Three years ago last September, The Oak Ridge Boys performed as part of K-State’s McCain Auditorium series. On that occasion, they managed to work a reference to the university’s football team into a song listing items of which Americans can be proud.
So it wasn’t any wonder on Sunday that the quartet referred to the Cats’ victory, the night before, over Iowa State. But surely they were kidding when they said they wished they had been there Saturday to sing the National Anthem. It was cold, cold, cold on the field.
But it was cozy in McCain on Sunday night. And the large crowd got cozy entertainment. Not so much rock ‘n’ roll as the last Oaks’ appearance here, when they sang “Seven Nation Army.” That’s a Jack White song sung a lot by football crowds and now even by European soccer crowds who probably don’t know the song announces “I’m going to Wichita.”
It takes several degrees of separation to get from the terraces of English sport to the good humor of the Oak Ridge Boys. The group began as a gospel music outfit back in the 1940s. This lineup — Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, Joe Bonsall, and Richard Sterban — has been together since the early 1970s, around the time the Oaks began to embrace secular music.
These are the guys who sang “Elvira,” “American Made” and “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” Since the height of their popularity (Bonsall called it the time “when the Oak Ridge Boys ruled the world”), they have continued to record and tour, tour, tour. Their preference for happy or uptempo music helped them to maintain a large following.
Their crowd has aged a bit. They don’t stand on their chairs to sing along any more. And the singers have aged, themselves. They may have, in football parlance, “lost a step.”
Maybe the voices weren’t as rich as they were even three years ago. But they aren’t offering the songs as new experiences. The pleasure of hearing the Oaks these days is a little more a ritual one and a little less a musical one.
The musical fun in the two-set, 27-song show came from listening to the backing band: three guitars, drums, electric bass and keyboards. Most of the musicians have been with the act for years, and they were Nashville solid in the same way they had been in 2016.
Steel guitar and fiddle player Rex Wiseman still got his carries during the performance, as did piano player Ron Fairchild. The instrumentalists demonstrated the sharp corners of the music for us where the slightly less vital singing performances would have done the work a decade ago.
Not that the quartet didn’t sometimes sound like themselves. They warmed up on a couple of shortened early numbers. We saw them and then we saw, projected above the group, closed circuit TV images taken from different angles, that gave us the singing framed in constantly changing ways.
The first set — the hits segment — slowed down for a couple of sweeter things (“Thank God for Kids” and “Did I Make a Difference”), but got up and rocking with “Elvira” just before the intermission.
The second set was reserved for Christmas music. Christmas trees and a fireplace set (with rocking chairs retained at the end of the sponsorship of their performances by the “Cracker Barrel” restaurant chain) helped set the stage. Santa made an appearance and gave away some presents to kids willing to approach the stage.
Most of the numbers during this session were contemporary songs rather than traditional carols. Then the quartet waxed a little religious — remember the group’s origin in gospel. And we ended up after more than two hours with “Joy to the World,” the Isaac Watts version, not the Hoyt Axton version about the bullfrog.
And late in the Christmas set, as Sterban was taking his turn reminiscing, he referred to K-State’s 2020 football schedule. He noted that the Nashville-resident SEC member, the Vanderbilt Commodores, would be coming to our stadium.
Must remember to sing them “Seven Nation Army.”