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Duane Allen Interview: The Oak Ridge Boys Celebrate 30 Years of 'Elvira'

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The Oak Ridge Boys

Taylortown, Texas native Duane Allen is the lead singer of the gospel/country/pop quartet the Oak Ridge Boys. Having had formal training in both operatic and quartet singing, he joined the group in 1966.

Allen is credited with keeping the Oaks on firm financial footing during their switch from gospel to country in the late 1970s. He loves to find new music for the band and over the past decade has taken on the role of producer.

“There’s not much we could do with ‘Elvira’ vocally. We wanted to protect the integrity of the song and not really change it that much. What we did want to do is take out the horns, which pretty well dated the song for the 80s.”

The Oaks’ lineup consists of Allen, William Lee Golden (baritone who also joined in the mid-1960s), Richard Sterban (bass), and Joe Bonsall (tenor). Bonsall and Sterban joined in the early 1970s.

The four-part harmonies and upbeat songs of the Oak Ridge Boys have spawned dozens of country hits and a number one smash, “Elvira,” earned them a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance by a Country Group or Duo in 1982. They have garnered several Academy of Country Music Awards, American Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards, and Billboard Awards.

The Oak Ridge Boys’ latest album, It’s Only Natural, debuted exclusively at all Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations on September 19, 2011. The CD features fresh cuts of some of their biggest hits and five new songs, including “Sacrifice…For Me,” which was written by Joe Bonsall and is dedicated to America’s fallen heroes.

In honor of “Elvira’s” 30th anniversary, the group re-recorded the song, along with former Top Ten Billboard hits “Lucky Moon,” “No Matter How High,” “Gonna Take a Lot of River,” “Beyond Those Years,” and “True Heart” on It’s Only Natural.

Allen and his wife, Norah Lee, raised two children, Jamie and Dee. The couple enjoy spending time with their two grandsons, March and Kell, and two granddaughters, Texas LeeAnna and Tallant.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Duane, nice to speak with you.

Duane Allen: Well, you better have a lot of recording space because I talk slowly.

The Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We’re from the South. We all speak slowly.

Duane Allen: Yeah, you’ve got a little of that in your voice, too (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m in Birmingham.

Duane Allen: Bless your heart. I just talked to Bobby Randall who is living close to Birmingham. Bobby used to play with Sawyer Brown. We’ve got an Alabama boy in our group.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, William Lee Golden is from Brewton.

Duane Allen: There you go.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Duane, how did the Oak Ridge Boys get together with Cracker Barrel?

Duane Allen: Actually, the idea for the association with Cracker Barrel started over ten years ago when they asked us if we would come and sing the National Anthem for the old retired drivers. They have a storytelling church service program on Sunday morning before the race starts. The old drivers just sit around and tell stories. They wanted us to sing a couple of gospel songs and just be a part of that service. It’s not really a church service, but it’s something to respect the fact that many of these guys are believers. The main thing was to sing the National Anthem before the race. That’s when it was called the Cracker Barrel 500 in Atlanta. We made many Cracker Barrel friends at that time.

The next year they called us to sing again, but this time we were in North Carolina. We said, “Yeah, just open up the gate, and we’ll drive our bus right in and do it again for you.” During that period of time, Cracker Barrel was doing a series of CDs that were compilations of songs taken from other albums to keep production costs down. We made them a compilation album of some of our hits and stage songs that they had released a few years back and that sold really well. Unless you’re Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney or some of the major acts in country music you’re not selling too many products these days.

The Internet has changed the way we do business, but Cracker Barrel has really tapped in big time to the CD market. They’re selling online, and they’ve started the download service where you can now do the Internet thing with Cracker Barrel as well. They’re starting that with our product. The album that’s in the stores right now began about a year ago.

I had contacted Cracker Barrel just to see if they were interested in doing something brand new with the Oak Ridge Boys, and they said, “Yes we are. Make us a proposal.” We did, and they accepted it, but a few days later they had a shakeup, and the people we were talking to at Cracker Barrel were changed. We were dealing with the same two people, but they were now in different positions. I began getting together songs for the project.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was your idea for the album?

