Oak Ridge Boys
Hendersonville TN | Country
Theirs is one of the most distinctive and recognizable sounds in the music industry. The four-part harmonies and upbeat songs of the Oak Ridge Boys have spawned dozens of Country hits and a Number One Pop smash, earned them Grammy, Dove, CMA, and ACM awards and garnered a host of other industry and fan accolades. Every time they step before an audience, the Oaks bring three decades of charted singles, and 50 years of tradition, to bear on a stage show widely acknowledged as among the most exciting anywhere. And each remains as enthusiastic about the process as they have ever been.
"When I go on stage, I get the same feeling I had the first time I sang with the Oak Ridge Boys," says lead singer Duane Allen. "This is the only job I've ever wanted to have."
"Like everyone else in the group," adds bass singer extraordinaire Richard Sterban, "I was a fan of the Oaks before I became a member. I'm still a fan of the group today. Being in the Oak Ridge Boys is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream."
The two, along with tenor Joe Bonsall and baritone William Lee Golden, comprise one of Country's truly legendary acts. Their string of hits includes the pop chart-topper Elvira, as well as Bobbie Sue, Dream On, Thank God For Kids, American Made, I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Sometimes, Fancy Free, Gonna Take A Lot Of River and many others. They've scored 12 gold, three platinum, and one double platinum album, plus one double platinum single, and had more than a dozen national Number One singles and over 30 Top Ten hits.
The Oaks represent a tradition that extends back to World War II. The original group, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, began performing Country and Gospel music in nearby Oak Ridge where the atomic bomb was being developed. They called themselves the Oak Ridge Quartet, and they began regular Grand Ole Opry appearances in the fall of ’45. In the mid-fifties, they were featured in Time magazine as one of the top drawing Gospel groups in the nation.
By the late ’60s, with more than 30 members having come and gone, they had a lineup that included Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, Noel Fox, and Willie Wynn. Among the Oaks’ many acquaintances in the Gospel field were Bonsall, a streetwise Philadelphia kid who embraced Gospel music; and Sterban, who was singing in quartets and holding down a job as a men’s clothing salesman. Both admired the distinctive, highly popular Oaks.
“They were the most innovative quartet in Gospel music,” says Bonsall. “They performed Gospel with a Rock approach, had a full band, wore bell-bottom pants and grew their hair long... things unheard of at the time.”
The four became friends, and when the Oaks needed a bass and tenor in ’72 and ’73, respectively, Sterban and Bonsall got the calls. For a while, the group remained at the pinnacle of the Gospel music circuit. It was there they refined the strengths that would soon make them an across-the-board attraction.
“We did a lot of package shows,” says Bonsall. “There was an incredible amount of competition. You had to blow people away to sell records and get invited back.”
Their Gospel sound had a distinct Pop edge to it and, although it made for excitement and crowd appeal, it also ruffled purist feathers and left promoters unsure about the Oaks’ direction. Then in 1975, the Oaks were asked to open a number of dates for Roy Clark. Clark’s manager, Jim Halsey, was impressed by their abilities.
“He came backstage and told us we were three-and-a-half minutes (meaning one hit record) away from being a major act,” says Bonsall. “He said we had one of the most dynamic stage shows he’d ever seen but that we had to start singing Country songs.”
They took his advice and the result was a breakthrough.
“Those who came to Country music with or after the New Traditionalists of the mid-eighties cannot possibly imagine the impact the Oaks had in 1977, when they lit up the sky from horizon to horizon with Y’All Come Back Saloon,” wrote Billboard’s Ed Morris. He added “... the vocal intensity the group brought to it instantly enriched and enlivened the perilously staid Country format. These guys were exciting.” Within a year, Paul Simon tapped them to sing backup for his hit Slip Slidin’ Away, and they went on to record with George Jones, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles and others. In 2007, they recorded with the son of an old friend. Shooter Jennings, the son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, invited the Oaks to perform Slow Train, a song on his sophomore CD.
Their career has spanned not only decades, but also formats. They have appeared before five presidents. They produced one of the first Country music videos (Easy, in 1977, although not released in the U.S., it reached the 3 slot in Australia). They participated in the first American popular music headline tour in the USSR. And they have become one of the most enduringly successful touring groups anywhere. They still performing some 150 dates each year at major theaters, fairs and festivals across the U.S. and Canada.
