Chiseled in Oak

On April 15, on the outskirts of Taylortown, Lamar County Commissioners unveiled a plaque dedicating the CR 16590 bridge over Big Sandy Creek as the Duane Allen Memorial Bridge in honor of Lamar County’s favorite son and lead singer of the phenomenally-successful musical group, The Oak Ridge Boys. A crowd far outnumbering the total population of Taylortown and its suburbs combined crowded around as Duane offered an emotional speech that could only be given by a man who, despite worldwide fame, remained firmly -grounded on the blackland farm where he was born. Nearly 35 years ago, Iwell-recall my pilgrimage to the nearby town of Cunningham in search of a boyhood hero.You might say I was musically-misplaced. Unlike the typical late 70’s teenager, I didn’t suffer permanent hearing loss to the likes of Queen, Aerosmith, or AC/DC, bands performing what I still refer to as “snake dancin’ music.” I held far more refined musical tastes. Aside from a very brief and ill-advised KISS phase in the early summer of 1978, I was pure country-country gold, in fact. Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Merle (no last name needed) filled my record cabinet. Heck, I’ll admit it. I even had a “Whispering” Bill Anderson album, and my friends snickered heartily. No, my problem with music certainly wasn’t a matter of taste; rather, I suffered from time and location. I was not just country when country wasn’t cool. I was country where country wasn’t cool. In fact, the entire population of Maine found country gold so “uncool,” I had to search late night AM radio for some static-laced clear channel country show from the Midwest.

The programming gods of Maine radio relegated mid-70s country to the occasional crossover hit on WJBQ, better known locally as the home of the Bay City Rollers, Captain and Tennille, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Any other teenager would’ve buckled under the harassment dished my way when I set the old phonograph ablaze with the likes of Charley Pride and Larry Gatlin, but I had knees as solid as Barbara Mandrell’s steel guitar. Plain and simple, if it wasn’t country, it was the Devil’s music. While horrific sounds relentlessly blared from my brother’s bedroom across the hall, I found inner peace as Johnny Horton flew me “North to Alaska” under the protection of stereo headphones. Dad, a fan of what he called “Hillbilly Music,” had given up on traditional country a year or so earlier. When classical strings replaced the twin fiddles backing up Eddie Arnold, he realized the music he grew up with in Roxton listening to WBAP had moved on. Today, he’d be a sure candidate for cognitive therapy as he became musically-bipolar, turning to the outlaw country of Willie and Waylon for kicks and classical composers like Bach and Mozart for sophistication. I was an outsider even in my own house.

The backbone of most 70s music was the band, be it rock, pop, or (forgive my words) heavy metal. Still, soloists ruled the country scene. Stylists like George Jones led the country charge into the 70s before Chet Atkins’ “Nashville Sound” evolved into crossover and country pop. Olivia Newton-John showed up in Kitty Wells’ honky tonk, and John Denver caused Charlie Rich to put on country music’s first pyrotechnic display when the Country Music Association named him the 1976 Entertainer of the Year. Producers, seemingly embarrassed to associate with classic country music, forced Kenny Rogers on the masses, and he soon became the most recognizable voice on both country and pop radio. Group performers in country music remained few and far between, as most potential acts stayed in the shadows and gripped to their gospel roots. In fact, it took two gospel groups to blaze their own crossover trail before Nashville fully-embraced the group performers who came to dominate the genre a decade later.

The Statler Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys both migrated from the gospel ranks, the former stepping gingerly onto the country scene after a stint as background vocalists for Johnny Cash. The latter, on the other hand, arrived with the splash of a cannonball off a railroad trestle into a Sulphur River swimming hole. Virginia’s Statler Brothers entered the country waters with a boatload of patriotic songs country fans couldn’t help but love. As 1977 approached, the Statlers rested as the most popular group in Nashville as executives fought to keep rebellious group performers like The Charlie Daniels Band out of the mainstream. The Statler Brothers stuck to risk-free songs and nostalgic memories. Blue-haired ladies swooned and hijacked The Music City News awards voting, honoring them as Group of the Year well past their prime until the magazine folded in the mid-90s.

While The Statler Brothers tread lightly in their move to country music, The Oak Ridge Boys transformed overnight, completely abandoning their gospel roots with the unquestionably country single, “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” Featuring Philadelphia-born tenor Joe Bonsall and Camden, New Jersey, native contra-bass Richard Sterban, the only glaringly country member of The Oak Ridge Boys was Brewton, Alabama’s baritone William Lee Golden, an individual who gained fame a few years later by turning so country he might have even alienated the Outlaw crowd. Less conspicuous, but just as country, was lead singer Duane Allen, a native of Lamar County’s Taylortown, a side trip along the route between Deport and Cunningham. Allen, an East Texas State University graduate trained in the classics, aspired to sing in a quartet and brought the smoothest voice in gospel to the country charts. With the members’ diverse backgrounds, The Oak Ridge Boys offered the closest thing mainstream country music had to a hip band; in fact, they almost made country cool.

