When the Oak Ridge Boys crossed over from gospel to country in 1977, they pointedly kept their virtuous image intact in hopes of holding the fans who switched formats with them. Unlike their grittier country cousins, the quartet selected their conservative wardrobes from Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and their music was the G-rated equivalent. “We don’t do any cheatin’ or drinkin’ songs,” says the Oaks’ lead singer, Duane Allen. Avoiding controversy as assiduously as tax audits, the group has refused lucrative offers to do beer and cigarette commercials, offers no opinions on religion or politics, and even turned down a chance to be in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas because they found the lyrics too risqué. “We don’t want to do anything that’s going to offend our audience,” explains bass Richard Sterban. In public, at least, they haven’t—and the strategy has worked. The band has to its credit 10 No. 1 country hits, seven gold and two platinum LPs, and such spectacular pop breakthroughs as the singles Elvira and Bobbie Sue. Their latest album and its title cut, American Made, have both cracked the country Top 10.
Offstage, though, the Oaks’ pasteurized image has been betrayed over the last few years by some distinct impieties. Of the four, only Allen has managed to protect his marriage from the temptations of extended road life, and while the Oaks have no policy against drugs, they had to fire several employees for flagrant use of cocaine and Quaaludes. But most threatening to the Oaks’ public posture has been the behavior of their longest-tenured member, baritone William Lee Golden. Golden freely admits his marriage ended in 1975 because he was “adulterous,” that he “smokes a little weed and snorts some,” and that his brother is in prison (for attempted murder and armed robbery). Three years ago he joined the rugged American Mountain Man Association and grew his hair and beard into a flowing lion’s mane. He began sporting beaded buckskin and leather clothes and trekking into the wilderness toting a .54-caliber black-powder musket for three-day survival tests. As Golden grew shaggier and more remote, his partners became worried. “We thought he was too extreme for our audience and might be offending them,” concedes Sterban.
The Oak Ridge Boys originated as a gospel quartet at the famed nuclear research plant near Knoxville, Tenn. some 40 years ago, and have existed since then with a changing cast of performers. The organization nearly came to an end last summer and fall while the current Oaks were recording American Made. Word circulated among the Oaks’ 70-plus employees that Golden had decided to leave, possibly to pursue a solo career. Nashville dishes out this kind of gossip as regularly as McDonald’s serves hamburgers, but the speculation was underscored by months of divisive feuding between Allen and Golden, who have been partners for 17 years. By the time tenor Joe Bonsall, 35, and Sterban, 39, were drawn into the conflict, it had escalated into an undeclared cold war. “It’s been the most difficult year I’ve ever been through,” admits Allen, 38, recalling the tension on their tour bus. “We were together every day but not speaking—not a word—for two months.”
Apparently to force some dialogue, Allen, Sterban and Bonsall took the extraordinary measure of having their lawyer draft a “letter of reprimand” to Golden, who serves as chairman of the board of the Oaks’ corporation. “It was a strictly legal letter,” explains Allen, “to the point and very plain about what was expected of him.” Golden interpreted it as a personal attack on his unorthodox life-style and remained intransigent. “I’ve been criticized pretty hard for the way I look and dress,” says Golden, 44, “but sometimes a man has to stand up for who he is and what he believes in.”
“He doesn’t have to change, but the Oak Ridge Boys have an identity that we must keep up,” retorts Allen, who is president of the corporation. “If Golden’s personal tastes are stronger than his commitment to his job, then he can dress or look however he wants—but the Oak Ridge Boys won’t go on.” Allen insists, however, that Golden’s lifestyle was “the least of the problems,” citing disputes that arose when Golden appeared solo on a television special put on by a rival group, Alabama; when he promoted his own Harvest Jam; and when he suggested that the Oaks extend their one-hour road show to three hours (they compromised on 90 minutes). “I hate to say that I’m the leader,” says Allen, “but it’s understood. If somebody says I’m not, then we’ll have a confrontation to find out.”
The bickering never actually led to blows, but as the rift widened after the reprimand, Bonsall assumed the role of peacemaker and engineered an ad hoc group therapy session while the Oaks were recording in Muscle Shoals, Ala. last summer. “The four of us sat there all day behind a closed door,” says Bonsall. “We had been taking care of business, but it was hurting inside.” Adds Sterban: “We sincerely love each other and we got real emotional; grown men were crying in this meeting.” During the discussion, Golden revealed that he felt their corporation’s policy of mandatory retirement at age 50 was aimed at forcing him to quit in six years. “It was really a lack of communication and a big misconception by Golden,” says Bonsall. “He thought he was being pushed out and we thought he was leaving us. I don’t mind people knowing that we had a spat. Everybody has spats. But it’s important to know that we got to the bottom of it.” It was the first of many such conferences, but, according to Bonsall, “that’s the day we turned this all around.”
Considering the Oaks’ expanding business empire, a lot was at stake during that summit conference in addition to album royalties. The group’s concert fee has soared from $17,500 in 1979 to the $100,000-per-night bracket. The Oaks’ holdings have spread to include two publishing companies with a catalog of more than 1,000 songs, two radio stations, a recording studio, four record labels and an extensive merchandising branch. Their entourage travels in a fleet of three customized Silver Eagle buses and tractor-trailers worth more than $1 million. The spare change has been invested in numerous real estate deals and the stock market. “The four of us are responsible for a lot of people, so we have to keep our heads together,” says Bonsall. “I guarantee in blood that there’s nothing happening to the Oak Ridge Boys.”
With four mighty egos and strong regional differences among them, the Oaks suggest that arguments may be inevitable. “It’s like mixing four colors of paint,” says Golden. “Sometimes you get every color of the rainbow.” Their particular melting pot is the Nashville exurb of Hendersonville. Golden left a paper mill job in rural Brewton, Ala. in late 1964 to join the Oaks there, and Allen, a deejay from an affluent Taylortown, Texas family, arrived a year later. The first Yankee to join the Oaks, Sterban is from Camden, N.J. and sang backup for Elvis Presley before he was recruited to the group 11 years ago. Bonsall first tasted showbiz as a dancer on American Bandstand in his native Philadelphia and sang with the Keystone Quartet before becoming an Oak in 1973.
The Oaks have pared their concert, TV and recording schedule to 165 days this year (down from 252 in 1977). When they’re not on the road, Golden meditates in the tepee behind his 18th-century plantation house, while his athletic partners run and play basketball and tennis. Sterban’s sports addiction even extends to part ownership of two Class A pro baseball teams and a hockey franchise. “The only time those guys are frustrated,” laughs Golden, “is when seasons overlap and they can’t decide which sport to watch first.”
The Oaks’ recent months of fence mending seem to have produced a workable accord, but whether it will turn out to be a permanent peace or a temporary truce remains to be seen. “I sure didn’t want to be the cause of the Oaks’ failing,” says Golden. “The music and friendship are there, and everything seems okay now. Sometimes it takes things like this to remind us individually how small we are.”