Joe Bonsall Interview: "The Oak Ridge Boys Will Continue to Sing Until God Says, 'That’s It'"
Image attributed to Harvest House Publishers
Born on May 18, 1948, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Joseph S. Bonsall, Jr. has been singing with the award-winning music group the Oak Ridge Boys for over forty years. His tenor voice can be heard on many different songs and hits over the decades. Bonsall and his partners (Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban) have become part of music folklore, selling over 41 million albums and selling out concerts from coast to coast.
The talented tenor is also a successful writer. On the Road with the Oak Ridge Boys: Forty Years of Untold Stories and Adventures was released May 1, 2015. Bonsall is also the author of nine previous books including the Molly Books, An Inconvenient Christmas, An American Journey, Christmas Miracles, G.I. Joe & Lillie and From My Perspective.
“I finished this new book before the Hall of Fame thing, and I wrote in the book that I hoped it would happen someday. I thought we had done enough, possibly, to be inducted, but who knows? It’s not our decision to make, and when and if it happens, I hope we are breathing oxygen. Well, I’ll be doggone … a month later, we were inducted.”
Now available at Cracker Barrel stores is the latest from the Oak Ridge Boys, Rock of Ages: Hymns & Gospel Favorites. The album will be available online everywhere in late May 2015.
Bonsall lives with his wife, Mary Ann, and their seven cats on a 350-acre farm on the Tennessee/Kentucky border. He has two grown daughters and two grandchildren.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Joe, I spoke with Duane (Allen) in 2011, and he said, “Down the line, we may even be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If that were to happen and the Lord were to call me home, I could say my life was complete.”
Joe Bonsall: (laughs) I finished this new book before the Hall of Fame thing, and I wrote in the book that I hoped it would happen someday. I thought we had done enough, possibly, to be inducted, but who knows? It’s not our decision to make, and when and if it happens, I hope we are breathing oxygen. Well, I’ll be doggone … a month later, we were inducted. Sarah, from the CMA, said she wanted to have a brief word with us after our performance at the Opry about two weeks before the inductee thing downtown.
I hadn’t thought much about the Hall of Fame until the last three years. I would lie in my bed either on my bunk on the bus or on the bed here with my iPhone in hand and see who was going to be inducted. Three years ago, I guess it was Garth. Who can’t be for Garth? Garth rules the world. That’s great. Next year I’m listening, and it’s Kenny. Well my gosh, Kenny Rogers has been such a big part of our lives and our career. He’s had a great career. Kenny’s in. That’s great. Roll back over and go to sleep.
Last year, Ronnie Milsap. I really kind of thought last year might be us, but I sure couldn’t argue with Ronnie Milsap, man. He’s a great artist. He’s got a great history and a string of hit records. Turn over and go back asleep. Well, it kind of hit me though that if it were the Oak Ridge Boys, we would know because they would want us down there (laughs). So I wouldn’t be listening in bed. But it still caught me totally unaware after the Opry performance when Sarah called us all into a room.
Our manager, Jim Halsey, was there, and Sarah said, “First of all, I want to tell you that we’re thrilled you’re going to be at CMA Fest this year. Oh, and another thing, you are to be the next inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame.” You know, our group’s been around a long time, and I’ve never seen us speechless, but boy, it hit everybody like we’d been hit in the faces with hammers. Our jaws were on the ground, and it was like, “Oh my gosh. It’s here. It’s really happening. We’re going to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.”
I have thought of nothing but that since, and now it has been a little over a month. The actual induction ceremony is in October, but every once in a while, it just hits me like a freight train that the Oak Ridge Boys will be in that rotunda. You think to yourself about that rotunda and that plaque with our four faces on it, and it will always be there. To me, that is just huge, my dear. I can’t think of anything better.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, congratulations! It is certainly about time. Let’s talk first about the new album where the band returns to their gospel roots. Tell me how the record, Rock of Ages, came about.
Joe Bonsall: Over the years, we’ve recorded a lot of gospel, but we have never done an album with the old hymns. Maybe we’ve recorded a hymn here and there, but Bill Gaither actually called Duane Allen one night and said, “Man, I’d love to hear you guys do some of the old songs.” We said, “Man, that’s a good idea.”
Last year we were really working on promoting the live album that came out which is a live album with the hits. We had never done that either. So the Boys Night Out was sort of the thrust of last year. We thought after the summer was over, we could go in the studio and work on this kind of project. Duane could co-produce it with Ben Isaacs of the Isaacs. He has a great acoustic mind and great ear for the harmony, as does Duane, so it worked out really well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How were the songs chosen?
