Shining the Light takes a different meaning for this Oaks fan

Oaks at Renfro

The Oak Ridge Boys perform during their visit to Renfro Valley in June 2017.


By John Herndon,

Some people really can’t understand why anyone would be excited to see one musical act 35 times.

But that is what I plan to be doing Saturday night when the Oak Ridge Boys make their annual trek to Renfro Valley, Kentucky. It will be my 35th Oaks concert (that I can remember) and, in my book, every one is special.

When people ask if I ever get tired of The Oaks, I just smile and say, “No way.”

I’ve written many times that I became a fan of The Oak Ridge Boys when, as a teenager, I heard gospel music unlike anything else. For years, I had thought gospel was four singers and a piano. There’s nothing wrong with that but you know how it is when you are a teen and hear something new.

That was before a friend introduced me to The Oaks. This was a gospel group with guitars and drums!

I was one of those teens who preferred Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The Oaks obliged with a very country sounding story about the baptism of a man named Jesse Taylor. They still sing about him today.

Forty years ago, I also had a taste for some driving rock and the Oaks were there with a great song called “Plant a Seed.” Sometimes the blood just gets flowing thinking about that one.

They were just cool. They were still cool when they started getting paid to sing country music. Some of their music appealed to old school fans, some had a more modern sound. It so much like the gospel days that I believe you could have changed the words to “One In a Million” and it would sound like being in a revival meeting.

It’s probably not a coincidence that their latest album, 17th Avenue Revival, is a work that mixes new and old gospel.  (Check out my review of the album here)

So yes, I love The Oak Ridge Boys’ music. I love the positive tone and unbelievable energy in their concerts. I don’t see how anyone can see the Oaks in concert and not leave with a huge smile.

But for me personally the smile has been even bigger since the Oaks made their annual stop at Renfro Valley in 2012.

You see, that number of 35 concerts would likely be higher had I not lost most of my hearing when I was in my early 30s. Apparently I had a significant hearing loss from my early childhood. I might have even been born with it, but there is no way to go back in time to know for sure. What we do know is that as a child I learned to compensate for what I was missing. I heard some speech and music but never realized I how much I was missing.

What hearing I had deteriorated and eventually I was fitted with hearing aids, which did not significantly help. When it came to music, if I knew a song from the past, my mind would process it and I could enjoy. It’s a musical manifestation of what is called auditory memory. If I didn’t know the tune, it sounded like a cacophony.


The Oak Ridge Boys during their Christmas performance at Renfro Valley in 2017.

Eventually, I was fitted with cochlear implants, getting a bionic left ear in 2003, then the right side in 2010. Let’s just say those machines are amazing.

During therapy, my audiologist at the University of Kentucky introduced me to Pandora and advised that listening to music would further develop my hearing.

Fast forward to that night in 2012 when my wife and I took my mom to see the Oaks at Renfro Valley. Sometime during the show, I wrote my wife a note saying, “You will not believe this, but I am hearing all four parts.”

Joe, Duane, William Lee and Richard were all coming through loud and clear. I was absolutely blown away. (I have previously shared this story with them.)

That night, the Oak Ridge Boys, unbeknownst to them at the time, inspired a guy who had sold or given away his guitars — I couldn’t hear the notes! — and had quit listening to the radio. I’ve become friends with some musicians and often write about the music industry. That’s pretty good for a guy who had about 20 percent speech recognition at the turn of the century.

When I drove to Renfro Valley that night in 2012, little did I know I would be buying a cheap guitar soon after, revisiting some skills I had 25-30 years earlier. I’ve since upgraded my instruments a few times and even got the courage to play and sing at church.

Who knows, I might have been inspired by someone else. We’ll never know. What I do know is The Oaks were the right people to shine a light on me in 2012.

I can’t wait for their Shine the Light tour Saturday night.

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