The Oak Ridge Boys have been around for more than half a century, performed for five presidents, they’ve recorded dozens of studio albums and worked with all of the big names in country music. Along the way, they’ve also become an integral part of the fabric of Kentucky tradition. After years of stops at the Grand Ole Opry, and from New York to California, it’s a summer stop in Kentucky that’s held a special place in their hearts for more than four decades.
Sunday marked the Oaks’ 43rd consecutive year performing at the Kentucky State Fair, a record they say will never be broken.
“First, a group will have to stay together as long as us, and then play the same venue every year for 43 consecutive years… it’ll never happen,” Oak Ridge Boys tenor Joe Bonsall said. “It makes this a super night of the summer. We play a lot of fairs, a lot of big shows all year long, but there’s just something magical about the Kentucky State Fair. And I think that’s because so many people come every year.”
Bonsall and lead singer Duane Allen recounted the tweets, emails and messages they’ve received leading up to this year’s fair show, including stories of fans who are attending for their 25th or 30th year, and one fan who’d recently beaten a deadly disease dreaming of this day.
“We got a [message] from one girl, who’s grandmother had been to 27 shows straight, and she beat cancer,” Allen said. “She beat it just a few months ago, and she’s getting to come tonight. This was her motivation…it’s chilling for us”
The Oak Ridge Boys have strong roots in gospel music, the influence of which continues throughout their extensive career, including in their newest album 17th Avenue Revival. Happy songs and clean messages are integral to the band’s identity.
“We’ve never done too many songs about gettin’ in my pickup, gettin’ drunk, going to the water and jumpin’ in naked,” Allen said. “It never did feel good to us. We came from gospel music, and we like to bring people together.”
Part of what’s kept the Oak Ridge Boys in people’s hearts for decades now is their timeless message of positivity.
“We’re trying to shine the light,” Bonsall said. “We’re trying to bring positive vibes to everybody in a world that’s got a little darkness in it these days.”
Though the gospel roots and four-part harmonies are the backbone of Oaks’ signature sound, they’re not restricted by genre constructs. Forays into country, pop, rockabilly and others have all produced fan favorites.
“We’re song-oriented” Bonsall said. “For us, it’s always been about the song. Sing us a song that’s got a good feel to it, with good lyrics, one the guys all like, and one the guys can express themselves individually and in harmony. We never really think too much about if this is a gospel song, a country song, a pop song. For the Oak Ridge Boys, it’s sing us a good song.”
The Oak Ridge Boys and their songs will return to the Commonwealth in just a few short months, for a November 23 stop in Corbin on their 29th annual Christmas Tour.