Joe Bonsall Talks About Life ‘On the Road With the Oak Ridge Boys’
Joe Bonsall has seen it all in his 40 years with the legendary Oak Ridge Boys, from the struggles of the early days to the triumph of No. 1 hits, sold-out concerts arenas and winning just about every award imaginable.
He chronicles those adventures in his new book, On the Road With the Oak Ridge Boys, beginning with his entrance into the celebrated harmony vocal group in 1973 and continuing right up until the present day. Ironically, he admits he was hesitant when Harvest House first approached him about the idea of writing a book about the group.
"The resistance came because back in 2004, I wrote a book called An American Journey on the Oak Ridge Boys," Bonsall explains to Taste of Country. "It was a coffee table book, mostly pictures, but I wrote all the text, and I really covered a lot of ground. I kinda thought I wrote the book, in other words."
He changed his mind after Harvest House read some of his previous books and made him an offer. It was actually his wife who helped inspire the prologue, in which he reflects on what it's like to be part of such a grand tradition. "I painted the whole scene of that prologue, a big band getting ready to leave town, playing out before our very eyes in the parking lot," he recalls. "My wife turned to me, and my wife never gives many compliments. She's been around this a long time, but she turned to me and said, 'You know, you guys are a phenomenon.' That got me started."
There's no slowing down in anybody. There's just no quit in these guys.
The book breaks down into sections, dealing with how Bonsall came to join the group in 1973, life on the road, the bus, special fan stories, his admiration for the other members and what each one brings to the group and more. What comes across is a group that's been able to hold their relationships together for decade after decade, which is often the hardest thing about long-term success. Bonsall's enthusiasm for both the group and its individual members appears to be completely genuine; to call him an enthusiastic advocate for the Oaks would be like calling Forrest Gump a guy who's met a few interesting people.
"I gotta tell you, I can't even remember a bad word amongst any of us for years," Bonsall says. "And even if there is, it's the kind of thing where maybe you have a disagreement about something, and you get it right out there and you talk about it, talk it through and put it right out there on the table. You don't sit back and harbor anything. You always have to be open to the fact that your brother, your partner, may actually have a better idea than you."
That's been the secret to their long-term success, he says. "The Oak Ridge Boys have managed over all of these years to co-exist, live together, work together, build something together. The great thing is that all four Oak Ridge Boys are forward-thinking guys. There's no slowing down in anybody. There's just no quit in these guys. It's always, 'What do we do next? How do we make things better tomorrow than they are today?' And that's the glory, because it only takes one guy ... I don't think anyone in this group wants to see this legacy end. All these decades, all these miles, all these songs, all this water under all these bridges — who would want to be the guy to say, 'Let's end it'? Nobody. Not even close."
One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with how the Oaks suffered an enormous, potentially career-ending backlash in the gospel music industry after taking a more progressive direction.
"A lot of the people that we had so many problems with back then aren't even alive anymore," Bonsall points out. "We were the young stud gospel guys, our hair was long, we had a drummer, we didn't dress alike. We did gospel music in a more contemporary way than the other Southern gospel groups were doing it, and it was recognized really well by the young people of that day, but the staunch older gospel music fans did not like what we were doing at all. Since they controlled the business, we were slowly blackballed out of it."
The bookings dried up, and though the group would eventually find their way back to gospel — including their current album, Rock of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites — the Oaks struggled through some lean times before exploding into the mainstream with "Y'all Come Back Saloon." The success of that song launched them on a career path that has included all-time classics like "Elvira," "Bobbie Sue" and "American Made," among many, many others, as well as crossover pop success and armloads of awards. In 2015, the Boys made it complete with what many feel is their long-overdue induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"I think it's so cool that our four heads together will be up there on a plaque, the four of us together as we have always been and still are, and I hope to be for a long time to come," Bonsall reflects. "And someday our grandkids' children could even see it. To me it's like, even when we're not here anymore, we'll still be there. I think it is the absolute highest honor. It's Cooperstown, man. It's Canton. It's Cleveland. It's the Hall of Fame, man. I just don't know how anything can ever be any bigger or any better."
That's not to say that the group don't still have goals. "We've just gotta keep on singing," Bonsall says. "That's what the Oak Ridge Boys are all about. That's what we've always been all about. We go out there and we sing."
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