By SHANNON WATKINS
Richard Sterban, the Oak Ridge Boys’ bass singer who joined them in 1972, has a voice that’s deep and resonant and recalls the creak of seasoned hardwood that’s been through a lot of weather. The band’s fans might be surprised to learn that the singer, part of a band associated with country, gospel and Nashville itself, was actually born and raised in New Jersey.
His accent isn’t quite southern, but it isn’t really reminiscent of the industrial North, either. In a phone interview, he speaks decisively but with a polite cadence, giving each question due consideration and filling in the details conscientiously. His first answer covers what’s new in the section of show business he knows so well.
“There’s been a lot of changes,” he says of the country music industry. “When we first came on the scene, things were a lot simpler. The biggest change since we came on the scene is technology. We used to have to stand at one microphone and sing.” He briefly mentions Autotune and other sound engineering marvels. “I think the music itself has really changed. What young kids today are doing is totally different from what we did. The music they listen to is country, but today’s country is really the new pop music. I can see why they don’t invite us onto the awards shows anymore.”
Careful of causing offense, he adds, “I don’t mean I don’t like the new kids who have come into the business. They have raised the bar several levels. How could you not see that as a good thing? I’m not one of these older country music artists who begrudges them at all.”
Sterban would seem entitled to anoint or deny country music’s youngsters as he chooses; in paying his dues, he got his big break singing backup for Elvis Presley as a member of the Stamps Quartet and, along with the other Oak Ridge Boys, received encouragement from no less than Johnny Cash while working on a single with the Man in Black. The band themselves have won five Grammys, among numerous other awards. But he’s more interested in focusing on the present, and what’s to come.
“It’s our fortieth anniversary and we’re still going strong,” Sterban says. “We’re still doing good. We spend 150 days a year on the road. One of the main reasons we’re still around is we love doing what we do. We still have fun doing this. Over 40 years, we have developed a friendship and respect that is second to none. We respect each other as men and artists. I think a long time ago we realized we couldn’t do it without each other.”
They’ve even expanded their reach, adding a cruise to the list of options fans can enjoy. “I think it’s going to be an annual event,” he says. Running from Miami through the Caribbean for several days in late February, Sterban says it’s called the “Oak Ridge Boys Rally-at-Sea.”
As for nearer events, Sterban says fans at the New River Community College show next Saturday can enjoy “a lot of the hits, songs that people expect to hear. We’re gonna include some of the new music, too. We’re gonna honor our country, we’re gonna honor our troops. There’s something for every member of the family. Our show is kid friendly and we encourage parents to bring their kids.”
So what’s their most popular song? You can almost hear Sterban grinning over the phone. “There’s no question: ‘Elvira,’” he says. “If we came to town and did not do Elvira, we’d get arrested or something. It’s still to this day the highest-selling single to ever be recorded in Nashville.
Their favorite song to perform is a little more difficult to pin down. “It’s very hard to zero in on one. While ‘Elvira’ is the most requested song that we have, I would say ‘Thank God for Kids,’” he says. “Out of all the songs we’ve recorded, that’s the most meaningful song we’ve recorded. I think it has more meaning since we’re all grandfathers now.”
Having toured so extensively, is there a particular place they’ve noticed that gives them the most enthusiastic reception? “It’s hard to say,” declares Sterban, and then pauses. “The Midwest has always been our strong suit. There’s always been something that’s special about the Midwest for us. But we do well all over the country. Middle America’s really our audience.”
“We love doing what we’re doing, and we’re looking forward to coming,” Sterban says of the upcoming show. “We’re going to do our best to make the evening worthwhile for everyone.” For the benefit of the band’s diehard fans, he adds, “We have no plans to retire. As long as the good Lord above keeps blessing us with good health, we’ll keep doing this.”
The Oak Ridge Boys’ performances on Saturday, Sept. 14 will begin at 2 and 7:30 p.m. in 117 Edwards Hall. Doors open at 1 and 6 p.m. General seating tickets for both shows are $30. They can be purchased at www.nr.edu/fiddle (credit card only, with a $1 service charge per ticket) and by cash or check only at Pulaski County Visitor’s Center in Dublin and at 215 Edwards Hall. For more information, contact Roger Adkins at 674-3600, ext. 4307, or www.nr.edu/fiddle.
For more information about the Oak Ridge Boys’ history, discography and their annual cruise, visit www.oakridgeboys.com.