Behind Ba-Oom Papa Oom Papa Mow Mow: Richard Sterban From The Oak Ridge Boys
Over the course of country music’s recorded history, there are only a handful of defining vocal moments that have permanently etched themselves onto the genre’s landscape. Few of these etchings are deeper than the one made by Oak Ridge Boys bass singer Richard Sterban, whose “ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow,” on “Elvira” (the best-selling record in Nashville recording history) is indelible.
The Oak Ridge Boys are one of those groups that nearly anyone in or out of country music recognizes. Between 1976 and 89, the group had 17 number one hits, including such standards as “Bobbie Sue” and “American Made.” When added to a career that includes other popular singles such as “Ya’ll Come Back Saloon” and “Thank God For Kids,” the four key components of the Oak Ridge Boys undeniably form one of the most popular bands of their generation.
Fast forward to 2009, and the band has released a brand new album for Spring Hill Records called The Boys Are Back. Shooter Jennings brought the group together to sing back-up on his album, The Wolf. It was there that they met a producer who took them on a new musical journey. When asked about the album’s content, Sterban commented, “If there’s something I could compare this to, it would be what Johnny Cash did in the later part of his career.”
KEN MORTON, JR.: So just how many “ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow’s” have you sung over the years?
RICHARD STERBAN: [Laughter] That’s an interesting question–one I don’t think I’ve been asked before. A lot of times, people ask me to sing “ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow.” I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me how many times I’ve done it. I don’t think there’s even a way for me to begin to count–even imagine–how many times I’ve done it over the years. That is by far the most requested and most played song the Oak Ridge Boys have ever had. Of course “ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow” is my part of the song. I’m asked to do it a lot and over the years, its had to have been so many thousands of times. Hopefully, I’ll just be doing it a lot more into the future as well. It’s still the largest selling single record ever to be recorded in Nashville. To this day, it’s something that we’re excited about.
KMJ: I’ve always wondered something. On a career-defining song like “Elvira,” it obviously is viewed as a blessing, but I could also see it somewhat overshadowing a career’s worth of recording. Any thoughts about that?
RS: I think it’s obvious that the Oak Ridge Boys are a lot more than just “Elvira.” There’s no question about that. We’ve just had too many good records over the years and some really good “meaningful” records over the years. A song like “Thank God For Kids” comes to mind. That’s probably one of the more meaningful songs we’ve ever cut. At the same time, I don’t think “Elvira” shadows any of the other music. I think “Elvira” is simply the song that makes people want to come hear us to start with. And then they get a chance to hear all of our other stuff as well. I think it works together pretty well. Believe me, though, if we had a chance to go record another “Elvira,” we’d jump at the chance. I think anyone in the music business would tell you the same thing. If you were able to look at any record that big, of course we would–anyone would–want to do it again. Hopefully, over the years, we’ve combined the popular stuff like “Elvira” and the meaningful stuff and meshed them together into something wonderful.
KMJ: You guys have sold over 30 million records. How do you measure success these days? Is it still by record sales, live shows or something else entirely?
RS: The thing that we’re most excited about is that after all of these years, we’re still doing this. I’ve been an Oak Ridge Boy for 36 years. Joe Bonsall came about a year after I did–he and I have been doing this 35 or 36 years together. And William Lee Golden and Duane Allen have been in the group for over 40 years. So the fact that we’ve been able to do this for this long and experience this kind of longevity in the music business is pretty phenomenal. It’s pretty mind-boggling, actually. So many of the country music acts that were our contemporaries have retired. But we have not. The Oak Ridge Boys have no plans on retiring. We’re still having fun doing this. We love everything about our career. We still enjoy taking our music live to our audience. It’s still the most fun thing that we do. Most days, when we are on the road, we live for that night to get up on stage and do our music live. It’s because even after all these years, it’s what we love doing.
You’d find that all of us thoroughly enjoy the creative process, too. We love getting into the recording studio and creating new music. Then that new music creates a new exciting component to our live shows. That new music added to our big hits adds to the show and makes for a great concert. The fact that we are doing it after all these years, and still doing it at this level, it speaks volumes. We may not get the radio airplay that we were used to, and that might not always transfer to the kind of record sales that we would like to have, but I think we’ve learned to be innovative over the years. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. With all the ways that are open to market music on the internet now, we’ve tried to be innovative there. And our music is still selling very well.
KMJ: You have a brand new album out called The Boys Are Back. What was the theme or mission behind the album?
RS: Shooter Jennings had a lot to do with making this project a reality. About two years ago, he called us and asked us to sing on a song on his album called The Wolf. There’s a song on there called “Slow Train.” He called and asked us if we’d like to sing and we said, “Sure!” We’d jump at the chance to work with a guy like Shooter Jennings. We remember Shooter when he was just a boy hanging out at the studio with his dad while we were recording. Now that Shooter is all grown up and has a thriving career of his own, we were glad to do it. It was very ironic that we went to the same studio here in Nashville right on Music Row where his father recorded and the original outlaw movement was started. It’s a historic place. And we had a great time hanging out with Shooter. While we were recording that project, we met Shooter’s young producer, a guy by the name of David Cobb. We hit it off with David and he took a liking to us. When the project finally came out we went and did a showcase with Shooter and the place, City Hall, was packed. It was packed with a younger audience, a younger audience than what we normally draw out. We did “Slow Train” with Shooter and the place went crazy. Then we did “Elvira” and surprisingly, they knew every word to the song and they were singing right along with us. We had a great time there that night. The album was born that night with this new young producer with the thought that we might do something different from what we’ve been doing in the past. We worked it out with our label and he was able to come produce our project, The Boys Are Back.