Duane Allen: I got the Oak Ridge Boys to agree on an idea I’ve been thinking about for several years. The idea was to address the hit songs we had about 15 or 20 years ago when William Lee Golden went solo and when Steve Sanders, one of our band members, came up front and started singing with us.

During that period of time, we had several hits that we’d never ever even staged or sung again during the next 15 or 20 years. We had never performed them, but they were in our catalog of hits. Cracker Barrel asked me if I could put together a new CD project made up of new songs and hit songs – a combination. So, I presented a CD of nine songs. They also asked me to put together my team of people. This happened just about three months ago.

After they went through the reorganization, they took a survey of the acts that would fit well with Cracker Barrel, and the Oak Ridge Boys were on the top of the list. I thought, “Well maybe it’s a good time to get back in touch with them.” I wrote an email one Sunday night at 11:45. I said, “We have this project ready for us, but we’ve been waiting for your reorganization to be complete, so we can do some recording and put our brands together. I’ve always felt like the Oak Ridge Boys and Cracker Barrel would work well together because the same people you have in your restaurants are in our shows.” I got an email back within 15 minutes.

Duane Allen of The Oak Ridge Boys

Duane Allen of The Oak Ridge Boys (Photo by Marc Parker - Editor: Smashing Interviews Magazine)

By the next morning, Julie Craig of Cracker Barrel had asked me to put my team together and to be there next Friday at 10:00 AM. I put together my team, I put together the nine songs I had assembled (approved by the rest of the Oak Ridge Boys), went to Lebanon into a Cracker Barrel corporate meeting and presented the nine songs on a CD.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did “Elvira” get added to the playlist?

Duane Allen: Well, the previous album we had put together was a compilation, and it had ten songs, so I left one song open so that they could be vested in the project. I said, “I’d like to hear your input of what you’d like to have from the Oak Ridge Boys.” They asked if we could do “Elvira” because of the 30th anniversary of the song. I heard from them within a week that it was a go. I told the rest of the Oak Ridge Boys that they wanted us to do “Elvira,” and we had a discussion in the front of the bus about how to approach this.

We knew that Ron Chancey, our longtime producer, was retired. The plan with Cracker Barrel up to this point was to have Michael Sykes and me producing the entire project, but I said, “I think it would be great if we could pay respect to Ron Chancey and at least give him the opportunity to come in and produce a new version of ‘Elvira.’” We all agreed on that, so I called Ron and he said, “Well Ace, you know it pretty well. You don’t need me.” I said, “Ron, we want you there. We’ve already got all the musicians hired, we’ve got the studio time set, and we’ve got the studio reserved. All you’ve got to do is show up. We want you to produce a new version of ‘Elvira.’”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where did the new songs come from?

Duane Allen: Well, in the meantime, Cracker Barrel said that they wanted twelve songs to include two new ones. I called Ron and asked him to go to the publishers in Nashville, and find the two best new songs that hadn’t been recorded that would fit with the Oak Ridge Boys. We needed one of them to fit William Lee Golden where he could take the lead.

Ron came back with “Before I Die” (for William Lee), which is kind of a modern day bucket list song, and I think it’s a masterpiece. William Lee got so emotionally involved in the song he had to leave the session to gather his composure when he recorded it. I think you can hear the passion he had for the song in his voice because that’s the track we kept. The other song that Ron found is called “The Shade.” The complete title is “The Shade Comes Free With the Tree.” It’s pretty much about laying back in your rocking chair out in the country somewhere and just putting a new value on the things that really matter in life.

Ron Chancey produced those two new songs and the new version of “Elvira.” There’s not much we could do with “Elvira” vocally. We wanted to protect the integrity of the song and not really change it that much. What we did want to do is take out the horns, which pretty well dated the song for the 80s. We put in slide guitars and mandolins and funked it up a little bit. Our parts are the same, but we just put a brand new treatment on the musical instrumentation that backs “Elvira.”

