FLORENCE—If you’ve been to Country Thunder in Arizona at least once over the past decade, chances are good you’ve seen this year’s closing headliner, Blake Shelton, perform.
He seems to be at the top of the list of performers every two or three years, and clearly loves the heck out of coming to the Arizona desert and showing off his stuff for 20,000 or so of his closest drunk buddies.
What made this year special, however, wasn’t the act leading up to him (Tyler Farr, who despite his reputation as bro country’s mainstay, actually put on a terrific show). It was that, for the first time in the nearly 30-year history of the Arizona event, country music Hall of Famers The Oak Ridge Boys were on the main stage.
They played before Farr, showing that despite their age (three members of the group are in their 70s, and the youngest, Joe Bonsall, is 68), they can still really sing and put on an upbeat performance that delighted old and young alike.
“We’ve played the other three Country Thunder’s many other times,” Bonsall said. “It finally worked out this time for us,” to play the one in Arizona.
Part of the tie-in was the ORB sang on Shleton’s latest album, If I’m Honest
, on the catchy track “Doin’ It To Country Songs.”
Though it would be easy to taking their tours as something of a victory lap these days, that sort of attitude can’t be found among any of the ORB members—two of which started with the group more than 50 years ago.
They’re still playing more than 150 dates a year—festivals, stadiums, theaters and everything in between. They’ve got a new album set to be cut this summer and have plans in the works for the group’s 28th Christmas tour that will kick off right after Thanksgiving.
“If you can still sing, why not sing?” Bonsall said.
Bass singer Richard Sterban said so much of it has to do with the passion each man still has.
“When you enjoy doing what you do, you don’t get tired of doing it,” Sterban said. “Even after all these years, we’re just having too much fun.”
They’ve walked on at the Grand Ole’ Opry with Little Big Town when they closed their show with the one Oak Ridge Boys song known better than any other—"Elvira"—but it wasn’t “ an ego thing. It’s an appreciation thing,” Bonsall said.
That much is clear in how they talk about the artists of today. At an awards show a few years back, Bonsall saw Eric Church backstage and had to compliment him on his music.
“I’m a member of the ‘Church Choir,’” Bonsall said. “His stuff is just cool.”
Bonsall introduced himself, complimenting Church on his music and was about to leave when Church wrapped him in a hug.
“He told me, ‘We’re all on your shoulders here,’” Bonsall said.
The group’s four members, Bonsall, lead singer Duane Allen, Sterna and the group’s elder statesman, the 78-year-old William Lee-Golden (he of the famous waist-length white beard) all talked about the group’s connection to the gospel roots of country music, but said they didn’t need to be overt about that message to stay true to that theme.
“(All the greats) grew up singing gospel music,” Allen said. “It comes from the heart and soul.”
Though they don’t do much of their own writing, the group highlighted some of the new writers in Nashville these days, such as ACM Writer of the Year Lori McKenna, who wrote “Humble and Kind,” for Tim McGraw.
All four men gushed about that song, praising McKenna’s brilliance and saying such a song perfectly highlights the gospel roots of the genre.
“We want to cut an album with the attitude of gospel,” Allen said of the album that will be produced with super-producer David Cobb. “it gives people something that comes from God … though He made all the fields of music. For us, we’re going to do songs that remind us of home.
“It’s gonna be a mama’s home cookin’ album. There may not be a word about Jesus, but it’ll be all gospel.”
Of the group’s passion for continuing to tour as such a prolific pace, Golden said it much like why he continues to walk several miles a day and has turned to a regimen of sit-ups to strengthen his core.
“All of us feel like we sing a lot better when we sing a lot,” he said. “You’re like athletes in that way.”