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As my family drove the 250-mile trek from Central Arkansas to our weekend home in Texas the other day, a shuffle of Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys playing on my IPhone, I caught myself wondering about all the undiscovered classic country songs. I mean, have you ever wondered where the unseen jewels of classic country music are actually stored? No, I don’t mean those hidden in the crown George Strait wears under his black Resistol. Nor am I referring to those that echo in some long-shuttered West Texas dance hall or rest in a yellowing sludge pile in a corner office on Music Row. The real gems of country music are readily open for public viewing (or listening) every day. Today’s generation of country (I use the term loosely) fans just don’t have a clue where to find them and wouldn’t recognize them if they did. As an Oak Ridge Boys fan of the late 70’s and 80’s (which I assume you are since you are reading this), I assure you, the hidden gems are right under your nose.
You can find classic country’s jewels right between the wide lines on your old ORB vinyl LPs—the tracks you never ran your needle through like you did with “Elvira,” “I’ll Be True to You,” or “You’re the One.” On the other hand, if you’re a collector of old 45 RPMs, take a look at the flip side you’ve ignored for the past thirty-plus years. There they are—the precious stones of classic country music. Most never made it to radio and haven’t been played in a live ORB concert in years, but give them a listen. You’ll find some of the ORB’s finest work. As a fan since the tender age of ten when the Y’all Come Back Saloon album first charted, I’ve carefully selected my favorite ten ORB songs that would, or should, be gold. So, in no particular order:
1. “Easy”— As far as I’m concerned, the body of work of Y’all Come Back Saloon remains the ORB masterpiece to this day. Other albums offered bigger hits, but as a collection, it’s hard to top the ten tracks on this record. Give me one album to listen to on a cross-country bike ride, and it’s no contest. Y’all Come Back Saloon put country music on notice that gospel didn’t have the ORB under lock and key. No song better exemplifies the transformation than “Easy.” Keep in mind, this was back in the days when Dallas’ WBAP still used that annoying “BLEEEEP” to censor Faron Young’s “Here I am in Dallas, Where the Hell are You?” The uproar from country’s conservative audience hearing “Easy” over the public airwaves would have deafened any outcry from Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore being shown sleeping in the same bed. Nearly four decades later, the risqué lyrics of promiscuity and teen pregnancy featured in “Easy” are mild at best, but I’m not even sure Outlaw Country Artists would have been so bold in 1977.
Duane Allen’s vocals on “Easy” are, to at least my two ears, the best piece of work he ever recorded. Changing his voice inflection from a “matter-of-fact” mood to one of sympathy with a touch of anger to understanding and tenderness in the span of three minutes must have been a hard chore. Now, at the age of ten, a few years before cable TV and a long time before the internet, I had nary a clue what “Easy” really meant. When I reached high school and beyond, though, the raw honesty, emotion, and depth of the lyrics became clear. Never released as a U.S. single, “Easy” became an overseas hit and the subject of a very early music video. Had conservative country radio been ready to openly discuss the topic matter at hand, “Easy” would have surely been a chart-topper. Thinking back on it, I may remember “Easy” so well from the infamous episode when my mother heard me singing along and asked me if I even knew what the words meant. Without thinking, I responded with a short, “No, but it’s a hell of a tune, ain’t it?” She bleeped me all the way to my bedroom.
2. “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them (Back in 1924):” Shockingly, I have read reviews naming “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” as the weakest link on the ORB debut country album. I beg to differ. Even though I was wet behind the ears, I connected with the song immediately. I may have been a legal resident of Maine, moving there at just three months of age, but Mainers only accept someone as native if they are born inside the state’s boundaries. As far as they were concerned, I was a “From Away,” and the summers I spent in Texas did little to hide the Scarlet “FA” showing brightly in my sleeve. I may have been ostracized as a foreigner in New England and considered a Yankee in Texas, but those summers in the South allowed me to experience rural life. Northeast Texas’ Lamar County, my summer home and the roots of the modern Rutherford family, is an area still 99.7% rural as it approaches the age of 175. For a kid, that statistic translated to 99.7% old people. After all, how many kids do you remember from “The Beverly Hillbillies?” Jethro doesn’t count.