They did it with a consistently upbeat musical approach and terrific business savvy.
“We always look for songs that have lasting value and that are uplifting,” says Allen, who has co-produced the Oaks’ last seven studio albums. “You don’t hear us singing ’cheating’ or ’drinking’ songs, but ’loving’ songs, because we think that will last. We also don’t put music in categories, except for ’good’ or ’bad.’ When we get through with it, it’s probably going to sound like an Oak Ridge Boys song no matter what it is.”
They proved their business acumen in any number of ways, including such steps as declining the chance to sit on the couch during their many appearances on the Tonight Show.
“We said, ’If you’re going to give us four minutes on the couch with Johnny, we’d rather have four minutes to give you another song that lets people know what got us here,’” says Allen. “We didn’t get here talking; we got here singing.”
They also proved themselves to be capable and tireless advocates of charitable and civic causes, serving as spokesmen and/or board members of fundraisers for the Boy Scouts of America, the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (now known as Prevent Child Abuse America), Feed The Children, the National Anthem Project and many more.
The group’s first personnel change in many years occurred in 1987 when Steve Sanders, who had been playing guitar in the Oaks Band, replaced William Lee as the baritone singer. Late in ’95, Steve resigned from the Oaks and exactly one minute after midnight on New Year’s Eve, Duane, Joe and Richard surprised a packed house at the Holiday Star Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana, by welcoming William Lee on stage and back into the group. The hit makers were finally together again!
The Oaks’ high-energy stage show remains the heart and soul of what they do, and they refine it several times a year, striving to keep it fresh well into the future.
“We’re not willing to rest on our laurels,” Golden says. “That gets boring. As a group, we do things constantly to challenge ourselves, to try to do something different or better than the last time we did it.”
“I feel like I can do what I do on stage just as good now as I could 20 years ago,” says Bonsall. “I plan to be rockin’ my tail off out there as long as I’m healthy. The people who come out, who bring their families to see us, deserve everything I’ve got.”
“We’ve experienced a lot of longevity,” adds Sterban. “I think the reason is the love we have for what we do—the desire, the longing to actually get up there and do it. We love to sing together... to harmonize together. It’s what our lives are all about.”
Bill Anderson has been using that philosophy for almost fifty years to capture the attention of millions of country music fans around the world, en route to becoming a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and one of the most popular, most enduring entertainers of our time.
He’s known, in fact as “Whispering Bill,” a nickname hung on him years ago as a result of his breathy voice and his warm, soft approach to singing a country song. His credentials, however, shout his prominence: One of the most awarded songwriters in the history of country music, a million-selling recording artist many times over, television game show host, network soap opera star, spokesman for a nationwide restaurant chain, and a consummate onstage performer. His back-up group, The Po’ Folks Band, has long been considered one of the finest instrumental and vocal groups in the business.
Gallatin TN | Country
Jesse Lester McReynolds (born July 9, 1929, in Coeburn, Virginia) is an American bluegrass musician. He is known for his innovative crosspicking and split-string styles of mandolin playing, and has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1964. He is a multiple Grammy nominee and award winner and one-half of the famed Jim & Jesse bluegrass duo.
Titusville PA | Country
Along with many accolades including awards from Billboard, Cashbox and Record World, country music legend Jeannie Seely has achieved No. 1 songs as a solo artist, as a duet partner and as a songwriter. Her deeply moving vocals earned her the nickname of "Miss Country Soul".
Jeannie’s recording of "Don’t Touch Me" not only topped the charts, but also earned her a Grammy Award for the "Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female". It is ranked at No. 97 in the book "Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles" published by the Country Music Foundation, and also included in "The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs".
Born in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and raised on a farm outside of nearby Townville, Jeannie was singing on Meadville radio station WMGW at age 11, and by 16 was performing on TV station WICU in Erie. When she moved to Nashville upon the encouragement of friend Dottie West, Jeannie only had $50 and a Ford Falcon to her name, but within a month Porter Wagoner hired her as the female singer for his road and television series.
