 225th anniversary of statehood on Tuesday, June 1, in Jonesborough, the band gave an emphatic “yes.”
“We are really excited about coming and being a part of this thing,” Richard Sterban, the band’s bass singer told the Herald & Tribune. “We really are. Every guy, without hesitation, when the governor invited us, we said, ‘Yes, we would be glad to do it.’ We have a long history in the state as well. I feel like it’s very appropriate the governor invited the Oak Ridge Boys to be a part of this.”
History certainly isn’t lost on the band. The Oak Ridge Boys’ own history goes back to the ‘50s when the original members changed their names from the Georgia Clodhoppers to the Oak Ridge Quartet after spending so much time at the Oak Ridge site where folks were working on the World War II-era atomic bomb also known as The Manhattan Project.
“Our history goes back to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which isn’t too far from Jonesborough,” said Sterban, who joined the band in 1972. “They would go sing for people working on the atomic bomb who couldn’t leave for security. They had security clearance so they could go and entertain there. As a result of going to play there on a regular basis, they changed their name from the Georgia Clodhoppers to the Oak Ridge Quartet.”
The band’s history doesn’t end there. The band’s resume includes a Country Music Hall of Fame induction, multiple Grammy, Dove, Country Music Association and Academy of County Music awards and records with the likes of Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Merle Haggard and many more in their 50-year career.
And this year the band is celebrating 40 years of their 1981 hit, “Elvira.”
“I think in the studio we realized we had something special,” Sterban recalled. “It felt like a hit. The musicians were all smiling. Everybody was having a good time. The song went down very easily. We had it down in two or three takes. We felt really pretty good about it. We thought, ‘Wow, we do have something special on our hands here.’”
The song was written by Dallas Frazier who penned the song in1966 after seeing a fruit stand and the street name, “Elvira Street,” in East Nashville. Sterban said his deep “Giddy up oom poppa omm poppa mow mow” part of the song was written as an imitation of the bumps in the road that day in 1966 when Frazier was struck with inspiration for the song.
“He saw this fruit sign, “Elvira’s Fruit,’” Sterban said. He pulled over immediately and right there on the spot, he wrote ‘Elvira, my heart’s on fire for Elvira.’ Songwriters will tell you you never know where inspiration will come from to write a song. In this case, it came from a street sign.”
The song went double platinum, earned the band one of its five Grammy Awards and remains one of the most recognizable songs in the band’s discography. But it also served as one of the many signs for Sterban that he had made the right choice less than a decade ago when he left Elvis Presley’s band to join the Oak Ridge Boys.
“Here I was on top of the world singing with Elvis,” Sterban recalled. “I had to make a decision. I was a big fan of the Oak Ridge Boys. I loved the music they were making. I felt like they had a great deal of potential. So I made the decision to leave Elvis to join the Oak Ridge Boys. A lot of people questioned my decision. Now almost 50 years later, I think I probably made a pretty good decision.”
The band doesn’t rest on its music history, though. The band is gearing up to release its latest album “Front Porch Singin’” on June 11, just over a week after the band performs at the statehood event in Jonesborough.
The album, Sterban said, is a product of being home during the pandemic rather than rolling on with another year of about 160 days on tour. Instead, the band was able to spend time in Nashville recording the album with six-time Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Cobb, a Nashville producer who has worked with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, among others.
“If you know anything about the music scene here in Nashville, you know Dave Cobb is very hot right now,” Sterban said. “He is a genius at being able to capture the heart and soul of a group like the Oak Ridge Boys. He gets those voices out there in front. Not a lot of instrumentation. It’s about the four voices.”
For the Oak Ridge Boys, gospel-led songs like their new single “Love, Light And Healing” is what today’s world is looking for.
“As the title implies, it was just that, four guys, just kind of gathering on a front porch in an informal way and just harmonizing,” Sterban said. “It’s a project that features some familiar songs, a lot of gospel, which I think we need right now, but also some brand new country songs.
“For the most part, just about every song on the project was very inspirational in nature. The songs contain messages that we all need with what we’ve all been going through in this country of ours. I don’t think we originally intended for it to be that way, but it kind of developed as the project went along.”
Before the Oak Ridge Boys continue their Elvira 40 Tour throughout the rest of 2021, Sterban said the band is more than happy to spend some time in Jonesborough to perform some new tunes as well as some old ones in celebration of the Volunteer State’s birthday.
“We travel a lot and we’ve been to every state in the Union, everywhere,” Sterban said. “Tennessee is a very special state. I love my home state of New Jersey, but there’s something very special about this state. We are honored to be longtime residents of the state.
“It’s just going to be the four of us (at the Jonesborough event), no band. We are going to talk about what Tennessee means to us and how important this state is to us. Then we are going to sing a few songs, some “Elvira,” — and yes,” Sterban said with a laugh, “I will do the ‘omm poppa mow mow.’”
The June 1 event in downtown Jonesborough is free to the public. Attendees are encouraged to bring blankets and chairs and can RSVP at www.facebook.com/GovBillLee. Additional events throughout Tennessee in honor of 225 years of statehood will be announced as they are scheduled. For more information and event updates, visit www.Tennessee225.com.