If you listen carefully you’ll hear those horn licks, but they’re being played by a slide electric guitar. I think we’ve got two masterpieces in “Before I Die” and “The Shade” that represents our good old buddy coming out of retirement and once again stepping up to the plate and producing three more great songs.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I liked the sound of “What’cha Gonna Do.”

Duane Allen: Sherrie Austin is one of the writers of that song. It actually came from a former road manager of ours, Raymond Hicks, who is married to Deborah Allen. They started a new publishing company and “What’cha Gonna Do?” came from them. It is produced by Michael Sykes and me, and we also produced the other nine songs on the project.

Basically, I oversaw all of the mixing and mastering and made sure that even though there were three producers it would all sound like it was meant to be together instead of sounding like different productions. We did them all with the same musicians in the same studio, and they were all mastered and mixed by the same people. I walked the thing through from beginning to end.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Joe wrote the emotional “Sacrifice…For Me.”

Duane Allen: Yes. Joe has had a very good sideline business of writing books and writing songs. He doesn’t write much but when he does it’s all meat and potatoes. This song is basically the thoughts of the Oak Ridge Boys and Joe in particular … that freedom doesn’t come free.

The Oak Ridge Boys - It's Only NaturalSomewhere along the line somebody had to pay the ultimate sacrifice for the things that we enjoy with the word “freedom” being at the top of that list. In the song, Joe gives three different stories of how people in different wars, from tribes of Indians all the way to the firemen in New York City, have paid the ultimate sacrifice for you and me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It is a beautiful song.

Duane Allen: I think it’s a masterpiece and could probably get legs especially in the Internet world. Another song that Joe wrote for a previous album, “G. I. Joe and Lillie,” caught on with the military websites and it has over two million views on You Tube. A fan pulled that song off of one of our patriotic television shows and put it on You Tube, and the thing just took off. It became an Internet sensation overnight. I would not be surprised if “Sacrifice…For Me” did the same thing. I’m trying to encourage Joe to write a book about it also.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Joe released a book last year.

Duane Allen: He’s got a new novel out and wrote a story of the Oak Ridge Boys that is a coffee table book. Joe wrote G. I. Joe and Lillie, which the song was about. That’s basically about his mother and father who were both in the army. His father was in World War II. Joe was raised in a family that gave their lives to military service. His mother was in the WAC. His father was wounded many times and lived in assisted living for most of Joe’s life, so he feels much pain when he writes these type of songs.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let me ask a few questions about your life, Duane. Taylortown, Texas is rather small, isn’t it?

Duane Allen: Yes. The entry and exit signs are both on the same pole (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your family and your childhood there.

Duane Allen: We had a farm and a ranch. My daddy grew cotton, corn, and had a huge garden. On the ranch part we grew cattle. In the very earliest part of my life, we farmed with horses before we got the tractors. We raised chickens and gathered our own eggs. I milked and fed the cows. We grew our own hay and corn to feed the cows.

My father never had a so-called paying job. He was a farmer and he taught me that his greatest tribute to God was to grow something from the dirt of the land. That gave total honor and tribute to God and showed Him our thanks for being on earth. My father was a very spiritual man and taught the family about God.

He and mother taught all of us (I was the youngest of six) how to sing. We sang in churches, schools, and community organizations and went around singing as a family until all of us moved away. We all played sports and sang in choirs and were basically just a farm family. My daddy taught me that being rich is being happy, and it doesn’t make any difference how much money you have – it’s how much love you have in your heart. My parents taught us all about Jesus Christ and to follow and trust in Him.

All of my brothers and sisters were musicians. My oldest brother became a politician and served in the Texas House of Representatives (head of Ways & Means) for 28 years. My next brother sold feed to farmers and ranchers all over east Texas. The next in line was a sister who became a music teacher and taught music in schools until she passed away. The next person in line was a brother, and he was a music missionary serving in Zambia and all over Africa. He lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. My sister right above me and the brother over her are the only two in my family that are still living.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Wow, so you knew at an early age that music was definitely your career of choice.

