In October, The Oak Ridge Boys’ longtime members — Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban — will celebrate their semicentennial celebration, five decades of making music together. In gearing up for the milestone, the group has announced their American Made: Farewell Tour.
“When you’re saying farewell, there’s a lot of people you want to say farewell to,” Golden tells Billboard. “It’s all the people that supported you along the way, the ones that called the radio stations, the one that come and bought tickets to see us sing and sat in the rain with the rest of us while we were able to play and sing music. It’s a lot of emotions, because we as the Oak Ridge Boys are a family. I mean, we spent more time through the years together as a family and we did our own families, basically.”
Though the Oak Ridge Boys quartet has origins running back to the 1940s, it was the Golden-Sterban-Bonsall-Allen collective that propelled the group to commercial heights in both the country and pop fields.
At 84, Golden is the eldest member of the group, having joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1965; Allen joined a year later, having previously performed as part of the Southernaires Quartet and the Prophets quartet. In 1972, the group added Sterban, known for his work performing as part of the J.D. Sumner and the Stamps quartet. Bonsall joined in 1973, rounding out the current lineup. Both Bonsall and Sterban had previously performed as part of gospel group The Keystone Quartet.
This particular iteration has spearheaded the group for all of those years, save for an eight-year stretch starting in 1987 when Golden was replaced by Steve Sanders.
In the 1970s, the Oak Ridge Boys followed The Statler Brothers in gaining country success as a four-part vocal group with gospel roots. In 1977, they issued a live album which mixed country and gospel numbers such as “Good Hearted Woman” and “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.” But it was under the guidance of manager Jim Halsey, and with production from Ron Chancey, that the Oak Ridge Boys found success in the junction of gospel, country and pop, putting their inimitable harmonies behind what would become some of the biggest country and pop hits of the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1977, the group earned their first major country hit with “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” The group went on to earn 17 No. 1 Hot Country Songs hits, starting with 1978’s “I’ll Be True to You” and 1980’s “Leaving Louisiana in Broad Daylight. 1981 would bring their seminal, career-expanding crossover hit, the top five Billboard Hot 100 hit “Elvira,” anchored by Golden’s signature “Oom pa pa mow mow” vocals. They followed that with the top 15 Hot 100 hit “Bobbie Sue.”
Thanks to their distinct harmonies — with each of the four vocalists commanding an instrument capable of allowing the group to alternate lead vocal duties — the group earned four CMA Awards trophies and five Grammy wins. They’ve been recognized with the highest honors from the Country Music Hall of Fame (2015), the Grand Ole Opry (2011), the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
Bonsall, the youngest of the four members at age 75, notes that the group has been slowly scaling back the number of concerts they have played each year, from 140 dates last year to 120 dates in 2023; he estimates they will play only around 50-60 shows in 2024.
“We’ve worked nearly 150 dates a year almost every year,” Bonsall tells Billboard. “We’ve never booked tours like a lot of groups do — making an album and doing maybe 50 or 60 days to support it. We may tour under a different tour name every year, but it’s really the never-ending tour. We’ve never known how to stop or slow down, for sure. So what we have put a concentrated effort in our thought pattern here in the last year or so into how can we slow it down some, but still keep moving forward.”
Bonsall says they intend to include key venues that staunch supporters over the years, such as the Alabama Theater in Myrtle Beach, N.C., and the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, PA. — or the Kentucky State Fair, which the group has played for the past 49 years.
“Are we going to play the Kentucky State Fair for the 50th year next August, if at all possible? You bet we are,” Bonsall says. “That’s a record that might not be broken.”
Bonsall noted that age was one factor playing into the decision to launch a slate of farewell dates.
“For the past year, I’ve done our shows [sitting] on a stool,” Bonsall says. “My legs aren’t what they used to be — but I’m still singing good and feeling good, and I’m not in any pain,” Bonsall says. “Richard has had a few small health issues, but he got by them fine. Dwayne is doing great and [William Lee] Golden, he’s going to be 85 in January and he’s got more energy than all of us put together.”
“I want to thank God for 50 years of singing with three of my best friends and for the fans who have been there for us,” Sterban said in a statement. “This is a celebration and we hope to see you there.”
“For all of my career I have always been a planner, sometimes planning two or three years in advance, what we will do, where we will go, and when we record,” Allen said in a statement. “As we celebrate 50 years of being together, just as you see us, we will, also, begin our American Made: Farewell Tour. I don’t know how long the tour will last, but we hope to return to as many parts of the country as we can. Thank you so much for these 50 years. For me, it’s 57 1/2 years. I have given you the best part of my life and you have rewarded me with a wonderful career. Thank you, our dear fans. Thanks to God for His divine guidance. Thank you to our wonderful organization. Thank you to all the supporting companies who represent us. And thank you to our families.”
The farewell tour announcement is a momentous one, considering the Oaks’ considerable contributions to the progress and ascension of country music touring, both domestically and internationally. In 1976, thanks to the work of Halsey, the Oak Ridge Boys toured the Soviet Union with Roy Clark.
“The Iron Curtain was still firmly in place. Jim Halsey worked it out as a cultural exchange,” Bonsall recalls. “It was an incredible experience to go and see what life was like there, and to be able to cross a lot of barriers, language-wise, with music and harmony.”
The Oaks’ tour alongside Kenny Rogers and Dottie West in 1979 is considered country music’s first major arena tour. “All arenas, all sold-out, big production and lights in the middle of an arena — it was never done before,” Bonsall says. “Kenny and Dottie had those big hits like ‘Every Time Two Fools Collide,’ and Kenny was riding on ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Lucille.’ We were the hot new young kids on the block; we learned so much from Kenny.”
Riding high on hits like “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue,” the group propelled country music touring forward, with their energetic stage shows bolstered by lighting and production previously unheard of in country music concerts. “We had a computerized light system; everybody uses it now, but we did then,” Bonsall says. “We had lasers and smoke spotlights up in the truss; it was an amazing tour. People are doing big tours now all the time of course.”
The group joined another tour with Rogers, West and at times, Dolly Parton, thanks to the Rogers-Parton 1983 Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper “Islands in the Stream.”
“Kenny also had [the 1980, six-week No. 1 Hot 100 hit] ‘Lady,’ and we had all these hits by that time — so that was another monster tour; for like seven straight years, we never saw an empty seat in an arena,” Bonsall says.
Golden notes that as members of the Grand Ole Opry since 2011, they still plan to continue to perform at the Opry even after the conclusion of the farewell tour. “It was like people like Roy Acuff, people that inspired us as kids growing up, hearing them on the Grand Ole Opry,” he says. “It would come alive in our little farmhouses out the middle of a cotton field, and the battery radios bring it all alive to you.”
In addition to the upcoming farewell tour, the group has holiday shows in the works, and they plan to enter the studio in January to start work on a new album, again enlisting producer Dave Cobb, with whom they’ve worked on four previous albums, including 2021’s Front Porch Singin’.
“We’ve talked about doing an album of songs that talk about mamas,” Golden says. “We’d mention an old Dottie Rambo song called ‘Mama’s Teaching Angels How to Sing,’ and other songs that have a theme about mothers.”
“It’s a time of reflecting and there’s a sadness about being able that it’s a farewell tour,” Golden adds, “but there’s the other side that you feel so blessed because of your singing partners, the people that you’ve been able to travel with and sing with. The accomplishments that we’ve had together is four guys, regardless of our different backgrounds, coming together and we each bring a uniqueness to the group with our contributions.
“It’s exciting to have been able to have survived this many years with the same lineup of singers, and to be able to go out there and thank people,” he continues. “It’s going to be an emotional tour.”
See a full list of upcoming tour dates below:
Sept. 20 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Sept. 21 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Sept. 22 – Capital Region MU Health Care Amphitheater / Jefferson City, Mo.
Sept. 23 – Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center / Huntington, Tenn.
Sept. 28 – Norsk Hostfest Great Hall of the Vikings / Minot, N.D.
Sept. 29 – Chester Fritz Auditorium / Grand Forks, N.D.
Sept. 30 – Swiftel Center / Brookings, S.D.
Oct. 1 – Deadwood Mountain Grand / Deadwood, S.D.
Oct. 4 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 5 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 6 – Ameristar Casino Hotel Kansas City / Kansas City, Mo.
Oct. 7 – Richard Drake’s Party Barn / Powderly, Texas
Oct. 11 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 12 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 13 – Arlington Music Hall / Arlington, Texas
Oct. 14 – Arlington Music Hall / Arlington, Texas
Oct. 18 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 19 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 21 – Rome City Auditorium / Rome, Ga.
Oct. 26 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 27 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Oct. 28 – Neewollah Celebration – Jim Halsey Auditorium / Independence, Kan.
Nov. 1 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Nov. 2 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Nov. 3 – Brown County Music Center / Nashville, Ind.
Nov. 4 – Crossroads Arena / Corinth, Miss.
Nov. 8 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Nov. 9 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Nov. 11 – Grand Ole Opry / Nashville, Tenn.
Nov. 15 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Nov. 16 – The Mansion Theatre for the Performing Arts / Branson, Mo.
Nov. 21 – Vern Riffe Center for the Arts / Portsmouth, Ohio
Nov. 24 – Honeywell Center / Wabash, Ind.
Nov. 25 – Paramount Theatre / Anderson, Ind.
Dec. 1 – Renfro Valley Barn Dance / Mount Vernon, Ky.
Dec. 2 – Anderson Music Hall / Hiawassee, Ga.
Dec. 7 – Firekeepers Casino / Battle Creek, Mich.
Dec. 8 – Island Resort & Casino / Harris, Mich.
Dec. 9 – Island Resort & Casino / Harris, Mich.
Dec. 14 – Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center / Paducah, Ky.
Dec. 15 – Effingham Performance Center / Effingham, Ill.
Dec. 16 – Crystal Grand Music Theatre / Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.
Dec. 17 – Egyptian Theatre / Dekalb, Ill.