Now, I have to admit, although a lyric of Chicago or Journey never crossed my lips, peer pressure did play a role in my life. While some early Oak Ridge Boys tunes like the risqué teen pregnancy-focused ballad “Easy” were a bit beyond my eleven year-old comprehension, it took about twenty seconds of “You’re the One” before I realized The Oak Ridge Boys would soon be the face of country group acts. The Statler Brothers would find themselves relegated to “dorky” status, I surmised, and I planned to be on the cutting edge. Santa Claus left two albums under the tree at the Rutherford house in 1978, the Statler Brothers’ “The Originals,” a browning package of 73% torpedoed ground beef, and “The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived,” a seasoned filet mignon marinated in fine spices and grilled to perfection. With “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” the Oak Ridge Boys had indeed arrived and pulled me in a trailer right behind them. Unfortunately, a storm brewed on the horizon.

re not. Well, by 1980, you were either The Oak Ridge Boys or you were not. how original is that?) released its debut album and raced up the charts, country music transformed from entertainment into a contact sport. I may roll wannabes supplant my Oak Ridge Boys as the premier country group. ”s successes as I cheered each gold record. If The Statler Brothers had been ground beef, Alabama was rotting road kill. Yet, as the Alabama hits kept coming, I watched wearily as their albums began to fill the small country section of MusicLand in the Maine Mall. But, country was my brand of music, and The Oak Ridge Boys were my group. I adopted the fight for supremacy as nothing less than a spiritual experience.

A year removed from the hottest summer I can recall during my annual trips to Roxton, in 1981 Dad made the fateful decision the family could survive without air conditioning in the new Chevy station wagon. After all, it was only for three months, and AC wasn’t even standard equipment on New England car lots. Plus, with gas prices topping ninety cents, he figured squeezing a couple more miles out of a tank would save him a nickel or two every three or four months. As we arrived in Texas in mid-June, a blow torch chafed us through the Chevy’s open windows, and Mom repeatedly cussed his thriftiness while nursing a cup of ice. The asphalt bled through the chip seal along Highway 82, and as the summer went on lane markings twisted and slid off the shoulders as the road took on a molasses-like consistency. Not yet a legal driver, the law nonetheless had little impact on my mobility that summer. My grandparents purchased my first car, a ‘73 Impala equipped with the finest air conditioner Detroit ever produced. The Impala and I cruised the back roads all summer, as I avoided the main highways on the oft chance a wayward highway patrolman might spy a hundred-pound adolescent’s eyes just above the steering wheel. But, the world grew a lot smaller behind the wheel of the Impala, and so did Lamar County. 

On a roadmap Taylortown looked to be a hundred miles from Roxton. Duane Allen’s hometown might as well have been Lubbock a year earlier, but it now sat just a few gallons of Dad’s ninety-cent gasoline away in the green Impala. I plotted my trek to the holiest of lands, where a young Duane Allen nurtured what had become the finest voice in all of music. 

My parents had little problem with me driving the back roads without a license; after all, they did the same thing a quarter-century before, and I certainly ranked as the most responsible of the two Rutherford siblings. The farm-to-markets weren’t a problem either, and I challenged them daily without incident. Highway 24 between Commerce and Paris sat as the only barrier between me and what I knew would be a spiritual country music experience. Any trip from Roxton to Taylortown required crossing what amounted to a major highway in Lamar County. Parental approval was far from guaranteed. I needed a gimmick. My parents’ desperate urge to see the Texas-roots sprout through my Yankee shell seemed just the ticket.

I didn’t exactly consider myself a social outcast. Admittedly, being known as the kid from Texas nine months a year and that “damned Yankee” the other three months played a bit with my sanity, and I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about great Roxton past-times like fishing with crawdads when normal Americans slept or swimming in snake-infested muddy creeks. I guess if I have to own up to it, my disposition probably did impact on my summer social life. But, I always had my cousin, Brock (known affectionately as “Cousin Brock”), as a companion. A Paris native transplanted to Colorado, like me, Cousin Brock spent the summer months in Roxton with his grandmother. A horror movie aficionado and obsessed with obscure monster magazines, Cousin Brock was every bit as weird as me, and we had a mutual respect for each other’s idiosyncrasies. Regardless, the key to getting permission for such a distant drive was an excuse to socialize with some fine Texas youngsters my own age, and what better social activity could be had than a spirited game of baseball. Baseball….that was the answer. Cousin Brock and I would drive to Taylortown to play baseball with some kids he knew from when he lived in Paris. 

