Christmas Ghosts in Oak Ridge, Tenn

wallyfowler-oakridge crop

Y’all might remember my surprise when I learned that fissionable plutonium originated in Tennessee’s foothills. Well, I just learned that Oak Ridge, the secret production facility that pioneered it, wasn’t just cooking up nuclear magic. It was also the birthplace for one of country music’s most enduring bands.

If you could pick up WNOX out of Knoxville in the 1940s, Wally Fowler was a name you’d have known. He was a Georgia transplant with a baritone that was as smooth as river rocks, and he led a band called Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers. Fowler’s music was a marriage of Nashville country and swing with the occasional accordion riff thrown in for good measure. It was a hodgepodge that worked. His band was a regular on the popular WNOX show Mid-day Merry Go Round.

He was also asked to perform at a nearby facility that wasn’t listed on area maps. Oak Ridge was new–only about a year old at this point–and scientists had moved there from all over the country. According to the good folks at Wikipedia, Fowler’s band was brought out to entertain children who lived inside the compound.

Though he was known for popular country on the radio, he played mostly southern gospel at Oak Ridge. The hymns were a hit with the transplants. Fowler was invited to play at the facility so often that he decided to adopt the secret city’s name. Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers became the Oak Ridge Quartet, and having found a new audience with gospel, the band began to focus more on old time religious tunes.

The changes served Fowler well. By 1947, the Oak Ridge Quartet had attracted attention from record labels. They began cutting albums full of traditional hymns played in Fowlers’ swing-laced style and became a mainstay in the region’s gospel scene.

Over the next decade, the nuclear inspired name stuck, but band members didn’t. In that time, the band dissolved and re-formed three times with more than twenty members passing through. Fowler was as close to a constant as they got, but even he came and went. At one point, Fowler sold rights to the name Oak Ridge Quartet to band member Bob Weber. Under Weber’s leadership, the band only lasted for two years. Fowler stepped in again and revived it.

In 1956, he assembled an inspired mix. With a stellar tenor named Smitty Gatlin serving as lead singer and as the band’s manager, this iteration of the Oak Ridge Quartet clicked, and the band’s popularity hit new heights. They looked beyond the hills of Tennessee and developed a national reputation for great country gospel, but as they climbed, they left pieces of their past behind.

First, they cut ties with Fowler. I’ve not found much info explaining the reason for the split. Maybe Fowler thought it would be like the others–that he’d take some time off and return to lead the band down the road. What is clear is that he had amassed a personal debt with the band or with Gatlin individually. Whatever the case, he settled things by giving Gatlin rights to the Oak Ridge Quartet name.

For Fowler, there was no coming back. He would later be pitted against the band in a lawsuit over the name he had created, but he wouldn’t win. After fifteen years, he was out of the picture for good.

After the split, the band began to develop a new identity. It was the start of the 1960s, and they were crafting a fresh, contemporary sound. To reflect the band’s evolving character, a record producer suggested that they go with a new name. They took the advice, and in 1961 the band became the Oak Ridge Boys.

If you’re over age forty, you probably know where the story goes from here. The Oak Ridge Boys vacillated between gospel and country, scoring loyal followers in both camps. Over the next two decades, in spite of continuing to switch out band members, their popularity grew. They earned their first Grammy award in 1970. They toured Russia with Roy Clark. They performed on The Mike Douglas Show and The Merve Grifffin Show. Two songs from their 1977 album Y’All Come Back Salon landed in the top five on the country charts. All paths were leading to something big for the Oak Ridge Boys, but no one imagined that an upbeat tune about a good time girl would secure their spot in country music history.

“If you told any one of the four of us if we thought 30 years later we’d still be singing ‘Elvira’…we wouldn’t have believed it,” Oak Ridge Boys bassist Richard Sterban recently told the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Released in 1981, “Elvira” shot to number one on the country charts and crossed over, ranking in the top five on the pop charts as well. It was a huge success, and it catapulted the band into the limelight.

With their star high in the sky, they turned out several successful albums, played for five presidents, and toured the world over. While the big hits subsided in the 1990s, the Oak Ridge Boys are still producing quality country and gospel. They’ve also become known for their Christmas shows, which started in 1989.

“We left home on Thanksgiving Day,” said Sterban, “And, except for a few hours, we won’t be home till Dec. 22.”

That’s the day after their capstone performance at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium. During this last show of the year, the boys will stand a few short miles from where their band started and sing gospel songs from the holiday season. Maybe there’ll be some old timers in the audience, nodding their heads as they listen to “Away in a Manger” or “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and maybe they’ll squint at the stage, unsure of what they see. If so, they’ll turn to young folk and tell them it’s not just the cataracts, but they saw old Wally Fowler is up there with the boys.

Of course, they’ll all get the same squinty-faced response, and the one word question that reminds them just how much time has passed. They’ll hear, “Who,” and most of the old timers won’t bother to answer. They’ll just go on nodding, thankful that the boys are still playing gospel and that Christmas ghosts are one of the blessings during this sacred season.

3 Comments

  • mike fergusons

    wow what a diverse history for a band and who know they had been around so long

  • Jim

    Having lived in Oak Ridge more than 30 years, I knew the story, but I didn’t know the name Wally Fowler. I just knew there had been many members over the years and that none of the current crop goes back to the start. Thanks.

  • Uncle

    Did you know Sterban used to be part owner of a group of minor league baseball teams, including the one here in Salem, along with Conway Twitty and Jerry Reed? I met him once when he stopped by to catch a game. Twitty used to come by several times a season. He had been offered a minor league contract just as his music career started to take off. Twitty chose music but always loved the game. When he would come in after everybody left the stadium crew and his entourage would play pick up baseball games, eat pizza and drink beer until the city imposed deadline for turning off the field lights. We did have neighbors right outside the outfield wall! I once got Twitty to sign an autograph for you Aunt Debby who just loved his song, “Hello Darlin”. So of course he signed it, To Debby, Hello Darlin’, love Conway Twitty. It hangs in a small picture frame in her bedroom to this day.

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