It’s rare that an artist with more than four decades of accolades to his credit would continue to seek out new challenges, but that’s precisely what country soul legend Ronnie Milsap has done with Then Sings My Soul: 24 Favorite Hymns and Gospel Favorites, his first foray into gospel music. The unflaggingly uplifting double-disc finds Milsap revisiting his North Carolina childhood for a collection of songs that capture a remarkable spirit -- one sure to resonate with listeners regardless of their musical and cultural backgrounds.
“You know, we’ve all made this journey through life, and I’ve always been more of a spiritual person than to say that I’m one in an organized religion,” says Milsap. “My belief system is what it is, and this kind of music has always been a big part of my life, and to finally have the chance to get to actually put the spotlight on this side of me as a person is unusual. For a long time, I was shy about recording gospel music because I didn’t necessarily want to show the inside of my soul but now, the spiritual side of me is really shining through.”
To illuminate that side, Milsap went back to the deep, rich, gospel tradition of hymns like “Holy Holy Holy” and “Amazing Grace”-- both presented here in breathlessly ethereal fashion -- and transported himself to more modern times for a sweetly soulful “People Get Ready” that would surely elicit a smile from author Curtis Mayfield. Sonically, the repertoire runs the gamut from the storefront-church rollick of “Swing Down Chariot” (which finds Milsap taking the lead role in a joyous four-part harmony fest) to the stately elegance of “Rock of Ages” (a showcase for his ever-pristine piano stylings).
“Music has a way of making you feel something in your heart, in your soul,” says the singer. “It did it centuries ago, and it still does today, that’s why Mozart and Beethoven are still popular. You know when something is so good and has been written so well that the idea can’t be said any better? The old hymns are just like that; they still hold up, and they still make people feel something- they inspire everybody.”
In addition to the old favorites, Milsap found inspiration in a group of newer songs that round out Then Sings My Soul. On “Up to Zion,” he immerses himself in the electrifying immediacy of traditional gospel, while “When Jesus Was All I Had” -- penned by Muscle Shoals-based Donnie Fritts -- brings a bluesy-yet- introspective tone to the proceedings.
“It’s amazing, the deeper I got into the project, the more I felt about it. When we first started just choosing the songs, working through the arrangements, we knew we were on the right track. But when I finally got into the studio, it turned out to be such an incredibly, spiritual experience. I became very moved by what we were doing. I know that’s going to translate to the listener. I know that’s going to translate to my fans.”
Ronnie Milsap spent the first six years of his life in a small rural town in the Great Smoky Mountains hamlet of Robbinsville, North Carolina before moving to Raleigh to attend a school for the blind -- where he began studying violin and piano, studies he’d continue for the next 12 years. Music’s lure proved powerful for the young Milsap, and while he’d pursued his studies diligently in order to make the grade at law school, a chance meeting with Ray Charles prompted him to take another path that was about to open to him.
“I went to a Ray Charles show while I was in college and somehow they let us backstage,” he recalls. “I was introduced to Ray Charles and I said, “Mr. Ray Charles, you’re my hero. You’re the man I look up to. I emulate your music, but I’m faced with a dilemma. I’d love to be in the music business, but all my advisors tell me I have to have an academic life. So I’m going on to study law and become a lawyer.” And there was a piano in the dressing room, and Ray said, “Well, play me something.” So I played him three songs, and Charles said, “Well, son, you can be a lawyer if you want to, but there’s a lot of music in your heart. If I were you, I’d follow what my heart tells me to do.”
Milsap did just that, recording a handful of singles in Atlanta before moving to Memphis, where he joined forces with super-producer Chips Moman and, by 1969, with Elvis Presley -- for whom he played piano on hits like “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.” Although he was making a name for himself as a versatile studio musician, Milsap was set on being at center-stage, rather than in the supporting cast, a goal he’d achieve by 1974, when he scored his first number-one country single, “Pure Love.”
He’d go on to top the country chart more than a dozen times in the ’70s, with such enduring hits as “Let My Love Be Your Pillow” and “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life” -- the latter of which is reprised on Then Sings My Soul with an all-new recording and arrangement. His peers responded just as strongly as the public, awarding Milsap six Grammys and a dozen CMA Awards, including four turns as Male Vocalist of the Year. The success he achieved in the country arena would soon spill over into the pop and adult contemporary realms as well, thanks to universally accessible songs like “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” and “Any Day Now.”
