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Oak Ridge Boys Take Their Impeccable Harmonies 'On The Road'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are a few musical riffs that are seared into my childhood memories - the opening bars of "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson, the big chorus from "Let's Get Physical" by Olivia Newton-John and this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELVIRA")

THE OAK RIDGE BOYS: (Singing) Elvira. Elvira. My heart's on fire for Elvira.

MARTIN: That is the hit song "Elvira" by The Oak Ridge Boys recorded way back in 1981. The group had already been making country and gospel for years by the time that hit song came along. The current lineup of The Oak Ridge Boys has been together on and off since 1973. William Lee Golden, Duane Allen, Richard Sterban and Joe Bonsall are the men behind those impeccable harmonies, and they are still at it. The Oak Ridge Boys have a new CD of hymns and gospels called "Rock Of Ages." And tenor Joe Bonsall has written a book about life with the band called "On The Road With The Oak Ridge Boys." Joe Bonsall joins from member station WPLN in Nashville. Welcome to the program.

JOE BONSALL: Well, thank you very much, Rachel. It's an honor to talk to you today. Thank you for that blast from the past there, "Elvira." (Laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah and in the studio with him is the man with the deep, resonant pipes, bass singer Richard Sterban. Welcome to you.

RICHARD STERBAN: Well, Rachel, it's a pleasure to talk to you as well.

MARTIN: It's a thrill for me. And I promise we're going to talk about your new music. But for the sake of my own nostalgia, may I ask you about this song, "Elvira"? Do you still play it live? And is it something you dread because you've just done it so many times? How do you feel about the song?

BONSALL: No - "Elvira" is a big thing for us. We still play it. We don't dread any of it. In fact, it took us from being a well-known country band to being a household name. So we have to sing it every night. It's the law.

STERBAN: Even to this very day when we'd hit the intro to that song, people jump to their feet. It's a special song. It's our signature song.

MARTIN: Yeah. The harmonies you guys create are pretty amazing. And I'm just wondering - you've been making music for so long - do you hear the harmony automatically? Joe, if you sing a note, can you automatically conjure up what note Richard's going to hit to complement it?

BONSALL: I think, for the most part, we can. And we have a history in gospel music, you know, which is all harmony. We're a four-part harmony group that knows each other inside and out. And then, a lot of times, you know, like on this new hymns album, for instance, sometimes, if a guy really wants to do a song like, in my case, we're going to pick a bunch of hymns to sing. Man, I want to do "I Love To Tell The Story." So, you know, what Duane Allen will say, well, man, if Joe wants to do "I Love To Tell The Story," let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE TO TELL THE STORY")

THE OAK RIDGE BOYS: (Singing) I love to tell the story. It will be my theme in the glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

STERBAN: You know, sometimes in our bus, somebody will start singing, and then the rest of us will just join in. And usually, the harmony parts fall into place. They really do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE TO TELL THE STORY")

THE OAK RIDGE BOYS: (Singing) To tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

MARTIN: Did you both grow up with gospel music in your lives?

STERBAN: Yeah. I think we all did. I think our parents, you know, raised us right. They made us go to church whether we wanted to or not when we were young kids. (Laughter). But we learned gospel music. I know the first singing that I ever did - and this is hard to believe - I was a boy soprano. (Laughter).

MARTIN: No you were not. Are you kidding?

STERBAN: Yeah - in church, in Sunday school.

MARTIN: Wow, that was a big change that happened to you when it came.

STERBAN: (Laughter) In seventh grade, I was still singing tenor.

MARTIN: No (laughter).

STERBAN: Between seventh grade and eighth grade, my voice made a drastic change, and...

MARTIN: What did your choir teacher say?

STERBAN: She put me in the base section in the fall of my eighth-grade year, and obviously, I've been there ever since.

MARTIN: The Oak Ridge Boys are known for making positive music. I read a quote by your band mate Duane Allen who said you don't hear us singing cheating or drinking songs, but loving songs, which we think will last. Which is a lovely sentiment, but, you know, country music - come on. What's the good unless you're going to talk about a little cheating and a little drinking?