He had a vision for us that was a little different from what we’ve been doing. He saw us as a true blue American act with an ability to do a lot of different kinds of music. That’s what he tried to do on this project. The very first song he sent off to us was a version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” He said that he wanted us to do this song. Instead of doing the instrumental parts with instruments, he wanted us to do the instrumental parts vocally. We thought, “Wow, this might be an interesting thing to do.” When we heard that song, we knew it was going to be something different. None of us on our own would have chosen “Seven Nation Army.” He started bringing in other material to us. He brought in John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” He brought in some beautiful ballads. He had us do Neil Young’s “Beautiful Bluebird” which is a totally different direction. He even found this old spiritual that was so old that it was written before copyrights. He actually had to go to the Smithsonian Institute to find the original lyrics to this song. It’s the coolest thing on the record–an old spiritual called “Troublin’ Mind.” Jamey Johnson wrote a great ole song for us called “Mama’s Table.” Jamey, as you know, is one of the hottest things in our business. There’s downright country on this album, there’s some gospel, there’s rock and roll and there’s beautiful ballads. There’s even some blues. It’s a great example of what the Oak Ridge Boys are all about. David really found the heart and soul of the Oak Ridge Boys in this new project.
KMJ: You’ve always walked down a fine line between gospel and country music. Has that line blended at all over the years or do you see it more divided than ever?
RS: I don’t think there’s a division at all. For us, I don’t think there ever was. We just recently did a project with Bill Gaither. Bill Gaither is one of the most successful people ever in gospel music. I think there’s something about gospel music and country music that go hand in hand. In some ways, especially for us, it’s difficult to separate the two. We’ve had a lot of success over the years combining these two forms of music. We all grew up singing gospel, it is part of our heritage. We still, to this day, include gospel in every one of our shows. We’re a country music act first, but we still believe strongly in everything gospel.
KMJ: Any thoughts or hopes of making it into the Country Music Hall Of Fame someday?
RS: I think it’s an honor that we would all love to have, to be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. And I think someday it will happen, hopefully it’s just a matter of time. When I look at every one that is in the Country Music Hall Of Fame and every one that is not in there yet, I think the people who are responsible for choosing who is elected to the Hall Of Fame will look at the Oak Ridge Boys. I think we’ve accomplished enough in this industry of country music. I think we’ve made enough of a contribution to the industry in general. I think it’s something that will eventually happen. I think it’s an honor we hopefully deserve and something we’d all be honored to see happen sometime in the future.
KMJ: Over the years, there’s been lots of moving parts in and out of the Oak Ridge Boys, but the current four members have spent an amazing 152 total years as part of the group. Do you foresee a time when you or the four of you aren’t part of the group but it moves forward?
RS: That’s an interesting question too. In the short term, in the near future, I do not foresee that happening. I think we have to be realistic and realize that nothing lasts forever–even the Oak Ridge Boys. But we are all in extremely good health. I think health is the key to our future. As long as the good Lord blesses us with good health, I think you’ll keep seeing us doing this thing. We plan on going back into the studio next year and recording some new music. It’s still what we all love doing after all these years. We love doing this–none of us have plans of retiring any time soon. None of us can fathom in our minds anything we’d rather be doing than this.
KMJ: I know you were a part-owner of the Nashville Sounds Minor League Baseball team for nearly 30 years. How did that come about and what has baseball meant to you in your life?
RS: I think everyone that is successful has to have some kind of diversion and I think baseball is my diversion in life. I’m a huge sports fan and I love all kinds of sports. I love to watch the Titans go play. I love to watch Vanderbilt basketball. But I especially love baseball. When I was three years old, my uncle took me to my very first baseball game and it was an experience that hooked me on the sport. I’ve been hooked ever since. When professional baseball was brought back here to Nashville I was able to buy in and for 30 years, I was able to call myself an owner of a baseball team. It was something that was near and dear to me. This year we had new owners that came into Nashville, and they bought us all out. So I’m no longer an owner. But because of my love of baseball and the Sounds, they have made me the official team ambassador for the Nashville Sound. So I can still walk around the place still like I own part of the place. I still go to batting practice. I get to hang out with the players. I even cut a radio spot for the club for the local radio stations. So my heart and soul is still very much there. I have many fond memories over the year of my ownership and involvement with the Nashville Sounds. I’ve gotten to know many players over the years and feel like I had a very little part of getting to the bigs. I’ll be going out to watch Vanderbilt baseball fall practice pretty soon. I’ve gotten to know Tim Corbin, the head coach, real well. He even came to one of our recording sessions on the last album. It’s something that’s very much part of me.
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