Duane Allen: When all of the family was together we had a double quartet. Singing was just as much a part of our lives as working, eating, and going to church. As a little boy, I loved harmony singing. I knew every song that every act sang, from the Sons of the Pioneers to the 50s rock ‘n roll groups out of Philadelphia, to the Doo Wop groups when they went to Detroit. I knew all of the gospel groups; I knew the Louvin Brothers, and the Everly Brothers. I knew every group that sang harmony. My goal as a little boy was to be in a harmony-singing group.

The Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys (Photo by Marc Parker - Editor: Smashing Interviews Magazine)

All of us kids went to college. I graduated in 1965 and have a degree in Classical Music. I studied with two Metropolitan Opera stars that were in residence at the college. They were working on their doctorates. One was R. G. Webb who was the lead tenor for the Metropolitan Opera. He came to East Texas State University where I was going. That is now known as Texas A&M University-Commerce. I studied with R. G. until he graduated, went to London, and became the lead tenor for the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

When R. G. left the Metropolitan Opera his understudy, William Abbott, followed him to East Texas to finish his doctorate. I got some wonderful training. They taught me so much about staging, projection, how to sing without ruining my voice and how to support it with my diaphragm. I feel like that training went a long way for me to be able to preserve and persevere at this level of entertainment which requires me to sing 150 plus days a year.

At the very earliest age, I listened to records all of the time. You remember when we played the long play albums, and you could hear a whisper of the next song coming up? I knew the key and how every song started before it began playing. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I have relative pitch, so if I know where I am to start with I can tell you what all the other notes are.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you join the Oak Ridge Boys?

Duane Allen: That is also an interesting story. I didn’t want to go into classical music, didn’t want to be a choir director or a music director in school. I wanted to sing in a quartet, but there were no quartet schools. There were no universities that taught commercial music.

I went to Paris Junior College first and rebelled against going as a music student. I first studied Business Administration and then went into Economics. I went into Distributive Education, Speech and Drama. Those were my first five majors and that changed every semester. I went on a valedictorian scholarship and on a music scholarship that had never been given at Paris Junior College for a vocalist. They created a vocal scholarship for me, and that was the first one ever at that little college.

They didn’t have many music classes unless you played in the band, so I had to play in the band and they put me on a tuba. In the first halftime of the first football game during the halftime show, I was the end guy on the back row, and we were marching. I was playing the tuba, and everybody else in the band turned and went the other way on the 50-yard line. I kept going (laughs). When we got up into the stands, the band director told me I didn’t have to take band again. That’s when they created a vocal scholarship for me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like you were marching to a different drummer (laughs).

Duane Allen: I embarrassed myself (laughs). You’ve heard of that happening and probably have seen it in a Chevy Chase movie or something. Well, it actually happened to me (laughs). But, that’s when they created the vocal scholarship. I graduated from Paris Junior College and East Texas State University was 30 miles away.

When I got to East Texas, I needed a new scholarship because my parents were very poor. They had given me $100 for four years of college, and that’s all they could afford. I worked my way through college selling shoes and clothes, and then I got my own radio show. I sold advertisements, wrote my own script and did an hour a day. I had a show that I taped on Saturdays. I would come back to Paris, service all of my advertisers, get the new script, record the radio show all day Saturday into Saturday night for seven days of one-hour shows and then head back to Commerce to college.

I still needed a scholarship because I didn’t have the money to pay my way in. I told Dr. Richards, the head of the department, that I desperately needed a scholarship. He put me in the touring chorale, which would underwrite my college expenses, and I could go on a full scholarship. I told him that I wanted to sing professionally in a group that sings harmony, but I also wanted to learn to read and compose music.

Dr. Richards said, “I will put you in the touring chorale and in the record chorus. I’ll make you first bass in one and make you baritone in the other. You’ll learn all the parts. I want you to reach your goals, so I want to put you with a metropolitan opera star to learn vocals, staging, and how to support the tones you put out. I will also put you with another coach so that you learn the basics of vocal work.” He just took me under his wing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you were on your way to the Oaks.

