The Richard Sterban Interview

How has the celebration tour been going so far?

Richard Sterban: So far so good. You know we uhh, we decided to call the tour a celebration because we feel we have a lot to celebrate, and we really do. You know, celebrating our history for one thing which is pretty impressive, you know, it goes back to the second world war. We’re celebrating all of our hit records, you know, our heritage, that type of thing. And I would say probably the biggest thing that we are celebrating is our recent induction into the country music hall of fame, you know, that uhh – that was pretty special. There’s no doubt about it. It happened last October. Ever since that has happened – you know, I do a lot of interviews for the group – and I always struggle to find just the right words to describe how special that whole thing was. It was probably the biggest thing – no probably to it – it is the biggest thing that has ever happened to us. We have had a lot of great things happen to us over the years, but that comes right at the top of the list, you know. You look at that country music hall of fame, and you look at Elvis, you look at Johnny Cash, George Jones, the late Merl Haggard who just recently passed away. So the Oak Ridge Boys, to be a part of that group – that family – is something so special. It is a tremendous honor. It’s very humbling, no doubt about it. So we’re celebrating that. And-and – (Laughter) – a little bit of a funny note. Joe Bonds is our spokesperson on stage. He talks about, you know, all the things we’re trying to celebrate this year – we’ll celebrate anything we can find a reason to celebrate – but he said, Our four faces are now in the arms, in the rotunda of the Country Music Hall of Fame which is a beautiful place. It really is. If you ever get a chance to come to Nashville you can get to check it out – it’s a beautiful place – but we’re in bronze. Underneath our four faces, they have our four birthdays – you know – then next to our birthdays they have little dashes. One of the many things we’re celebrating this year – (Laughter) – is the fact that there is nothing after the dashes. And that is not original, I am borrowing that from my partner Joe.

How has the overall energy and emotion changed for the band now that they are in the Country Hall of Fame?

It’s an emotional thing. There’s no question about it. I just think – as a result of that – we probably have more respect in the industry, you know. People – especially artists – kind of look on us differently, with more respect, and that’s the cool thing. It really is. I personally felt we deserved to be in the Hall of Fame a long time ago, (Laughter), but the fact that it finally did happen is the most important thing. The timeline is not as important as the fact that it did happen and we are there.

You guys are one of the most eclectic bands in Gospel and Country Music history. What do you pay this tribute to?

Well – I think there’s a lot of things. First and foremost, we love doing what we do. We still look forward every night, when we’re on the road, taking our music live on stage to our fans and to our audiences – you know – that has not changed, and we love doing that. We’re still having fun doing that. I think another thing – and this is pretty important – the four of us are totally different. Each guy brings something different to the table, if that makes any sense. I think that’s what makes our group unique. We developed a respect between the four of us over that, you know, the fact that we’re all different – we respect that and we all realize that we need that differentness, if that makes any sense. And so I think we all realized a long time ago that we need each other. So we pull together as a team, and we’re really a true brotherhood. I think that’s very, very important. I think that’s part of our heritage, and part of what has made us what we are and the fact that we’ve been together for 43 years, which is mind-boggling. In fact William Lee Golden and Duane Allen have both been in the group for 50 years, which is really unbelievable. So we’ve been able to experience the longevity, there’s no doubt about that.

How did you become an Oak Ridge Boy?

I was singing at the time in a group JB Sunder and the Stance Quartet, and I was actually singing for about a year and a half for that two-year period there, I was actually singing with Elvis. I was singing with the king of Rock & Roll. It was pretty special to me. A lot of people can’t say that, but I can – but I made a big decision. Here I was singing with Elvis, and right out of the clear blue, The Oak Ridge Boys called me up. William Lee Golden called me up. Said a band member was leaving, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking his place – and I was a huge, huge fan of The Oak Ridge Boys. So there was very little doubt in my mind whether or not I should take the job. I felt like the group had a great deal of potential. I just don’t think I realized how much potential back then, but I did call him back the next day and say I would take the job, and I think history has proven that I probably made a pretty good decision. From singing with Elvis as strictly a back-up singer, I went on to bigger and better things with The Oak Ridge Boys.

Do you have any wisdom you could pass on from your time with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and other musicians you have worked with?