The lyrics of “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” still ring my senses today, the story of an old maid and a schoolgirl taking me back to the many hours I spent around country ladies who, at the time, seemed ancient. Duane Allen’s trademark smooth delivery raises memories of sipping iced tea from one of those ribbed yellow and red striped “hoop” glasses made back in the 50s. Those glasses must have been molded from lexan, because every old lady I knew still had a complete set they’d used every day since the Korean War. I can picture myself in the shoes of the schoolgirl (well, you get my point) who made daily visits to the old maid’s house. Rather than trying on dresses and looking at old dance cards, I could be found sucking on three or four lemon drops melted together in a cut-glass bowl because old people hadn’t yet discovered the convenience of air conditioning. Or, how about those candy gel-like orange slices covered with sugar? I never had the heart to tell an old lady even solid sugar comes with an expiration date and turns to concrete after about six years.
In the end, “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” isn’t really a song about an old maid and a teenage girl. It’s about choices—making choices that may be unpopular with some but living with the choices that can’t be undone. ORB lawyers should have sued George Jones’ songwriter for stealing their idea twenty years later.
3. “An Old Time Family Bluegrass Band”—I told you, it’s hard to get away from the ORB first country album when looking for their hidden gems. Dad was a bluegrass fan when I was a kid, but I didn’t get it. Sure I loved “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme, but bluegrass was way too primitive for me. How about using some electricity when you cut an album? “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” changed my attitude. I became downright addicted to the sweet cocktail of fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos the song featured. Despite his Philadelphia upbringing, Joe Bonsall puts on a pretty good impersonation of having been reared in the deep woods of Eastern Kentucky. The song is the story of bluegrass itself and depicts the genre in no uncertain terms. No one can walk away from “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” without understanding bluegrass music is all about preserving the rural lifestyle, simpler times, and the sense of family among those who may have been separated by miles of wooded hills.
4. “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well”—As hard as it is, I’m breaking away from 1977 and skipping ahead two years to the ORB’s third album, The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived. For those who inexplicably missed out on the debut album, the hit songs “Sail Away” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” and the Richard Sterban masterpiece “Dream On” caught undoubtedly caught their attention. For my money, though, there isn’t a better song in the bunch than “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well.” The upbeat tune features each vocalist’s distinct tone in its three stanzas, the perfect harmonies pulling the listener into the recording studio. The song is even better live and has been a favorite at every ORB concert I’ve attended, playing second fiddle only to “Elvira.” “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well” is classic country at its finest, its lyrical euphemisms and energy carrying through until the band hits the tune’s last abrupt note.
5. “Dancing the Night Away”—Country radio didn’t seem to care for five-minute recordings in the 70s. A few novelty songs like “Convoy” managed to top the charts, but songwriters seemed hooked on what I call the “Rhinestone Cowboy Formula”—Verse 1- Chorus-Verse 2-Chorus-Repeat Chorus-Fade. “Dancing the Night Away, featuring Joe Bonsall’s elevated tenor offered a whole new ORB sound. Maybe an intentional throwback to Bonsall’s American Bandstand days, the song abandoned pure country for a bit of rock-pop and should have exposed the ORB to fans from other walks of life. Anyone who knows me knows I am no fan of crossover country, but this tune showcased the ORB’s diversity and ability to perform gospel, classic country, and pop. Little did we know the song was a precursor of things to come just a couple of years later.
6. “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River”—1981 brought ORB fans Fancy Free, the multi-platinum album remaining the group’s top-seller to this day. Fancy Free, of course, is known for the ORB’s signature song and megahit “Elvira.” In fact, “Elvira” alone likely carried the album to its success and entrenched the ORB as a major player across musical genres. The tune drove the Boys into the crossover ranks, but without the “in your face” plunge a few unnamed country artists took. Yes, at least one of those gamblers won big-time, but was it really good for country music? Yet, I digress.
While Fancy Free took the ORB to an entirely new level in the national spotlight, the album also returned them to their gospel roots. The only thing I knew about gospel music at the time came from mouthing my “ABCs” silently as a congregation belted out seemingly unending verses from dusty church hymnals. In short, my gospel exposure was bo-ring. No offense to a gospel aficionado who may be reading, and I am certainly not demeaning religious songs, but any kid exposed to off-key singing accompanied by an out-of-tune piano would have had the same reaction. I had heard the ORB had been founded as a gospel group and remained so until I picked up their first country album, but I couldn’t name a single gospel song they’d recorded. The lively hidden gem from this album, “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” caused me to seek out some of those early tunes that earned the group multiple Dove Awards. Gospel, I realized, wasn’t necessarily painfully-slow, poorly-sung songs from the pews of a church with bad acoustics and an outdoor toilet. Thanks to this song, the last on side two of the album, I discovered earlier ORB recordings like “Heaven Bound” and “The Baptism of Jessie Taylor.” Both have become favorites.
7. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport”—1982’s “Bobby Sue” album introduced ORB fans to who I guess must be the third lady in a string of their hearts’ desires after “Emmylou” and “Elvira.” For the second straight album, the ORBs included a gospel tune to offset the title cut, a song may be the most energetic they ever recorded. This time the gospel selection couldn’t have been more opposite from the album’s hit. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport,” also recorded by George Jones in 1990 (do I sense a pattern here?), didn’t offer the up-tempo energy of “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” but I was actually beginning to pay real attention to lyrics and they grew on me quickly. I’ve always been a bit of a geography nerd, so the featured cities of Nashville, New York City (Wall Street), Wichita, Salt Lake City, Boston, and Shreveport naturally piqued my curiosity. The words, though wrapped around a religious theme, stretch far beyond gospel and hold deep meaning in secular life as well. While several cities are called out by name, any American town could be inserted in place of any on the list. The lyrics offer no condemnation of those who live in these places, but they highlight stereotypes and prejudices that are simply a fact of life in all areas of the country. Featuring all four vocalists in separate verses, “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport” forces the listener to look inward. Duane Allen seemingly directs the song’s final word to the individual, as “Would you laugh and call him crazy and send him on his way?” forces each to face his or her own pitfalls and accept their own prejudices. Gospel or not, the theme cannot help but resonate with anyone who pays attention.
8. “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me”—Any list of ORB favorites would be incomplete without including a song featuring contra-bass Richard Sterban. Long before he “Oom-pop-a-mow-mowed” his way into country music history, you could find Richard “On the radi-i-o-i-o-o.” Oddly enough, “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” isn’t country, and it isn’t pop. Technically, it’s a pure 1970’s Funk tune (I admit I found that on Wikipedia, so it must be true). I’d forgotten all about Funk. From what I can tell, some Funk group named Graham Central Station actually recorded the song a year before the ORBs. So, here we have a group of four guys who can sing gospel, country, crossover-country, and pop, and I can now add Funk to the mix! Allow me to pause while I take some deep breaths as this sinks in. Well, at least they haven’t released any heavy metal…..yet.
I guess a little Funk makes sense. As I recall from my vague memory of the genre, it was all about fun, and “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” is nothing if not a fun tune. Don’t try to find any depth in the lyrics, because they are pretty shallow. As a matter of fact, is it even possible to put the lyrics of this song in writing? Every once in a while it’s nice to read a piece corny poetry from Robert Frost or find some William Faulkner short story he enjoyed writing but would probably rather forget. Such is the case with “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me.”
“On the radi-i-o-i-oi-o…..” You gotta love it. Incidentally, are you aware that “Funk” is derived from an African word meaning “bad body odor?” Amazing what you can learn on Wikipedia.
9. “Old Time Lovin’”—Say I lack creativity all you want, but when I’m looking for ORB hidden gems, I just can’t get away from 1977. Once again a few years ahead of my time in subject matter, “Old Time Lovin’” is another slice of undeniably classic country music. This cut, like so many others in the ORB discography, features a solo of all for members and teases the ear with a bluegrass-country blend. The arrangement of harmonies versus the lead, tenor, baritone, and bass solos on this recording keep every vocalist fully engaged. Richard Sterban’s bass sets a perfect lead-in to the harmonic, “How I want that old time love again with you” on two occasions, and the change of key in the oft-repeated ending chorus puts the icing on the cake. Plus, the ORB performed the song on an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Can it get any more country?
