Corbin native Roger Eaton of the Oak Ridge Boys shares how a relationship with Christ guides his life
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
RENFRO VALLEY, Ky. — It was more than fitting that the main spotlight shone on Roger Eaton midway through the Oak Ridge Boys’ annual trip to Renfro Valley Saturday night.
He’d smoked his electric guitar with a sizzling solo to punctuate “Did I Make A Difference,” a song where Duane Allen has the lead and asks if we have done enough to help others.
Did I make a difference in somebody’s life?
What hurts did I heal? What wrongs did I right?
Did I raise my voice in defense of the truth?
Did I lend my hand to the destitute?
When my race is run, when my song is sung
Will I have to wonder, did I make a difference?
Did I make a difference?
Songwriters: Bill Anderson / Rob Crosby
Did I Make a Difference lyrics © Sony/ATV Tree Publishing, Mr. Bubba Music Inc., Stono Music Publishing, Publisher(S) Unknown, SONY/ATV TREE PUBLISHING OBO MR. BUBBA MUSIC, BMG PLATINUM SONGS OBO STONO MUSIC PUB
As Roger played the final notes of his solo, Oaks tenor and master of ceremonies, Joe Bonsall simply said, “Roger Eaton, from Corbin, Ky.”
It’s a song that a Christian can interpret as simply living one’s faith. And that’s Roger Eaton, a Nashville veteran who is making a difference with the legendary quartet that has been inducted into both the Country and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
I was privileged to sit down with Roger for a one-on-one several hours before he took the Renfro Valley stage. “It’s everything,” he said of his relationship with Jesus Christ. “My faith is everything. If it hadn’t been for that, I might be dead right now. I might be addicted to God knows what. I have seen it all out here (in the music business.)”
He’s making a difference in a journey that started in his Corbin home. “My dad played the banjo and I played the guitar,” Roger said. “We would just sit and play for hours.”
(Roger says that his father eventually sold that banjo but when the buyer died, he had willed the instrument back to Roger’s father. When he passed away, Roger took possession. “I still have that banjo today,” Roger says. However, he has stayed with guitars to make music.)
Roger tried his hand at basketball but gave it up — “I was always playing the guitar!” he grinned — before enrolling at Corbin High School, from which he graduated in 1978. He played in local rock bands such as Sneaky Pete, Wize Gize and Joshua Cooley before deciding he wanted to expand his musical borders beyond southern and central Kentucky.
“I just figured if I ever want to move forward, I’ve got to get somewhere else and the closest place was Nashville,” Roger recalls.
With 700 dollars in his pocket, Roger took his guitars to Music City, where built a career as one of the best pickers around. About five years ago, Roger got the call to replace longtime Oaks guitarist Donnie Carr.
He says there was no pressure as the Oaks did not ask him to copy Carr’s style. “Duane told me, ‘I want you to be you.’ He said, ‘You are not Donnie. You are Roger. The signature licks, the ones that are on the records, do those, but the rest of the time, I want you to be Roger Eaton. He just made me feel at ease and that’s what I do.”
He’s playing some of the best country and gospel music in the business. He had some of those familiar licks on The Oaks’ gospel classic “I Would Crawl All the Way To The River” but traded his electric guitar for some smooth acoustic work on “Brand New Star” and “Let There Be Light,” both of which are on the group’s latest work, a gospel album released last year.
It was getting back to the group’s roots. “I think most of the fans understand the roots and they are still there,” Roger says of the Oaks. “It doesn’t matter where we play, the fans want us to sing some of the gospel stuff.”
Roger’s journey has had its share of turns as he has picked for Vern Gosdin, Tanya Tucker, Barbara Mandrell and Joe Diffie before serving as praise and worship pastor for a church in Franklin, Ky.
When the road called again, Roger traveled with Lorrie Morgan, Collin Raye and Pam Tillis before joining the Mighty Oaks Band.
All the while, he’s been busy in studio work and production, which he still pursues when home.
And through his work, Roger met his wife, Lee Ann, who was working as an event specialist on a night the Oak Ridge Boys were on the program. Roger and Lee Ann began talking and before the night was over, he asked for her phone number. “A year later, we were married,” he says with a big smile.”We’ve been married almost three years.”
And now they are making a difference as part of The Resting Place church in Nashville, where Kent Christmas and his wife, gospel music great Candy Hemphill Christmas, serve as pastors. “We were introduced to them by mutual friends,” Roger says.
Roger says his faith in Christ has helped him deal with the difficulties of living on the road. While he’s able to pursue a passion, the Oaks play 150 shows a year, meaning they are on the road more than 200 days. “I’ve had some valleys,” he says. “Divorce. My son lives nine hours away from me. It’s not easy.”
But he draws strength from the Psalms and Proverbs and the assurance of living in harmony with Christ. “It’s not so much what the church says on the door, but it’s what it says in your heart,” Roger says. “You either have a relationship with Jesus Christ or you don’t. It’s got to be in all phases of your life and in all places. If you have a real relationship with Christ, you know it.”
And it is how one can truly make a difference in lives.