The Tragic Story Behind the Oak Ridge Boys’ First No. 1 “I’ll Be True to You”

Before moving to Nashville in 1977 to work with Tree International (now SonyATV), Alan Rhody already had a collection of songs he hoped would be picked up by the end of the year under his new publishing deal. At the time, the Oak Ridge Boys were working on their first country album, Y’all Come Back Saloon, and chose one of Rhody’s more somber tales.

Rhody’s ballad wasn’t an anthemic or uplifting musical sermon for the Oak Ridge Boys. Instead, “I’ll Be True to You” recounted the story of a man who is hung up on a young love years later and eventually drinks himself to death.

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Gender Switch

In a twist of plot, Rhody later switched the gender of his protagonist, and the song turned darker. “I honestly made the story up,” revealed Rhody in a 2015 interview. “It was like a lot of my songs when I started writing it, I wasn’t sure where it was going. Later on, I took this other section that was just some lines I’d written down with a little melody piece and put it in here, and it made it the second part of the trilogy kind of thing.”

When Rhody was finished, he had a seven-minute, 15-second song, which was later trimmed to just under four minutes by the Oak Ridge Boys. “When I first played it for [song plugger Cliff Williamson], he said, ‘We love the story. We love the title, but you’ve got to somehow reduce this thing because we can’t do anything with it,'” remembered Rhody. “So I spent two days in Nashville working on that song.”

Between Rhody’s visit to drop songs off in Nashville, the ballad took a turn. “A really interesting thing happened in this process,” said Rhody. “The roles in the story got reversed.” The switch, Rhody said made the song stronger.

“It made it that much stronger because it made it sadder that a woman would drink herself away and die of a broken heart,” said the songwriter. “I think the song, for whatever reason, had a unique thing about it in that way. It was not only a ballad, but it wasn’t a really happy tale.”

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‘I’ll Be Blue for You’

The song begins at the end of their union. Both lovers are out of school and forced to go their separate ways, and the woman promises to stay true when they’re apart from one another.

They met upon a blue moon
And they parted on a cloudy day
They were so in love and out of school
But he was goin’ so far, far away

She said I’ll be true to you
Even though you don’t want me to
And I’ll be blue for you
Even though you’ve asked me not to

Well the years drifted by them, as we all know they can
He found other women, but she refused other men
But as fate would have it, they met again
She was on a down-hill slide, and he was just slidin’ in

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – NOVEMBER 18: Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban of The Oak Ridge Boys are seen at The Grand Ole Opry on November 18, 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

The Roles Reverse

The song continues after the couple’s fateful reunion and her proclaiming that she always remained true. Without love, she goes into a downward spiral, which ultimately leads to her death from alcohol. In the end, while kneeling at her grave, the man now promises to be true to her, and blue.

As he looked into her eyes that night, he never realized
The only real love in his life was passing by
When he turned and left her there, his words, “Goodbye”
He heard her calling out to him, and as he walked, she cried

I’ve been true to you
Seems like speakin’ to me is the least that you could do
And I’ve been blue for you
Even though you’ve asked me not to

She’d been drinking way too hard one night
She’d been drinking way too long
Alone and pale in a cheap hotel, she died there in the dawn
Kneelin’ by her grave, oh so late and oh so wrong
He longed to hold her close again, cryin’ on and on

He cried I’ll be true to you
After all that I have put you through
And I’ll be blue for you
Though you never even asked me to

“I’ll Be True to You” marked the Oak Ridge Boys’s first No. 1 on the Country chart, one of 17 chart toppers. The song remained on the chart for 11 weeks and was an unexpected big hit for Rhody. “It was a strange thing for me, because I originally wanted to be an artist and make my records, and everybody at Tree [Publishing] was congratulating me,” remembered Rhody. “I was like, ‘Well, OK’—not to undersell that at all.”

He added, “When I first heard that song on the radio,” remembered Rhody, “it was the most exciting thing that I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Photo: Gwinn/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

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