The whole time I was with Elvis, it was for me personally, a learning experience. I watched him and I saw how he acted – how he conducted himself. Back then arguably, he was the biggest star in the world. I saw how the biggest star in the world before he goes on stage, during the show, and I think I learned from that. No doubt about it. But there are also other people that have influenced me personally and The Oak Ridge Boys, and Johnny Cash probably comes at the top of that list. There probably would not be an Oak Ridge Boys today if it wasn’t for Johnny Cash. He took us under his wing. He certainly, certainly influenced us. One day we were playing in Las Vegas with him, and he put us on his show. He actually paid us more money than we were worth, you know, and every time we worked with him, he always tipped us. He always gave us more money than what the contract called for. That’s the kind of person he was, you know – but I remember one day he called us all up and said, “Fellows I can tell your heads are hanging, and you’re thinking about possibly giving up” – and we were. We had no other dates in our book. We didn’t know what we were gonna do. So he called us up to his room at the – back then it was called the Las Vegas Hilton – and he said, “Fellas”, he says, “There’s something very special about you guys.” He said, “I know it. You guys know it, but if you give up no one’s ever going to see it. No one’s ever going to realize it. And you will not realize your dreams either,” you know. So he said, “What I want you to do – and I’ll help you as much as I can – what I want you to do is to find a way to not give up. Find a way to hang in there and keep going.” He said, “I promise you, that if you do that, good things are about to start happening to you guys.” So you know, we walked out of that meeting with him that afternoon in Las Vegas, and instead of our heads hanging, we were going “Wow, if Johnny Cash thinks we’re gonna make it, we’re gonna make it.” Sure enough we were able to find a way to hang in there, and it wasn’t that long after that that we came in contact with Jim Halsey who became our manager – who’s still our manager today – he signed us to a record deal with ABC Dot Records, and he pushed together with a man named Ron Chancey who produced just about all of our greatest hits. He started finding hit songs for us, and sure enough, hit after hit for like fifteen years everything we put out there went to the top of the charts – and, you know, the rest is kind of history. But I don’t think there would be an Oak Ridge Boys today without Johnny Cash. Another guy we learned a lot from is Kenny Rodgers. Last October, he inducted us into the Country Music Hall of Fame. We asked him if he would do it, and he said “Of course.” (Laughter) And I remember that night he said, “You know what fellas? There’s not too many people I would come out of the house for. Except for you guys.” – he put the medallions over our heads – but we learned a lot from him too. He told us the importance of hit records. Three minutes of magic on the radio – you can’t substitute for that, you know. We saw him conduct himself as well. Always on time, always punctual, you know – it’s hard to describe – but you know, we still call him to this very day, we call him the Sweet Music Man, because he certainly is. And he’s on his farewell tour right now. He’s gonna retire. I know we got at least one day that we’ll work with him. I believe in Columbus at the Ohio state fair – but we’re hoping we’re gonna get a few more, you know, pages with him on his farewell tour.

So how have you been able to balance the “Rockstar Lifestyle” with your personal life?

Well you got to do the best that you can, you know. One of the most difficult things about doing what we do is the fact that we’ve got to spend a lot of time away from home – that’s the biggest downfall. I think we all feel this way, you know, family is really important all of us. So when we are home, we try to make sure that the time that we spend at home is quality time with our family – that might sound like and over-simplification – but it’s true. You got to take time to spend time with your family and that’s what we try to do. I think as long as we do that, our families are understanding and realize that, you know, what we do requires us to be away from home a lot. So that’s the part I don’t like the most, being away from home.

How did the transition from Gospel & Country Music to a Pop Music come about?

Jim Halsey helped us with that transition. He really did. We went through a period of time there where we were kind of in a gray area. We were starting to play in Las Vegas with Johnny Cash – doing things like that – and a lot of Gospel people kind of frowned on that. So we didn’t have the Gospel taste that we used to have, but we had still not had any hit records, so we had not established ourselves in either Country Music or Pop Music. So it was a difficult time – but once again – Jim Halsey who is still our manager today after over 40 years – he helped us navigate through that period, and eventually – like I’ve said – he signed us up to ABC/Dot Records and put us with Ron Chancey and we started having hit records, and things started changing around for us. They really did.

