The first 45 record I ever had and could call my own was The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira”. You wanna talk about a hit? There wasn’t a radio station that didn’t play the Oaks. Every variety show on TV (of which there was a proliferation in the early ’80s) showcased the quartet with such regularity that they nearly felt like members of the family. They were and still are that recognizable. And perhaps there’s no more discernable voice than that of Richard Sterban, the bedrock bass vocalist of the Oak Ridge Boys whose deep delivery of the famous “Oom Poppa Mow Mow” still rolls and rumbles full strength into the cosmos. Sterban joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972 after performing as part of the Stamps Quartet alongside Elvis Presley. It’s a decision he has always embraced. The Oak Ridge Boys have had hits on top of multiple charts, they’ve earned more awards than I have room to list within these confines, they’re Gospel Music Hall of Famers, Country Music Hall of Famers, and they’re not even close to slowing down. At the time of this interview*, Mr. Sterban was in Branson, Missouri preparing to rehearse for the Oak Ridge Boys’ annual Christmas tour. We spoke on a variety of subjects– the Oaks’ time in the studio with Dave Cobb, their success as crossover artists, and of course, Oom Poppa Mow Mow. The Oak Ridge Boys will be performing live at the Macon City Auditorium on Friday, March 4th.
AI- I know it’s been out for just a little bit, but I want to start with 17th Avenue Revival, the album that you did with Dave Cobb– your publicist sent me a streaming link for it and I’ve listened to it like five times since last night. I thought it was just an amazing record. You guys recorded that all around one microphone– is that right?
RS- Not the whole project, but a lot of it, let’s put it that way. Dave Cobb, he’s big on capturing the voices, making sure that it’s the most important thing. And then if it’s necessary, adding some music later. There was one song in particular on this project, “A Brand New Star”… We had recorded that song with a track, and I remember being in the studio with him and he was listening to it, trying to make some changes. He kind of liked what he was hearing and he’s making a few changes. He said, “Fellas, follow me,” then he grabbed his guitar. He said, “Let’s go out into the studio.” He said, “There’s something about this that I don’t quite like.”
We went out into the studio, the engineer put up a microphone right in the center of RCA Studio A– probably the most historic recording studio in Nashville. It’s a very special place. We went out there with him– just the four of us and him and his guitar– and we then re-recorded “A Brand New Star”. [Cobb said] “This is what I’m looking for!” So it happened on that particular song. There was a couple of other songs– not the whole album, not the whole project, but a lot of it was done that way. Dave Cobb, he’s a master of taking the old and marrying it with the new, if that makes any sense. I think Chris Stapleton is probably the best example of that there is. Chris Stapleton is a blues singer… Actually, he even sang in a bluegrass band. He took old-time bluegrass, old-time blues– he married it with modern-day country. And it’s amazing what he came up with.
On this particular project, 17th Avenue Revival, [Dave Cobb] took old-time rockabilly and he married it with gospel, and the results are amazing. Really. I remember the first day we sat down with him to talk about this project. He said, “I want you guys to think of Elvis. Think of a Jerry Lee Lewis, that old rockabilly kind of sound, and maybe some old blues singers. Think of Ray Charles. What was it about those guys that made them so special, that made us like them so much?”
He said, “It’s the same thing that makes you guys special. The first singing that they ever did, the first music they ever performed was in church. It was gospel music. That’s the same thing that makes you guys special! You guys used to sing primarily gospel music!” And so he said, “What I want to do is not necessarily a whole gospel album, not necessarily a whole gospel project– a lot of it will be– but the most important thing is we want to go to church. We want to go and tap into that feeling of going to an old-time revival meeting.” And that’s what we did on this project.
Dave Cobb knows what he’s talking about because his mother was a Pentecostal preacher– and he’s been to his share of revival meetings! He knew what he was talking about and all of us did as well. So there in that old historic recording studio, RCA Studio A, we went to church– and it was very special. You could feel the history in that room when we were recording there. I mentioned Elvis. Elvis actually recorded in that studio. Johnny Cash, George Jones, Dolly Parton did most of her stuff there… It’s a very special place. We had a special time working with Dave Cobb, ’cause he’s really a very special guy. He really is.
And now you’ve got a brand new Christmas album coming out and you’re back with Dave for that. Did you guys go with the same approach?
It’s a very similar approach. That’s the way Dave Cobb does things. But on this project, it’s a little bit different. This will be our eighth, believe it or not, our eighth Christmas album. We already have seven out. We have already recorded just about every Christmas song that there is out there. I think we’ve done “White Christmas” now like three times! To make this project just a little bit different, we got some brand new Christmas songs on this along with a few traditional things. With Dave Cobb being as hot as he is right now in Nashville, he has access to all the hot young writers…
I wanted to ask you about that directly because I know that you’re planning another album with him. And one of the things that was amazing about 17th Avenue Revival was how many of those great songwriters were on that record as well as your previous record.
17th Avenue Revival is a great example. There’s old hymns on there that we grew up on as kids going to church, going to Sunday school. But there’s also some of today’s contemporary country writers represented on that project.
