I’ve been an Oak Ridge Boys fan as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure some of the first words I ever said were “Giddy up, oom papa mow mow” as I was singing along with their classic hit “Elvira.”
And one of the coolest moments of my career came just a few months ago when I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to the legendary Oak Ridge Boys. It was like sitting down with royalty – and they were just as nice in person as you would expect them to be.
The group that would become the Oak Ridge Boys has been around since 1941, when the quartet out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee got their start as Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers. But because they were often asked to sing for service members and their families at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the group changed their name to the Oak Ridge Quartet before becoming the Oak Ridge Boys in 1961.
The current lineup of the Oaks was completed in 1973, and for the last 50 years has featured lead singer Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Golden (and his iconic beard), and bass Richard Sterban.
Over the past 50 years The Oak Ridge Boys have become icons of country music with hits like “American Made,” “Bobbie Sue,” “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” “Fancy Free,” and of course their biggest hit, “Elvira.” And they’ve also become well known for the mark they’ve left on the gospel world, having even performed “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of President George H.W. Bush back in 2018.
But they’ll be doing it with a change to their lineup.
Joe Bonsall, who often serves as the face and spokesman of the group, has announced that he is retiring from touring with the legendary group due to a neuromuscular disorder that has left him unable to walk.
Bonsall has struggled to walk in recent years, a sharp contrast from the first time I saw the Oaks in concert over a decade ago and he was bouncing around all over the stage.
He often jokes that his leg doesn’t hurt, it just doesn’t work. But now, it’s gotten to the point where he’s stepping down from his touring role with the Oak Ridge Boys:
“Many of you know I have been battling a slow onset (over four years now) of a neuromuscular disorder. I am now at a point where walking is impossible, so I have basically retired from the road. It has just gotten too difficult.
It has been a great 50 years, and I am thankful to all the Oak Ridge Boys, band, crew, and staff for the constant love and support shown to me through it all. I will never forget, and for those of you who have been constantly holding me up in prayer, I thank you and ask for you to keep on praying.
There is a young man named Ben James singing for me out there, and he needs your love and encouragement … his sound is different than mine, but he brings a ton of talent to the table!
The Oak Ridge Boys will finish the Farewell Tour without me, but rest assured, I am good with all of it! God’s Got It!!!”
Taking Bonsall’s place in the group is Ben James, who has toured as part of bluegrass group Dailey & Vincent, and has already got some shows under his belt filling in for Bonsall as an Oak Ridge Boy.
The group also plans to head back into the studio this month with legendary producer Dave Cobb, a record that Bonsall will presumably still be a part of.
I’m not gonna lie, it really sucks to see your heroes getting older. But hopefully Joe Bonsall is able to enjoy his time off the road with his beloved wife and cats – and after 50 years, he’s earned his retirement.
My personal statement …
“Many of you know I have been battling a slow onset (over 4 years now) of a neuromuscular disorder. I am now to a point that walking is impossible so I have basically retired from the road. It has just gotten too difficult. It has been a great 50 years…