Joe Bonsall: We picked out a bunch of the great old hymns. Man, I love all the hymns. I didn’t care which ones we did, just wanted to make sure I sang “I Love to Tell the Story” because that’s my favorite hymn from being a kid. I got my wish. Golden wanted to sing a song that wasn’t exactly a hymn, but it was an old gospel song called “Time Has Made a Change.” Well, you know, when a guy really wants to do a song, you let him do it, man, because if he’s feeling it like that then, yeah man, do it. The performance Golden did on that song is awesome.
We’ve got a bunch of the great hymns like “In the Garden,” “ I Love to Tell the Story,” “Blessed Assurance” and “Power in the Blood.” I even got to play a little banjo on “Power in the Blood,” which got me excited because I love to play my banjo. We did augment it with a few other ideas. For instance, Duane had a song for about ten years called “Peace Within.” It’s real bluegrass acoustic sounding. It’s not a hymn, but it fit, and everybody loved doing that song.
We had a song that Merle Haggard wrote for us two years ago called “Sweet Jesus.” Here we were again working on that live project, and there was certainly no place for that song on that album, so we thought we could put it on the gospel album. Of course, we did, and Haggard’s on it, so how cool is that? I think it’ll win a gospel music Grammy next year, to be honest with you, because it’s so cool.
All these years we’ve played with George Jones and all kinds of other acts, but we’ve never done anything with the Hag, and we all love the Hag, so a song on the album with Merle Haggard kind of put an extra special spin on the project. The Isaacs sang with us on “Peace Within,” and that was cool. I didn’t even know Ben was putting the Isaacs’ voices on it. That was a total shock. The album will be available everywhere the end of May. Right now it’s being sold exclusively at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, so to get it now, you’ve got to go eat some dumplings.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool (laughs). I can’t help but think that back in the 1970s when the Oak Ridge Boys were criticized because it was believed they just didn’t “fit the mold” of what a traditional gospel quartet should be.
Joe Bonsall: Well, we didn’t, and that’s the exact example I use in my chapter called “Gospel Music.” The chapter comes in three parts; myself and my own influence of gospel and how it changed my life, the Oak Ridge Boys and what they accomplished in gospel and gospel music today as it appears today and Bill Gaither having a lot to do with it. Also tells how, because of our friendship with Bill Gaither, that we’ve managed to touch back into that arena every once in a while.
It’s totally different than it was back in those days in the 70s when everybody thought that we were long-haired hippie boys who were trying to make gospel music as good as any other kind of music or present it well, and it just wasn’t accepted. They turned against us back then for a while.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Then the Christian bands emerged with long-hair and rocked out playing “Jesus” music.
Joe Bonsall: You are right. We were living in a society of free love and sin was everywhere. It was this free love thing, the drug culture, the Vietnam War that nobody wanted, the race riots and the assassinations. The music of that day was a little bit on the hateful side, I’ve got to tell you. I think Christian kids rose up back then. They would have these Jesus festivals, and the early pioneers of Christian contemporary music were rockin’ peoples’ socks off, man, with long hair hippie type music and loud guitars praising Jesus.
I think the more conservative element of the young Christian kids of that day and age went for groups like the Oak Ridge Boys and Andrae Crouch and the Disciples and the Imperials because we were, although not your stodgy old southern gospel quartet, still on the rocking side of things. We were the first group to have our own band, first drummer ever in gospel music. There’s some real cool philosophical stuff behind all of it, how gospel music has metamorphosized into what it is today, including the contemporary kids.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote An American Journey: Over 30 Years on the Road to Memories, Music & Legend in 2004 which chronicles the career and music of the group, so how is On the Road with the Oak Ridge Boys: Forty Years of Untold Stories and Adventures different (other than it’s written eleven years later)?
Joe Bonsall: I really thought I had written my heart out about this group and there wasn’t that much more to write, but Harvest House Publishers approached me. They had read G.I. Joe & Lillie, From My Perspective, my Molly books and An American Journey. They liked my writing a lot, and they wanted to do something with me. Their idea for a project was a kind of behind-the-scenes updated, fresh look at the Oak Ridge Boys.
In An American Journey, I probably wrote a bit more historical. For this book, I just started writing and came up with about six chapters, and I thought the idea was new, fresh and different. After al, it had been eleven years since I wrote An American Journey. We’re still out there singing. I sent them the chapters and said, “I think I’ve got a roadmap here for how to write a pretty cool little book about the group.” They loved it and said, “Stay the course, man, and keep writing.” So I did.