Duane Allen: Yes. It took me two and a half years to complete four years of music. After graduation, I checked around with the groups who were available at that time. The Oak Ridge Boys had (six months earlier) offered me a job as the baritone singer, but I couldn’t accept because I was still in college. That’s when they hired William Lee Golden, so I sort of marked them off my list and thought that job might never happen.

I was making pretty good money at KPLT in Paris, Texas when I got a call from the Prophets Quartet out of Knoxville, Tennessee. I was recommended to them by Brock Speer of the singing Speer Family. The Prophets had already hired a bass singer friend of mine named Dave Rogers. Dave and I were great friends. I booked the Prophets in Paris, sold out the gymnasium, paid off all my bills, and followed them all the way to Knoxville after the show. I joined the group the first week of May 1965. I stayed with them a year until I was drafted.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was the Vietnam years.

Duane Allen: Right. I sold my new car and everything I owned. I rode a bus 130 miles from Paris, Texas to Fort Worth to the induction center where the inductees met in a huge building. A sergeant came in and said, “Everybody in this room listen up. If you have any business you need to settle, you need to do it within the next few weeks of basic training because everybody is going to Fort Polk, Louisiana and then directly to Vietnam.” Man, I just had a sick feeling in my gut. He continued to talk, and my mind was just kind of clouded over. I could just see myself in the battlefields of Vietnam and never getting to sing again.

A few minutes later another sergeant came in and read off a list of names. My last name starts with an “A,” so I was the first name he called. I was shaking like a leaf, and the sergeant was reading over my physical report. He asked, “At two years old did you have a heart condition?” I said, “Yes sir I did.” The sergeant continued, “In high school were you treated for this heart condition?” I answered, “Yes I was.” He said, “Well, this heart condition is troublesome for the US Army because everybody here is going to Vietnam. If we know that you’ve got a heart condition and we put you in the battlefields and you have an attack, you could own the US Army. We can’t afford you. You get a medical discharge.”

I was fully prepared to serve my country. I asked, “What do I do now?” The sergeant said, “Whatever you want to do.” From that point on, I was no longer his responsibility. I needed to replace the car I sold, so I bought a 1966 Buick Riviera. I called my banker in Paris, Texas, and he told me to write a countercheck. Remember those?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes (laughs).

Duane Allen: I got in that Riviera, went by Taylor Town, Texas to get what belongings I had left at my parent’s house, and drove all night to Nashville. The Oak Ridge Boys had again offered me a job, but I told them I couldn’t take it because I was going in the army. My parents didn’t have a phone, so I had left a neighbor’s number with the Oaks. They called, but my neighbor told them I had left for the army. I hadn’t had a chance to tell my neighbor that the army had not worked out.

I pulled into Nashville, went in the RCA building where the Oaks’ office was, and their secretary had the telephone up to her ear. She looked at me and said, “Oh my God!” She put the phone down. The Oaks had told her to try me one more time, and if she could not get me they were going to disband.

The secretary led me to an inside room and there were the Oak Ridge Boys in a meeting to discuss disbanding! I had gotten out of the army, bought a new car, drove home to Paris, then drove all night to Nashville, and walked into their office at the very moment they were going to disband if they didn’t get me on that next phone call!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Timing is everything, isn’t it?

Duane Allen: I walked in, and they asked, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I came here to sing and I’m looking for a job.” They closed all their books and got up. One of them had the keys to Trinity Lane Baptist Church, so we went there and sang two songs. The Oaks went into a side room, and in fifteen minutes I was a full-fledged member of the Oak Ridge Boys. They made me a partner in the group and sold me partnership in the publishing company. That’s how that all came down.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What a great story. Sounds like it was meant to be.

Duane Allen: I don’t know if I’ve ever really told all that or not (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well folks, you’ve heard it here first (laughs).

