Sunday’s show at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was as much a history lesson as it was a country music revue.
Before the Oak Ridge Boys took the stage Sunday night in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, a spokesman for the quartet gave the audience of 800-plus or so a brief biography of the legendary country music ensemble, whose beginnings go back to the mid-1940s, when it was primarily a bluegrass/gospel band.
Since its post-WWII beginnings, the Boys have gone through several name changes and dozens of personnel changes. The quartet that performed at the Kauffman Center has been together nearly 50 years: Southerners Duane Allen (Texas) and William Lee Golden (Alabama), who have been part of the Boys since the early 1960s (minus an eight-year hiatus by Golden in the mid-1980s), and Northerners Richard Sterban (New Jersey) and Joe Bonsall (Pennsylvania), who joined in the early 1970s.
All those years together have added a few coats of polish to their live shows, which feel like a full-throttle country jubilee, one with a heavy Branson vibe: well-rehearsed and loaded with cornball lines, but refreshed with the occasional crackle of spontaneity.
The group’s light-and-easy rapport isn’t contained to the four singers; it extends to the six-piece band, the Mighty Oaks, that supports them, most of whom have been part of the show for decades.
After the opening history lesson, all 10 players and performers took the stage and began to unload a set list that spanned nearly two dozen songs and a few decades worth of material.
They opened with “Everyday,” a country-pop hit in the mid-1980s, back when Golden already rocked a long, hefty beard and Sterban and Bonsall dressed like they were auditioning for a John Hughes film.
From there the set list bounced among some of their best-known songs, like the rollicking “Love Song,” in which the Boys rendered a gospel vibe that recalled the Dixie Hummingbirds; “Down Deep Inside,” in which Sterban showed off his deep, barge-horn bass voice; the uber-corny “Thank God for Kids,” featuring lead vocals from Golden; “Y’All Come Back Saloon,” which was released in 1977, a year before a song it strongly resembles, “The Gambler”; “American Beauty,” a song that name-checks all things American, from Chevrolets to the Statue of Liberty; and “Roll Tennessee River,” a rocking roadhouse country anthem lathered in pedal steel guitar licks.
The Boys swapped lead vocals throughout the 80-minute set, sometimes from one song to the next, sometimes within a song. Bonsall and Allen were primary vocalists, though, and Bonsall was the unofficial spokesman and storyteller for the group.
He recalled the Boys’ singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 7 of the 1985 World Series at (then) Royals Stadium. He needs to check his facts about Game 6, however, which he said was played the night before in St. Louis (it was in Kansas City). Nonetheless, he got in a dig at umpire Don Denkinger.
The set list included two covers: of Neil Young’s “Beautiful Bluebird,” from his “Chrome Dreams II” album; and their rowdy version of Rodney Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” which bristled with a hill-country accent.
The Boys paid tribute to their gospel heritage toward the end of the set, first with “I Love to Tell the Story,” which featured dueling pedal and lap-steel guitars, then a fiery rendition of “I Would Crawl All the Way (to the River),” during which Bonsall nearly fell to his knees, as if he were testifying.
After Bonsall told the story behind the song and how it became their biggest hit, they sang “Elvira,” which brought the crowd to its feet and started the first real sing-along of the night. Sterban can still hammer his signature vocal riff with authority: “ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow.” Some songs aren’t necessarily timeless, they just never lose their novelty.
They closed with “Bobbie Sue,” which rose to No. 1 on the country charts in 1982, though it’s more a rock song that bears a resemblance to Bob Seger’s “Betty Sue’s Getting Out Tonight.”
That was one of 15 No. 1 country hits for the Oak Ridge Boys in the 1980s alone, a fact that no one brought up Sunday night but another piece of impressive trivia in this group’s long, illustrious history.
Everyday; American Made; You’re the One (in a Million); Come on In; Love Song; Beautiful Bluebird; No Matter How High; Down Deep Inside; I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes; Thank God for Kids; Y’All Come Back Saloon; Ozark Mountain Jubilee; Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight; Roll Tennessee River; Dream On; Sail Away; Nothing Between Us but Love Anymore; American Beauty; Time Has Made a Change in Me; I Love to Tell the Story; I Would Crawl All the Way (to the River); Elvira; Bobbie Sue.