And even with 40 #1 chart-toppers under his belt -- not to mention avidly-received live shows across the world, Ronnie Milsap is still growing and surprising long-time fans. Then Sings My Soul documents that growth process, but it also proves that even now, the kid from Robbinsville is still firmly in touch with his roots, and capable of creating sonic and spiritual images that will transport listeners back to the little Baptist church where those roots were planted.
“Many of these songs have been around for hundreds of years. My genealogy is Scottish Irish, so I’ll bet you those songs were being sung in Europe, you know, long before everybody came to America, but there are many songs that have stood the test of time because they continue to make people feel something. That’s what it’s all about.”
Riders In The Sky
Riders In The Sky are truly exceptional.
By definition, empirical data, and critical acclaim, they stand "hats & shoulders" above the rest of the purveyors of C & W - "Comedy & Western!"
For more than thirty years Riders In The Sky have been keepers of the flame passed on by the Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, reviving and revitalizing the genre. And while remaining true to the integrity of Western music, they have themselves become modern-day icons by branding the genre with their own legendary wacky humor and way-out Western wit, and all along encouraging buckaroos and buckarettes to live life "The Cowboy Way!"
Riders In The Sky are exceptional not just in the sense that their music is of superlative standards (they are the ONLY exclusively Western artist to have won a Grammy, and Riders have won two), but by the fact that their accomplishments are an exception to the rule as well. That Riders In The Sky was even formed is a feat of improbable likelihood. What are the odds that a theoretical plasma physicist, a wildlife manager - galvanizer - Life Scout, an English major - shot putter - Bluegrass Boy, and a Polka Hall of Fame member would collectively become "America's Favorite Cowboys?" And even more unlikely is that 30-plus years later, the original members are still "bringing good beef to hungry people" while putting up Ripken-like numbers! The Rolling Stones only made it a few years before replacing Brian Jones; the Sons of the Pioneers constantly changed personnel; even the Ringo-era Beatles only lasted 8 years. (Perhaps Too Slim, as a sophomore writer for the University of Michigan Daily, had an ulterior motive in 1969 by propagating the rumor that Paul McCartney was dead! It's true... go ahead and Google "Paul is dead rumor"...) But the key to keeping the same founding members intact for three decades on the road is more easily explained: "Separate hotel rooms," cracks Ranger Doug!
Riders In The Sky's first official public performance was Nov. 11, 1977, at the erstwhile Nashville nightspot "Phranks & Steins." Taking the stage that night for a crowd of eight or nine (counting Herr Harry behind the bar) were Ranger Doug (Idol of American Youth) on arch-top guitar and baritone vocals, and Too Slim (A Man Aging Like Fine Cheese) on bunkhouse bass, face, and tenor vocals. A chain saw may have been in the mix somewhere that night, but was soon retired. Replacing the chain saw was Woody Paul (King of the Cowboy Fiddlers) on fiddle, tenor vocals and rope tricks, and the launch was successful! They subsequently added the "Stomach Steinway" stylings of Joey the Cowpolka King on accordion and baritone vocals, much to the delight of 'Polkaholics' everywhere.
As a classic cowboy quartet, the trail has led them to heights they could have never predicted. Riders have chalked up over 6100 concert appearances in all 50 states and 10 countries, appearing in venues everywhere from the Nashville National Guard Armory to Carnegie Hall, and from county fairs to the Hollywood Bowl. Their cowboy charisma and comedic flair made them naturals for TV, and landed them their own weekly show on TNN, as well as a Saturday morning series on CBS. They have been guests on countless TV specials, documentaries and variety shows, appearing with everyone from Barney to Penn & Teller. And their animated likenesses have shared the screen with Daffy Duck on the Cartoon Network, and the Disney Channel's Stanley. If you consider their compositional credits, one might call them "Writers In The Sky!" In addition to penning award winning songs for their own albums, they wrote the score for Pixar Animation's 2002 Academy Award-winning short "For the Birds." They composed the theme song for the internet cartoon show "Thomas Timberwolf" by renowned Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones. But the animated character that history will most certainly link to Riders In The Sky is the loveable cowboy Woody, as Riders performed "Woody's Round Up" in "Toy Story 2," with the album of the same name garnering Riders their first Grammy Award in 2001 for "Best Musical Album for Children." Two years later, Riders roped their second Grammy in the same category, for "Monsters Inc. - Scream Factory Favorites," the companion CD to Pixar's award winning movie.