Duane Allen: And it has been a wonderful trip for me. I love my partners. I’ve sung with three of the greatest bass singers on earth. May Herman Harper and Noel Fox rest in peace. Richard Sterban is our bass singer now, and he probably has the most famous bass line in the whole world of music. Everybody has heard of “oom papa mow mow.” I’ve gotten to sing with two tenors and two different baritones.

I’ve just started my 46th year, and quite honestly I don’t know how long it’s going to last because I’m a very regimented person. I really get involved in the business side of the Oak Ridge Boys. I plan everything real simply – one, two, three step strategies of how to do everything. I don’t usually get above the third step because it’s easy to remember, and you never have a tie if you stop on three. I plan everything we do before we do it, and I plan about a year and a half ahead. I already have dates booked in 2013.

The only thing I’ve never been able to plan is figuring out how to retire or work less. I got tired of thinking about it, so my philosophy on quitting is simple: When God says it’s time, it will be time. Until then I’m going to sing until the 22nd century gets here.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After all of these years together, how would you describe the relationship between the four of you?

Duane Allen: We’ve been through some rough times. We’ve had those times, but it’s like a marriage. We all know our “hot buttons.” If we want to live there, we can have problems every day of every week during every hour. But, as you grow older and mature, you learn that the good things in life are what really matter. If you concentrate on the good things, they will get bigger than the little things, and you won’t have the time left to waste energy on sweating the silly stuff.

The Oaks have never really had major problems with each other. We are as different in personality as night and day, and all four of us are very strong personalities individually. We have different likes and dislikes, but that’s what makes the Oak Ridge Boys unique. Joe writes books, William Lee shoots photography and is a beautiful landscape artist, and Richard is the public relations spokesperson for the Nashville Sounds minor league baseball team and does voiceovers for Sirius. We all come to the Oak Ridge Boys’ table bringing many different talents.

I’m a music person and song man. I’ve always had the philosophy that you could do more with three minutes of magic than all of the other parts of the business combined. You need a good business model to make those three minutes of magic last, but recognition in the music business begins with three minutes of magic. The next important thing is three more minutes of magic.

We had over 35 gospel hits before we ever found the “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” After that first country hit, we had over 50 chart records in country music, and some of those have spilled over into rock ‘n roll. A few songs that identify the Oak Ridge Boys such as “Jesus is Coming Soon” (gospel), “Y’all Come Back Saloon” (country), and “Elvira” that crossed us into the Top 40, are three minutes of magic. That’s the ticket to get you anywhere you want to go.

You just have to find that piece of magic, marry the song to the right voice, have the right producer, studio, promotion team, and the right record label and radio stations. Then that business model will work and ensure that you get the full knowledge and distance out of each song. I’m going through that again right now. After all of these years, Cracker Barrel does not have a radio promotion team, but they do buy radio time, television time, and sponsor the Grand Ole Opry (which we are now members of).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Congratulations on that by the way.

Duane Allen: That was a huge honor and I don’t want to pass that by, but I’d like to finish this thought process. When Cracker Barrel heard “What’cha Gonna Do?” for the first time, the place went wild. Julie Craig wanted me to put together a team for radio promotion and get the song on country radio.

I spent a month talking to radio promotion companies in Nashville and hired three different companies. One company was to work the song to secondary music and to Music Row stations. Another company was to work the major tracking stations, which are major country stations, and then another company was to manage everything and get us into the huge Internet social marketing world of music. This week “What’cha Gonna Do?” will be serviced to country radio as soon as the final details are completed.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds good. Back to the Grand Ole Opry …

Duane Allen: We’ve been friends for so many years. Actually, I told this story at our induction ceremony. In 1948, the Oak Ridge Quartet (our predecessors), started the all-night gospel singing at the Ryman auditorium on Friday nights. This was before they had the Friday night Opry. They had gospel singings there and were hosted by the Oak Ridge Quartet.

I have a photograph that was taken in November 1948 of the people that were on stage with the Oak Ridge Quartet at the Ryman. Opening the show for the Quartet was a family group from Kentucky known as the Stewarts. That was my (future) father-in-law, my uncle and my aunt. My wife was nine months old sitting in the audience in her mother’s arms watching her daddy open the show for the Oak Ridge Quartet in 1948. I’ve told my wife’s age now, and that will put me in the doghouse (laughs).

