Oak Ridge Boy Joe Bonsall Talks On the Road

His Latest Book Is Filled With Funny Stories, Wise Observations

There’s a major error of fact in Joe Bonsall’s new book, On the Road With the Oak Ridge Boys. But it’s one the strutting, high-stepping tenor of the famed vocal quartet is happy to live with.

On page 27 of the book Bonsall writes, “One award … has eluded us — the prestigious Country Music Hall of Fame. I’m not sure if this will ever happen, but if it ever did, it would be the greatest of all honors! Perhaps one day it will happen. I can only hope we are still breathing oxygen if it does.”

Well, they can all breathe easy now.

The book had already gone to press when — on the morning of March 25 — the Country Music Association that the Oaks — Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban — had indeed been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Also tapped to enter the Hall of Fame with the Oaks were Jim Ed Brown & the Browns and guitarist Grady Martin.

“I’m still not over this Hall of Fame thing,” Bonsall said in a recent conversation with CMT.com. “I think it’s the best thing to have happened in my very long career. It’s very humbling and very moving. … It was a little bittersweet, though, losing Jim Ed Brown.”

Brown died of cancer June 11.

Bonsall joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1973 and thus had more than 40 years of memories to draw from for the new book. Those memories range from the mundane to the instructive to the riotously funny.

For the record, he bylines this book “Joseph S. Bonsall,” just as he has his early writings.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

His narrative arc covers the times from when the Oaks were a barely-getting-by gospel group to their glory days of the early 1980s when they were selling tons of records and attracting huge crowds to their current status as hard-working elder-statesmen of country music who still play 150 shows a year.

“Writing On the Road With the Oak Ridge Boys was a real joy for me,” Bonsall says, “because it’s able not only to make [you] a fly on the wall [witnessing how the Oak Ridge Boys think and operate] but also I take you a little bit further. … It kind of covers a lot of ground.”

Want to know what it’s like living in a crowded bus — even when it’s a luxuriously appointed one? It’s all here. Want to know how important bus drivers, sound technicians, reliable musicians, concert promoters and long-haul fans are to an act? Bonsall tells all and names names.

He has a wicked sense of humor, too. When the Oaks were adjusting to their decline in popularity, Bonsall suggested they call their upcoming round of shows the “Good Seats Still Available” tour.

“Yeah, that got voted down,” he says somberly.

As might be expected, he tells many tales about the practical jokes played on the road to relieve the tedium of incessant travel. Like the time Bonsall called a concert promoter on the day of the show and told him the other members were sick and Bonsall would have to do all the singing himself. He also offered to tell some jokes.

The promoter was in tears, Bonsall recalls, by the time he let him in on the joke. But the promoter got his revenge. When the Oaks’ bus pulled up to the concert site, the huge computerized sign out front read, “APPEARING TONIGHT — THE STATLER BROTHERS.”

He says if Garth Brooks — who once opened for the Oaks — is worried about aging, he should take the Oaks on tour with him. “We’ll make him look like Hunter Hayes!”

Bonsall profiles each member of the Oak Ridge Boys — always lovingly — digging into their individual histories and personal and musical strengths. Lead singer Duane Allen emerges as the calm center of the band’s organizational storm.

Besides his straight-ahead narratives, Bonsall includes a lot of amusing and helpful sidebars, among them “Things You Will Never Hear Said on the Oak Ridge Boys’ Bus” and “Joe’s Road Tips for the Constant Traveler.”

(Among the former, “Golden is shaving,” and among the latter, “If your room number is just two digits, you’re probably booked into a very historic and rustic motel. In other words, a dump!”)

Aspiring musical artists and those already on their way up will profit from reading Bonsall’s musings about the importance of having a wise manager. In the Oaks’ case, it’s “Godfather” Jim Halsey, who’s steered their career since the mid-1970s.

Bonsall has only good things to say about the new faces and sounds of country music, a diplomatic nicety other performers would do well to emulate.

“I say change is good,” he asserts, “and country music is more popular than it’s ever been, so someone’s doing something right.”

Missing from the new book is any mention of that long and painful period from 1987 to 1996 during which Golden was away from the Oaks pursuing a solo career and Steve Sanders was filling in for him. Sanders later abruptly left the Oaks and eventually committed suicide.

But, as Bonsall points out, he did give an accounting of this upheaval in his 2004 book, An American Journey.

“I wrote that whole part of the history then,” he says, “and I didn’t see the need to write it again.”

Written in an easygoing, conversational style, On the Road With the Oak Ridge Boys is so all-embracing it should be required reading for anyone brave enough or foolish enough to consider a life in music.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.