Equally as exceptional, but of greater significance, is that in 1982, Riders In The Sky became the first, and to date only, exclusively Western music artist to join the Grand Ol' Opry, the longest running radio show in history, and thus began a love affair with radio as well. In 1988, they recorded comedy skits for the album "Riders Radio Theatre" and launched the long-running international weekly radio show of the same name on public radio. And keeping pace with the ever-changing technological landscape, in 2006 "Ranger Doug's Classic Cowboy Corral" debuted on XM Satellite Radio, still heard weekly on SiriusXM Channel 56.
Exceptional artists also appeal to a diverse and broad-based cross section of their adoring public. Riders In The Sky's music and comedy delights cowboys and cowgirls of all ages, and from all walks of life. Riders are equally at ease amusing a theatre full of children as they are enthralling a symphony audience accompanied by 50 or 60 classically trained instrumentalists, or even an NCO club full of servicemen during a USO Tour. Riders have performed at the White House for both Democratic and Republican administrations, and at Major League Baseball's winter meetings for both American and National Leagues (although with an admitted bias for the Detroit Tigers). With their ability to persuade cowpokes on both sides of the fence to set aside their differences for a brief escape from day-to-day tribulations, is it any wonder that Riders have a virtual home called "Harmony Ranch?"
Ultimately, exceptional careers do not go unnoticed, and throughout theirs, Riders In The Sky have been honored regularly. In addition to being inducted into the Grand Ol' Opry, Riders are in the Western Music Association's Hall of Fame, the Country Music Foundation's Walkway of Stars, and the Walk of Western Stars (in Newhall, CA near Melody Ranch Studios) along with Gene, Roy, John Wayne and other cowboy legends. No less important than their two Grammies, Riders have been the Western Music Associaton's "Entertainers Of the Year" seven times, and won "Traditional Group of the Year" and "Traditional Album of the Year" multiple times. The Academy of Western Artists has named them "Western Music Group of the Year" twice in 5 years, and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has bestowed Riders with their Wrangler Award statuette three times. It comes as no surprise then that Billboard magazine's Jim Bessman counts them as one of "the most historically significant acts in the history of American music."
Yes, it would be "The Easy Way" to call it a career after 30-plus years, but it wouldn't be..."The Cowboy Way!" And so, the never-ending trail drive continues. The ponies are rested and watered, and America's Favorite Cowboys are ready to saddle up and ride, bringing good beef to hungry people wherever they may be. Yes, Riders In The Sky are truly an exception to the rule.
Williamsburg VA | Country
It is a Nashville legend that Connie's first record, the aching and unforgettable "Once a Day," written by Bill Anderson and recorded on July 16, 1964 when she was just 23, became one of the most celebrated singles in country music history—the first debut single by a female country singer to go to Number One, a position it held for eight weeks. Forty-seven years later it is still the only first single ever to have done that. When Connie sang "Once A Day" in the all-star B-movie musical Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar the following year, she was introduced on-screen as "The Cinderella of Country Music." "Once A Day," and her stunning rendition of "How Great Thou Art" remain the two most requested songs by her fans to this day. Connie's memorable string of hits would include "You and Your Sweet Love" "If It Ain't Love" "Where Is My Castle?" "Run Away Little Tears" "Just One Time" and "I Never Once Stopped Loving You." The passion for singing and for the songs, and the singular vocal precision in delivering them that marked those standards-to-be are fully on display in this return to recording. "If you add up all the songs on this album," Ms. Smith says, "it would add up to my personality. It's me talking again, after so many years, with a message no different than I've always had. It's just that I love you, and I want that love to come back." It's bound to.
Diamond Rio recently took home their first Grammy Award for The Reason. Named Grand Ole Opry members in 1998, Diamond Rio has had an illustrious career that includes over 10 million album sales, nine #1 singles, six Vocal Group of the Year awards (Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music) and 14 Grammy nominations. The band is highly regarded for their charitable contributions as the longtime National Spokespersons for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and was further honored with the prestigious Minnie Pearl Humanitarian Award in 2004.