10. Well, I’m down to the last of my top ten ORB songs that be gold. It’s a tough, tough choice, and frankly, one I’m not going to make (because it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want). Instead, I’d rather get on my soap box for a minute and address what I believe is not just a hidden gem, but a lost gem of the entire essence of the Oak Ridge Boys. I warn you, this will probably enrage a few of you, so before you read further, go back and re-read my opening paragraph. Now, if you will indulge me, the following is an open letter to Richard Sterban:
Dear Richard… Rich… Rick… Ricky,
I don’t know what happened about a decade ago. Perhaps it was a late-blooming mid-life crisis. If so, I feel your pain. I had my first at 16 and have continued to have one about twice a year ever since. But, Richard, I don’t know you anymore. The distinctive personality and persona of Duane, Joe, William Lee, and yourself offered the ORB’s greatest appeal at a time when so many followed the crowd. While some other country groups of the 70s featured four guys dressed identically in suits pulled out of the Brady Bunch dressing room, y’all have always kept to your roots. We still admire Joe’s hip urban appearance, Duane’s contemporary casual look, and William Lee’s….errrr….rural attire. But, what happened to the Richard who stood heir apparent to Ray Price as the best dressed man in country music? The voice I hear belongs to a clean-cut, buttoned-down, dapper looking fellow tapping a tambourine against his finely-tailored, creased dress pants on the left side of the stage.
Now, we both know there’s some gray in your hair. I’m a quarter-century younger, and I even have a touch of it. But, your voice hasn’t aged a minute in the 37 years I’ve been listening. There’s no need to maintain a “more youthful than you are” appearance,” because you don’t look old just yet. Think about it. Would George Strait wear anything other than Wranglers and a Resistol? Would John Conlee ever be the same if he took off those dated rose-colored glasses? And, how about Willie? Imagine Willie without the bandana and ponytail, braids, or whatever he calls those things hanging off the side of his head (hint: you can find an early sixties version of a clean-cut Willie Nelson on YouTube. It kind of destroys the image he’s worked so hard to convey). So, go ahead and cover up the gray if you want to, but can I please have the old look back.
All my best,
P.S. You might remember me. I was the kid you inspired to switch from the standard B-flat clarinet to bass clarinet back in 1979.
So, there you have it—my top ten ORB songs that would be gold. With or without “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport?” as inspiration, I fully admit my list shows a great deal of prejudice. I’m a conservative fellow, I don’t like change, and I am no fan of what today’s radio promotes as country music. Obviously, I have a bias toward the ORB’s earliest albums when they were still establishing themselves as a country act. But, 1977-1982 represent what I consider my formative years in developing a musical taste. The body of work the ORB put out during those years made me the only young lad in New England who claimed a country group as his favorite. While the rest of my running crowd scrambled their brains with the likes of KISS, Queen, and Iron Maiden (I wouldn’t even remember those names if their “music” wasn’t so painfully neurotic), by 1985 I hummed “Ozark Mountain Jubilee” and my all-time favorite “Heart of Mine”—in public. Country music had firmly entrenched itself as my genre, and I never planned to listen to anything else. Somewhere, though, the country music I loved lost its bearings.
The phenomenal success of George Strait in the mid-80s gave rise to a jumbled group of solo “hat acts.” Though I can find an occasional keeper among their collective body of work, in general I remember hat act vocalists as punctuating the end of stylists in country music. No doubt Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt, and Rick Trevino all had decent voices, but they couldn’t be distinguished without music videos. Thanks to MTV and CMT, appearance became more important than musical ability (do you really think Little Jimmy Dickens would have a chance today?). By the mid-90s, the ORB had largely fallen from the charts and a new breed of country fans decided they preferred light shows, fireworks, and theatrics to music, and I pretty much disowned modern country. Music is meant to be heard, not watched. I yearn for the days of a stool, a spotlight, and a guy (or four) with a guitar. Today’s, young crowd screams wildly at the likes of Billy Currington, Luke Bryan, and the Zach Brown Band. Personally, I can’t name a single song they’ve recorded. Maybe the ORBs fall from the charts was simply a sign of the times. Unlike Garth Brooks (a soapbox I could write 5,000 words about in a single sitting), the ORBs kept their feet planted firmly on the stage instead of flying across it on a tethered wire. Kids developing their musical tastes today find two hours of pure country music dulling to the senses.
Though we seemed to have lost our place on the dial, a few years ago the media giants controlling country radio realized they had lost a huge market. Hence, they came up with the novel idea rock/pop radio executives had about forty years before—oldies, or “classic country.” Be still my heart, I had been saved! Unfortunately, I probably won’t find any of the songs on my list played on even the classic country stations, but you will find the Oak Ridge Boys and a satchel full of ’70s and ’80s recordings firmly established them as one of music’s most successful groups. And, you can rest assured whether they are playing one of country music’s all-time greatest hits or a filler song on the flip side of a 45 single, one thing will not change. The Oak Ridge Boys will remain true to their roots, and as a fan, they’ll be true to you.
Now, Richard, let’s talk some more about that hair thing…..