The first hurdle behind me, I set my sights on the next goal. Taylortown wasn’t exactly a metropolis, but exactly what, or who, would we find when we arrived? Grandmothers are good at this sort of thing, and most are quite trustworthy. I immediately put mine to work calling every “Allen” in the phone book to locate my hero’s boyhood house. A drive-by photo would be the ultimate prize. To say Granny succeeded is to say Merle Haggard had a hit with “Okie From Muskogee.” Not only did Granny find his house, she found his parents, Loretta and Fred, alive and well in Cunningham. Jackpot! Reportedly, they had a fine conversation, and Mrs. Allen said she’d be thrilled to meet her son’s biggest fan. The stage was set as Cousin Brock and I prepared for the trek across the southern end of the county, armed with a couple of RC Cola’s and the sack of pimento and cheese sandwiches Granny made everyone she knew would be travelling more than 20 miles.

The drive to Cunningham was uneventful, and the crossing of Highway 24 anti-climactic at best. I did make a slight error in judgment waiting far too-long for an old Farmall tractor to clear the intersection, but we arrived mid-afternoon. Sure enough, the first house on the right heading into town sported a mailbox with the name “Allen” in block letters. I pulled the Impala into the driveway and scratched to a stop behind a late model Cadillac parked in the carport. I must admit I found the scene underwhelming. I had imagined a country music superstar’s parents lounging by the pool of a mansion. Instead, the Allen’s lived in a small, mid-century, white-washed bungalow like just about every other older couple in the small towns dotting Lamar County. If it wasn’t for the Cadillac, I’d have been sure we’d picked the wrong house.

Cousin Brock and I sat in the Impala a few seconds alternating between awe and fear as we debated who would take the brave step of knocking on the door. A short, lost argument later, Cousin Brock cowered behind me as I lightly rapped my knuckles on the aluminum screen door. In a matter of seconds a lady looking absolutely nothing like Duane Allen greeted us warmly and invited us inside. Politely turning down the obligatory offer of lemonade and taking a seat on the couch with Cousin Brock, I took in the scene, or at least what there was of it. Family photos covered the walls where I expected to find flashing Oak Ridge Boys signs and concert memorabilia. We patiently sat through a tour of the photo collection, as Mrs. Allen pointed out each daughter and son and praised their successes as a missionary, a doctor, and a few other professions I can’t remember. Finally, she pointed out the man of the hour, though no one would have known it if they hadn’t seen an Oak Ridge Boys album cover. Awkwardly pictured in a family photo like those I used to be coerced into posing for at K-Mart, there was Duane Allen himself, along with the wife and kids. Mrs. Allen said she was kind of embarrassed by his beard, apparently taboo in the Allen household. She’d told him the beard made him look like Jesus in hopes the idea of blasphemy would convince him to shave. But, she claimed his response of “Oh, Mama, I don’t think I’m that good,” pacified her, at least for the time being. The longer we talked, the more amazed I became at the normalcy of it all. I found the furnishings typical, the walls covered in inexpensive paneling, and the house filled with the same aroma of every other old person’s house. If it hadn’t been for the blue water I noticed in the toilet when I politely asked to use the restroom, I would have thought the Allen’s to be everyday people.

After visiting a while, Mrs. Allen retreated to a back room, eventually returning with some souvenirs–an autographed concert program and a couple of tour T-shirts, far too large for either of us but no matter. I was in the midst of the most indirectly famous person I’d ever met. If that shirt had pink lace sleeves, I would have worn it with pride. We soon made our way outside where Mrs. Allen introduced us to Fred, sprawled in a reclining lawn chair. “Sure been a hot summer, ain’t it?” he grumbled from under the brim of his ball cap. A very short conversation made it clear Fred wasn’t at all impressed at his son’s fame. Fred Allen was a farmer, and Duane was a farm boy. No doubt, Fred would have preferred if Duane had put his hands to use hauling hay instead of strumming a guitar. When Fred asked his wife to fry him up a mess of okra, Cousin Brock and I knew it was time to take leave. A few hours later, back in Roxton, I wrote the Allen’s a thank-you note with a Maine return address, just in case they got the urge to have Duane send me some concert tickets or something.

The hot Texas summer soon came to an end, and a month later I was back in Maine and Cousin Brock in Colorado. Soon, I received a letter, not from Duane Allen, but from his mother. Much like she had that day in Cunningham, she filled me in on what each of her children was up to and tossed in a few tidbits about the grandchildren and Fred’s thoughts on the autumn weather. She also pointed out she had to get the letter to the post office. After all, the Boys’ tour bus would be coming by in a while and she’d be heading on the road with them for two weeks. She just loved hearing them perform “Sail Away” in person, she wrote

A second later Dad walked in and took a quick glance at the cameo photo Mrs. Allen had included of her and her son.

“Who’s that with Duane Allen?” Dad asked. “You know, we used to be fraternity brothers.”

What in the name of Elvira?

“He wouldn’t remember me. He’s a singer or something, isn’t he?” Dad added. “Seems like he joined some country group… Alabama, maybe?”

It was at that moment I discovered a boy could indeed choke to death on his own tongue.

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