That wasn’t “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson who pulled up to The Heritage Foundation yesterday. It was bearded baritone William Lee Golden—and he brought along the rest of the legendary Oak Ridge Boys.
Yup, the veteran country-gospel quartet made a surprise visit to Heritage at noon, delighting the assembled crowd of staff and guests. It wasn’t for a concert, but an informal question-and-answer session in the seventh-floor Allison Auditorium.
The Oak Ridge Boys as fans know them—lead singer Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall and bass singer Richard Sterban in addition to Golden— got their start as a Southern Gospel quartet in the late 1960s. But after manager Jim Halsey convinced them that they were “three and a half minutes away from being a major act,” the Oaks switched over to country songs and made an immediate impact with “Y’all Come Back Saloon.”
The following years brought a truckload of country hits, the No. 1 pop hit “Elvira,” a passel of Grammys and other music industry awards, and millions of records sold. The Oaks continue to perform at arenas and fairs across the country and because of that, they’re able to “look Middle America right in the eye,” as Bonsall put it.
Although most of the questions yesterday centered on the Oaks’ five decades of musical tradition and influences, a few did focus on politics. They never get into politics, but they do “see what politics does,” Bonsall said.
Asking around, they heard the people in their audiences were mainly interested in their health, their families and their jobs.
A pivotal influence was a 1976 trip to what was then the Soviet Union, Golden recalled. The Oaks were stunned when they had to submit their lyrics for approval. They came back to America with a new appreciation for the freedoms we take for granted, Golden said.
Speaking to their musical influences, the Oaks said they were most grateful to the “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash. In their early years, Cash was the only successful artist to let them play with him and give them concert dates.
So did the guys sing yesterday? They sure did: a jaunty a cappella chorus of “Elvira” that thrilled the Heritage crowd.
The transition from gospel to country wasn’t easy, but the Oak Ridge Boys not only made it, they flourished. They’ve been together in this incarnation for more than 40 years and show no signs of slowing. Their latest album, “Boys Night Out,” is set for release April 15.
>>> WATCH: A Conversation with the Oak Ridge Boys
This story was produced by The Foundry’s news team. Nothing here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation.