They trudged up Gay Street on a chilly December evening like a gray army, and as I threaded the throng toward the parking garage on State Street, I couldn’t help but think of my father.
My plan was to join these seniors, along with my brother and mother, to partake of the Christmas show by the Oak Ridge Boys, and I readily confess: I didn’t have high expectations. I didn’t have low ones, either; more than anything, I wanted to take my mom, who a year ago would have attended with my father, the two of them reminiscing about days long past, when the Oaks were in constant rotation on that old cabinet console turntable in our downstairs den.
My folks could have joined the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s; they certainly were of age, but flat feet kept my father out of Vietnam, and they spent most of their days and nights working and studying and eking out a living as a young married couple new to East Tennessee. They appreciated Bob Dylan, but they found solace and comfort and joy in mainstream country music. They preferred Kenny Rogers and the First Edition to the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond to the Beatles, the Oak Ridge Boys to the Velvet Underground. After a day riding around in a Knoxville Utilities Board truck, checking meters and water lines, and a night bent over books to finish a bachelor’s degree, my pops didn’t have much time for protests or love-ins; those tumultuous years passed them by without much fanfare, and growing up, WIVK-FM was their radio station of choice.
To me, the Oak Ridge Boys were a novelty, a group that recorded an earworm so insidious that to hear it was to invite thoughts of homicide in my young mind; when I found myself humming “giddy up ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow,” my first inclination was to wash my mouth out with soap and put on a Twisted Sister record. It wasn’t until later in life that I came to appreciate the longevity and rich history of the Oak Ridge Boys, as well as their exquisite harmonies. Still, I never expected to find myself at one of their shows, at least not willingly. The opportunity seemed ideal, however, to treat my mother, and thanks to manager Sandy Brokaw, we scored three seats in the gorgeous Tennessee Theatre last week.
Whenever a band with such a long history continues to perform, there’s always a risk. Do they still have it, or are they merely milking the hits and tainting the memory of their early-’80s heyday? I’m very pleased to report that they do, indeed, still have it. All four men — Joe Bonsall, the affable and energetic master of ceremonies; Duane Allen, the earnest lead singer; bearded baritone William Lee Golden, the coolest 78-year-old on the planet; and bass singer Richard Sterban, whom I interviewed for this section a couple of weeks ago — got a chance to shine, and a combination of good genes, good living and good health made each man’s voice memorable to behold.
They spent the first half of the show revisiting classics of old, and yes, even though it was a Christmas show, “Elvira” was the act one closer. Despite my reticence to embrace the song, there’s something inspiring about watching a theater full of seniors get to their feet to wave their arms and shout along to every word, and the Oaks fed off that energy, grateful and enthusiastic as a crackerjack band sailed through every note. The back half of the show was dedicated entirely to Christmas, and the frivolity was in full effect. Santa even made an appearance and got an Oak Ridge Boys serenade before handing out goodies to the kids in the crowd.
Throughout the show, I watched my mom as much as I did the guys on stage, and it did my heart good to see her smile. The Oaks got me, however, during the “rocking chair segment,” when they posted up in front of a faux fireplace and talked about Christmas. Bonsall took the time to talk about the band’s forthcoming new album, made with white-hot Nashville producer Dave Cobb, and when he asked Golden to sing a new song, it broke me.
“There’s a brand new star up in heaven tonight, shining down on us, glorious and bright ...”
In that moment, surrounded by strangers celebrating the season, with my mother and my brother beside me, I felt my dad. The Oaks didn’t know it, but they were singing about him.
“I’m going to miss you everyday, but I know that you’re alright, there’s a brand new star up in heaven tonight ...”
The guys gave it their all during every song, but on that one in particular, they delivered it with a little extra passion and a little more urgency. It was clear that the new song, and the new record, mean a great deal to them, but in that moment, with Golden leaning forward and his bandmates kicking in harmonies like the gospel greats of old, it meant even more to me. I could close my eyes and see my father sitting beside my mom, grinning and singing along. It’s a strange feeling, so keen was his absence and so close was his presence, all in the same moment, sitting in a grand old Knoxville theater, listening to the Oak Ridge Boys.
It’s a moment I never expected to experience, but that’s one of the joys of music. My pops knew it, and the Oak Ridge Boys know it. I’m profoundly grateful for the gift they gave me and my family, and if that new song is any indication, they intend to keep on giving, as long as they’re able.
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