There are chapters called “The Boys,” “The Road,” “The Tour,” “The Christmas Tour,” “The Songs,” “The Bus,” and then I go off and write some different things. There’s a chapter called “Old Friends.” There is a chapter named “The ORB Doctrine,” which talks about how we do what we do and the thought patterns behind it. There’s a lot in there about our faith. There’s a chapter on Cracker Barrel, one called “What is Hard and What is Not” and a chapter on country music today. It’s a really up-to-date fresh look at the Oak Ridge Boys and how we’ve done what we’ve done and how we’re doing what we’re doing from point A to B, C to D.
I think An American Journey was a little bit more historical in nature. This book only touches on history. I said to Duane up in front of the bus one day, “Man, I’ve written my heart out, I’ve bedded it, reworked it, rewritten, and now it’s ready to go to press. I must wonder if anybody cares.” Duane said, I think you’re going to be surprised at how much people are going to care about this book.” So far he’s right because the book is selling well, and the reviews are great. I’m really excited about it, and my guys are really excited about it. When you’re the guy in the group that writes two books about that group, you’ve got to hold your breath a little bit and say, “God, I hope everybody is happy with this.” It seems like everybody is happy with the book, so I gave the big, “Whew!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I thought it was sweet that you dedicated the book to all four moms. Tell me how your parents influenced you as a child.
Joe Bonsall: My parents were WW II veterans. My daddy was a hero of D-Day, and my mother was a WAC (Women’s Army Corp) who was there for him when he came home. He fought fifty days into France and got hit hard in St. Lo, came back with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. That’s why he and my mama both rest now at Arlington.
My mother, Lillie, was a patriotic, God-fearing woman. She was a down-on-your-knees praying kind of woman, I mean flat out down on the ground when she talked to Jesus. My mother always taught me if I would work hard, treat people right, honor God and my life and tell the truth that good things could happen for me. That is the way I was brought up, and it’s the way all four Oak Ridge Boys were brought up. That’s why I dedicated the book to our mothers. I think each one of us owes our moms for a lot of what we are, how we’ve come to be what we are and how we’ve succeeded in what we are because of the love, prayers and examples that they set for us. My mother certainly taught me the right way.
I know that Duane Allen’s parents and Golden’s parents were great farm people, people of the land, and brought them up the right way. Richard’s mother was a wonderful Christian woman. She just passed away in September. She was our last living mom and died at ninety-four years old. We loved Victoria. Now we are all orphans. All our parents are gone. It wasn’t hard for me at all to say that I dedicated this book to the moms. This is a book about the Oak Ridge Boys and how we’ve done what we’ve done and how we succeeded. We’ve got to thank our moms. We’re mama’s boys.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I enjoyed the chapter called “Elviral.” An artist can never predict just how successful a song will be, can he?
Joe Bonsall: No. You can’t call that kind of thing. If you could, everyone would do it. That’s one of those kinds of things that happens … a song that turns you into a household name! That night in Spokane, Washington, in 1981, we tried out the song before a live audience. We had been working on the Fancy Free album for a couple of months. Ron Chancey brought in “Elvira,” and Ronnie Gant pitched it. We recorded the song and had a lot of fun with it. It was different than anything we had done. Didn’t think that much about it.
That night in Spokane, we said, “Here it is. Gonna try it out and see what y’all think.” We sang “Elvira,” and the place went nuts. It was just insane, and it happened like that for five nights in a row. We went back to Nashville and told MCA, “Hey, this ‘Elvira’ thing is just tearing it up. You wouldn’t believe how it is tearing it up. It’s crazy and have never seen anything like it.” It wasn’t like we had something brand new. We’d had five gold albums up to that point. We’d been on the big Full House tour with Kenny Rogers and Dottie West in ’79 and ’80. We’d been winning the awards. Everybody knew who we were. What we had done was build this vehicle that was able to carry “Elvira.”
If that had been our very first hit, jeez, I don’t know. I don’t know what would’ve happened. But it wasn’t, so we had it all in place ready to go and had all that experience working with Kenny where for the next three years we could take a big arena tour out there and know how to do it because of what we learned from Kenny Rogers. “Elvira” was a gigantic shock, yes. We had no idea it would be that big. MCA released it, and the song sold a million copies right away. It was just a monster song right up until June, then we released “Fancy Free,” as our next single from the album. In the meantime, “Elvira” crossed over into the pop market from July, August and September, that whole summer of ’81. Everybody in this country was singing, “Oom papa mow mow.” It was just unbelievable.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can just imagine the madness if You Tube had been around in the 1980s (laughs).