The Oak Ridge Quartet would have talent contests during the all night singings. One of the winners was Patsy Cline! The first Grand Ole Opry performance by Patsy Cline was made possible by the Oak Ridge Quartet.

The first Oak Ridge Quartet, while they were located in Knoxville, was on a daily radio show there called the Merry Go Round. Archie Campbell and Chet Atkins, and a few other people coming out of the Knoxville area also appeared on that show. The Quartet was on that daily noon show every day in Knoxville. That’s how they were able to go over to Oak Ridge to sing at the atomic bomb plant there. The Oak Ridge Quartet were known first as the Georgia Clodhoppers, but the people at the plant in Oak Ridge would call them over there so many times to perform that they started calling them the Oak Ridge Quartet. That’s how the name came about.

During that period of time, Chet Atkins recorded his first record ever. The musicians behind him were the Oak Ridge Quartet. They went to Atlanta to record his very first record and the Quartet backed him, playing instruments and singing with him. So, we have a very vivid career.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): From the Georgia Clodhoppers to the Oak Ridge Quartet to finally as the Oak Ridge Boys.

Duane Allen: Yes, and as the Oak Ridge Boys, the first time we were approached about joining the Grand Ole Opry was probably three decades ago when we were really burning up the trail with all the hits that were coming one after another. They were only doing the Opry two days a week at that time on Fridays and Saturdays. They required 26 appearances a year to be a member. We couldn’t give up that many Fridays and Saturdays because we had too many people on our payroll. It was a radio show and the Opry paid scale, but it wasn’t enough to pay all the employees we had with us.

We feed about 85 people a day, and we were feeding more than that back then if you count all the families and kids, so it never got any further than just bringing it up for discussion. We physically could not afford to do that. Over the years it has been mentioned two or three other times.

Last year before the massive floods hit the area, Grand Ole Opry president Steve Buchanan said to me, “You’ve accomplished so much. Is there anything that you’d like to see happen in your career that hasn’t already happened?” I said, “Yeah, there are two things. We’d love to become members of the Grand Ole Opry. We’d fit right in with the classic shows on Thursday nights. Since the requirement has dropped from 26 to 10 or 12 appearances, I don’t think there would be any problem for us to work that many appearances.”

Steve asked, “What’s the second thing?” I answered, “I think it would be a huge honor to one day be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Those two things come from my heart, but yet they have to be interpreted the right way. I’m not on a campaign to make them happen, but I think they would just be huge honors for the Oak Ridge Boys.” Well, one of them happened.

Our manager was in on the setup. They surprised us in July when little Jimmy Dickens came out dressed as William Lee Golden with the beard, sunglasses and hat. Jimmy is a dear friend of ours, and he’s known to be a jokester, so we thought he was just playing a joke on us. Jimmy said, “You know I’ve always wanted to be a little bitty Oak Ridge Boy.” The audience went wild. He continued, “I think I will become a member of the Oak Ridge Boys because on August 6 you boys are going to become the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry.” Joe was overcome with emotion and we took a breather before performing “Elvira.” We were so honored to be asked to join.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can imagine it must’ve been an overwhelming feeling.

Duane Allen: I promise you, stepping into that circle where so many of our predecessors have stood and made history with the Opry … it was a feeling that only becoming a member gives you. It was breathtaking. The Grand Ole Opry has been really good to us, and it has been a wonderful association. Down the line we may even be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If that were to happen and the Lord were to call me home, I could say my life was complete.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can definitely see that happening.

Duane Allen: Many people have told us that. I know we’ve been up for induction for several years, but the people that have been inducted are very deserving, and we’re proud for all of them. It would be a huge honor for the Oak Ridge Boys, and if it happens someday I would be so delighted and honored.

© 2011 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

6 Comments

  1. Rick Tucker
  2. Rick Tucker
  3. Phil Melton
  4. Phyllis Lincoln

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