How did the Jim Halsey/Oak Ridge Boys partnership come together?

Well you know – we worked a couple of dates with some of his artists, and Jim Halsey came to one of the shows and he saw us in person. Then he said, “You guys are one of the best acts I have ever seen. You guys are just three minutes away from being a major act.” What he meant by that was a hit record. He said, “I’m gonna do my best to take care of that.” So sure enough he went out, he worked out a deal with ABC/Dot Records which then became MCA Records, and, you know, the rest was kind of history. So Jim Halsey definitely helped us out, and is still helping us out today. There’s no doubt about it – and you know, one of the strangest things about our relationship with Jim Halsey – we have never ever signed a contract with him. It is strictly handshake. To this very day. We have verbal agreements between us, but we’ve never actually signed a contract that stipulated any definite thing. Strictly a shake of the hands.

Do you have any song by The Oak Ridge Boys that sticks with you the most?

When we come – let me tell you – we’re gonna do our hit records. That’s what people expect to hear from us, so we’re gonna do a lot of those. We’re gonna do “Elvira”, that’s the law – you can count on that. (Laughter) Our latest album is a gospel CD so we’ll do some gospel hymns. Some old hymns. We’re gonna do some patriotic songs to honor are troops and our veterans, but just in general a good family show – you know – that’s what we are all about – and if I had to say, except for “Elvira”, the highlight of our show every night is “Thank God for Kids”. You know, William Lee Golden – he does such an outstanding job of interpreting a lyric and then communicating that lyric to the audience, and he especially does that on “Thank God for Kids”. It is the highlight of our show. You see people – it touches people, it moves people. You see people holding hands, hugging each other, hugging their kids. People actually wiping tears from their eyes. It really is a pretty special moment. There’s no doubt about it.

Where to next for The Oak Ridge Boys?

We do not plan to retire any time soon. We don’t plan to go anywhere. I think the good lord above will let us know when it’s time to hang it up. Right now we are all still enjoying pretty good health. So as long as we’re doing that we’re gonna hang in there with what we’re doing.

Any new music up ahead?

We’ve been in the studio working on a Christmas album. We’ve kind of become known for our Christmas music over the years. This will be, believe it or not, our seventh Christmas album, and our Christmas tour that we do every year is the biggest part of our year. It’s slammed! You know – it goes from about the middle of November to just like a day or so before Christmas. It’s every night, and for the most part all over the country – and so we got a new Christmas CD which will allow us to add some new Christmas songs to our Christmas show this year. Just with our Christmas show, we do the same thing – we find the happy medium. The happy balance of traditional familiar songs, and some new songs that have been written by contemporaries’ latest to kind of tell the Christmas story in more of a contemporary way. So there is a nice balance there. There’s a nice mixture, and we’ll have some great songs to add to the Christmas show this year.

You guys have always been able to catch up with modern times, and advance throughout the years. Has communicating your music to the audience changed?

You know – to me it doesn’t seem a whole lot different now than it was, you know, thirty to forty years ago. We go up there, and we do what we love to do. We play. We perform. It’s in our music. That has not changed. Obviously our audience for the most part has aged along with us, so we have a lot of older people in our crowd – but you know we’ve actually gone into the studio in the recent years and worked with some new young producers and kind of reinvented ourselves just a little bit. As a result of that we’ve got some new young fans that are coming to see us. So there’s a nice mixture out there of older fans and young people checking us out too.

Do you have any advice for fellow musicians trying to make it in the music world?

First of all. This is one of the most competitive businesses that there is. A lot of businesses are competitive, but the music business especially is. You’ve got people here in Nashville walking the streets trying to find record deals and all, and it will probably not happen for a lot of them. The best advice that I can give a young person, is first of all decide what it is that you want to do. If this is what you want to do – you’ve got to make that decision first – once you make that decision, then you got to work on your craft. You have got to try to become the best singer, or the best guitar player, or whatever, that there is, and every chance that you get, you got to perform you music – you have to play your music, because you never know who’s going to be listening. Especially around here in Nashville. There are showcase places all over the place, songwriter nights, and different things like that – and you never know who will be out there listening. So you got to become the best that you can possibly be, and if you do that – there are still no guarantees – but if you do that, there’s a good chance good things will happen to you.

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