Brent Cobb, Ashley Monroe…
Shane McAnally, one of the hottest writers in town! Vince Gill has a song on there. Our good friend Jamey Johnson… In fact, we also cut a Christmas song written by Jamey Johnson as well. But what I was trying to say, [Dave Cobb] has access now to these hot young songwriters and some of these writers wrote some brand new Christmas songs especially for the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas project, Down Home Christmas. Once again, it was very exciting working with Dave Cobb. It really was.
Have you begun the song selection process for the next album?
No, we just finished the Christmas album up just about a month ago now. And the rest of this year we will not have time to go into the recording studio. The next project with Dave Cobb will be for sometime next year. It’s a little premature at this point. We do not have session dates booked. We haven’t even talked with Dave Cobb about it. Thing is, about working with Dave, he is in such demand that when you work with him, you’ve gotta get in line! You’ve gotta wait your turn. You really do. So it’ll be some time next year, but I don’t know yet. We have not even talked with Dave Cobb about what direction we’re going to go. We’ve recorded three albums now with Dave Cobb, and we know that he’s going to take us down some roads musically, once again, that we’ve never traveled before. So we’re looking forward to that too.
You’ve always sung in church individually and with the Oak Ridge Boys, you’ve really always been gospel. But you had some amazing crossover hits with songs like “Elvira” and “American Made” and “Bobby Sue”. Was it difficult to maintain a balance with that kind of success? Playing gospel music and then finding yourself directly in mainstream country and pop fame?
It’s not difficult for us. First of all, [it’s] something we’ve always wanted to do. I remember years ago before we ever had our first country hit, we talked amongst ourselves and we figured singing just gospel, we’re kind of marginalized. We really are. There’s a limit to our audience, so we wanted to expand our horizons. Through the work of our manager, Jim Halsey, he recommended that we do this. Jim, actually, he negotiated our first contract with a major label. It was ABC/Dot at the time, which then became MCA, and he acquired the services of Ron Chancey, who produced all of our hits. And I remember Jim saying, “You guys are three minutes away from being a major act.” He said that if we could come up with a country hit, “you guys, you’re on your way.” And sure enough, Ron Chancey was able to do that.
Ron is a great song man. He produced most of our number one country records. He found our first hit ever, “Y’all Come Back Saloon” written by Sharon Vaughn. I remember sitting in Ron’s office when he played that record for us, and we all looked at each other, and we went, “Wow, this is what we’ve been looking for!” I think the demo itself was so good, it could have become a hit! It’s one of the few records we ever recorded where we got it like on the first take! I think we sang it through and got the vocals and then there’s a section of it we had to go back in and redo just a little bit of it, but it went down so easy. You could tell– it felt like a hit while we were recording it! And the rest is history. It became our first number one country record. And then for like the next 15 years, everything we released went to the top of the country music charts. We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve been very blessed. We’ve had such a great career. We really have.
Well, let me ask you this, sir– Oom Poppa Mow Mow. If it ain’t the most famous vocal bass line of all time, it’s got to be in the top five, but I want to know does it ever get old or do your batteries get recharged every time that comes around in front of the crowd?
First of all, I think you’re right. It is one of the most famous bass lines– and thank the good Lord, I was fortunate enough to be able to record it. I had no idea! Believe me, I had no idea I was even gonna do it! When we listened to Dallas Frazier’s version of “Elvira”, you know, he wrote the song, he had Oom Poppa Mow Mow on there, but it wasn’t a bass singer. It was Ron Chancey’s idea for me to do the Oom Poppa Mow Mow line. So I remember when we got into the studio, I kind of just added my way of doing things to it. I added my approach to it if that makes any sense. And sure enough, it turned out okay. As a result, I think you are right. It’s one of the most famous bass lines ever.
To maybe answer your question, no, it does not get old. Even last night when I was singing it, I was looking down… There was a gentleman like two rows in front of me at the show last night, and he was trying to sing the Oom Poppa Mow Mow along with me! I see that almost every night– especially men trying to imitate me and do the Oom Poppa Mow Mow part along with me. It still is a lot of fun and when we come your way, when we come to Georgia, we are going to include, you can count it… “Elvira” will be on the show! You will hear me do “Giddy up, Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow.” That is the law. That is the song that people expect to hear from the Oak Ridge Boys– along with all of our other hits.
You’re gonna hear “Thank God For Kids”. William Lee Golden! My Lord, what a job he does on that song! He has a way of communicating that feeling to an audience. And you can tell it’s touching people out there. You can tell it’s moving people. So we will do that, our first hit ever, “Y’all Come Back Saloon”, a lot of the Oak Ridge boys hit records– but then we’re gonna include some of the music from 17th Avenue Revival ’cause it’s very, very special. You said you listened to it several times?
It’s music that is very meaningful. It’s music that is really touching people’s lives. It’s music that’s helping some people through difficult times in their lives. We don’t like to get too carried away with new music and unfamiliar music, but we feel like we definitely have to include some music from 17th Avenue Revival along with all of our hits. And you know, we’re patriotic guys too. We like to honor our country and our troops and our veterans, and we’ll do some of that– but it’s just going to be a great night of good country music and good family entertainment. That’s really what the Oak Ridge Boys are all about.