BONSALL: Well, I guess we've just never been good at it. Call it our gospel background, call it our upbringing, call it what. We're just not good at singing songs about being drunk in a pickup truck in a field getting hit by grandma by a lightning Bolt.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BONSALL: I mean, we're just not good at it. So there's enough people that are. So we'll just leave that to them, and we'll try to stay on the high road as much as we can. That's what The Oak Ridge Boys are. That's just what we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A LITTLE TALK WITH JESUS")

THE OAK RIDGE BOYS: (Singing) I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in. And then a little light from Heaven filled my soul.

MARTIN: So I want to ask you about touring because, again, you've done it so long, you know each other so well, and you tour a lot playing some 150 dates a year. And, Joe, you start your book off with a scene of the band boarding the tour bus going on yet another road trip. I mean, you have hauled yourselves onto these buses for the last 40-plus years. And yet, in that passage, you still sound like it's exciting. How do you do that? How do you find the newness of something you've done for so long?

BONSALL: We do enjoy doing it. And I think down deep in our hearts, none of us want to see this thing ever end. Everybody's forward thinking, man. It's a constant movement to keep The Oak Ridge Boys going until God says it's time to stop. And I think that's the only way we'll stop.

MARTIN: When you're doing a performance, when you're on stage and you look out into the crowd, is it like looking in the mirror? Are the people showing up to your shows of your demographic? Or are you getting some younger folks in there?

BONSALL: Well, now listen. There's no doubt about the fact that we're a little older now than we once were. The Oak Ridge Boys are...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oak Ridge men just doesn't sound the same.

BONSALL: Oak Ridge old guys.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BONSALL: But - and a lot of our crowd has matured with us. Yes, we look out there and see a lot of folks our own age. But the good news is it's like we've been passed down for generations or something like an old shirt or something. It's like - you got mom and dad, you got grandpa and grandma, you got their kids and their kids still coming to see The Oak Ridge Boys.

MARTIN: Well, you guys did something cool, though. In 2009, you covered a song by The White Stripes, "Seven Nation Army." I want to ask about this, but first let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

THE OAK RIDGE BOYS: (Singing) I'm going to fight them off. A seven nation army couldn't hold me back. They're going to rip it off. Taking their time right behind my back.

BONSALL: That's song probably garnered us more attention over the last seven, eight years than anything we've done since "Elvira." I mean, everybody was blown away that The Oak Ridge Boys were doing "Seven Nation Army." The world is, like, a little tilted on its axis now.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: In a good way.

BONSALL: In a good way.

MARTIN: All right, I'm putting you on the spot. But you said it's your signature song, and it's my favorite. Do you mind doing a little bit of "Elvira" for me to go out on?

BONSALL: Oh, my gosh. Well, I'll tell you what, it's only two of us in here.

MARTIN: I know, but you do it.

BONSALL: Well, I can give you this. (Singing) I said looked like Heaven, lips like cherry wine - and we can go (singing) giddy up...

STERBAN: Oom-popa, oom-popa, mow-mow.

BONSALL: Giddy up.

STERBAN: Oom-popa, oom-popa, mow-mow.

BONSALL: Hi-yo silver.

MARTIN: I'll take it.

BONSALL: That's what you get with to Oak Ridge Boys.

STERBAN: We're kind of lost without our two other partners (laughter).

MARTIN: You guys were great. Joe Bonsall, Richard Sterban of The Oak Ridge Boys. Joe's new book is called "On The Road With The Oak Ridge Boys." The band's new album is called "Rock Of Ages." It has been such a pleasure. Thanks to you both.

BONSALL: We are honored.

STERBAN: Thank you, Rachel. Thank you.

BONSALL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELVIRA")

THE OAK RIDGE BOYS: (Singing) Giddy up, Oom-popa, oom-popa, mow-mow. Giddy up... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.