Joe Bonsall: Oh my gosh, yes. There was no You Tube. Cable was in its early days. There was no MTV, CMT. There were no videos, Twitter or Facebook. Nothing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve been with the Oak Ridge Boys over forty years. What were the hardest times?
Joe Bonsall: Well those years in the middle 70s when things were very unsure. Gospel music didn’t want us anymore, and country and rock just thought of us as a gospel group. We were caught in what I always call “the grey years.” But enough good things happened and enough people were put in our pathway.
It was a big deal to meet Paul Simon at the Grammys in 1975, and then he called us up in New York to do some projects with him. We ended up singing backup on “Slip Slidin’ Away.” That was a huge boost for us. Maybe not so much financially, but man, “Slip Slidin’ Away” was the biggest record of 1976, and here we were singing on it. People might not have known it was us, but we knew it. It really encouraged us.
During that same period of time, we were working with Johnny Cash, and he took us out on the road and paid us more than we were worth just to keep our heads above water. He explained to us in that famous story, “There’s magic here, guys. There’s magic here. If you give up on yourselves, nobody will know what I know, and that is that you guys are going to be huge.” Johnny Cash said the Oak Ridge Boys would make it; so we believed we would, and we stuck it out.
We met Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark and Jim Halsey in 1975 who’s our manager to this day, our godfather. We met him back then, and he started the ball rolling to change a bunch of things around, how we were doing things, who we were associated with, and put us with Jim Foglesong who’s also in the Country Music Hall of Fame as a record executive. Jim saw a lot of potential in the Oak Ridge Boys.
We got out of Columbia Records at the time. We didn’t know what the heck to do and went over there with Foglesong and ABC/Dot, which then turned into MCA Records where we spent a lot of years and sold a lot of records, got a lot of hits. They put us together with Ron Chancey, our producer throughout all those years. Those were kind of some lean times back then, but I don’t think we ever really doubted that we’d be okay. We just stuck it out. In 1977, we had “Y’all Come Back Saloon” on MCA produced by Ron Chancey, written by Sharon Vaughn. And that was, holy cow, we’re on the radio! Away we go!
As far as other really down things like that, life’s full of ups and downs, but I think the Oak Ridge Boys have always been very good at not letting the big highs get to us too much and not letting the lows get to us too much. We’ve always been able to stay on that even keel and keep our perspective.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who are some of your favorite artists today?
Joe Bonsall: I listen to some of the country of today and listen to a lot of old country. I like Emmylou Harris, pop sounds like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. I love the Zac Brown Band, and their new album Jekyll + Hyde is my favorite right now. I love that thing and probably have listened to it ten times driving in my pickup truck. I like Little Big Town and some of those acts of today. I like Miranda and Blake, and I listen to lots of bluegrass because I’m a banjo player. Lonesome River Band is probably my absolute bluegrass favorite.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think that had you not joined the Oak Ridge Boys, you would’ve become a veterinarian to fulfill a childhood dream?
Joe Bonsall: I wasn’t smart enough to be a veterinarian. I wasn’t tough enough to be a cop. Those were the other two things I thought I might do, so I had to make it in the music business. I just couldn’t do the college route. College was not really in my future. My parents didn’t have the money for college, and I didn’t have the smarts for college, so music was it for me, man. I don’t think I ever doubted for a minute that music would work for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What will the next decade bring … retirement or possibly an Oak Ridge Boys museum?
Joe Bonsall: I don’t see either of those things happening, to be honest with you. The idea of a museum doesn’t appeal to me at all and neither does the idea of retiring. I think the Oak Ridge Boys will sing until we drop. God will tell us when. I don’t believe that there’s any “quit” in any of the guys that are the Oak Ridge Boys. We’re forward thinking, we’re always looking ahead, and we’re always planning ahead.
We’ve never been able to even slow down let alone plan how to stop this thing. I think it even goes deeper than that. I think inside of each of us we realize the history we carry in this group, and none of us wants to see it end. As long as God gives us the health to keep singing, we’ll keep on singing.
If something happened to me, say, “Joe’s not coming tonight. He’s dead.” I’d like to think that they would go on. But by the same token, I must tell you that if something were to happen to one of the other guys, and I was still here, I think then I would have to think long and hard about whether I wanted to go on without Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban.
I’d like to think they’d go on without me, but maybe they wouldn’t want to either. I don’t know. I’m just thankful for what we have accomplished. When all of the press at the Country Music Hall of Fame thing would constantly ask, “What do you do now?” My answer was simple. We just sing. That’s what we do. The Oak Ridge Boys will continue to sing until God says, “That’s it.”
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