Shining the light on Adams County

The Oak Ridge Boys, from left, Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban, will be performing before a sell-out crowd on Saturday night at the Red Barn in Winchester. (Photo by Mark Carpenter)

Oak Ridge Boys bring Hall of Fame show on Saturday  – 

By Mark Carpenter – 

Many country music acts have performed in Adams County, but perhaps none with the enthusiasm and energy that will fill the Red Barn Convention Center in Winchester before a sold-out crowd on Saturday night. Country Music Hall of Famers, The Oak Ridge Boys, will make their first appearance in the county on Saturday night and though the quartet boasts four members over the age of 70, concert goers will never be able to tell as the “Boys” bring to the stage the energy of any young group, bringing to town their “Shine the Light” Tour.
The Oaks’ Joe Bonsall recently spoke to the Defender via phone as the group traveled across Minnesota, one of many nights on the road that have become a lifestyle for the foursome.
” I give all the credit to the Lord on this one, I don’t know how we do it to be honest, ” said Bonsall, the Philadelphia native who joined the group in 1973. “We struggled in the 70’s, we succeeded in the 70’s, and now we’re in our 70’s. We’re not the young guys on the block any more but to a man, we’re all still feeling good, we’re singing good, and as long as that’s the case, why stop? It’s a great blessing to be able to do what we do, it’s what we all wanted to do as kids. We probably bring more history to the stage than any other act, dates back to the 40’s, and we don’t want to see that end. I guess God will tell us when to stop, but right now we don’t even slow down.”
“We just take it a day at a time, a show at a time, and a song at a time.”
Music fans take for granted that their favorite singers or groups will be on the road and performing, but often overlooked is the sacrifice that their families have to make to allow that to happen.
“I think our families make the most sacrifice,” says Bonsall. “We’re out here like brothers in arms getting on the bus, laughing, having fun, but our families have to be taking care of the home life while we’re away. We’ve made a good living for a long time but that doesn’t really make up for missing a lot of great family time. We all have great families, great support systems, and if we didn’t it would make all of this very hard on everybody. We do take time off and try to make up that time at home.”
The Oaks made their first impact on the music scene as a gospel quartet, but in the mid 1970’s that all changed as the group made the crossover to country music, riding their first big hit “Y’All Come Back Saloon” to a career that has never stopped producing hits.
“We didn’t go to bed as a gospel quartet and then wake up as hit-making country singers,” said Bonsall. “We had several years where we really struggled but things began to turn for the Oak Ridge Boys because the gospel quartet field began moving backward, we were moving forward, and it was just a clash. We went for it and it was a hard time for us, and the biggest influence was our manager Jim Halsey, who thought our show was amazing and told us we were three minutes away from being the biggest act there is. In his 80’s, he is still managing us. I give Jim all the credit for guiding us through. ‘Y’All Come back Saloon’ was recorded (our three minutes) and the rest is history.”
Though the Oaks have a long string of classic country hits, the group’s signature song will always be “Elvira”, which took all the charts by storm in 1981.
“‘Elvira’ came along at a great time for us,” reflects Bonsall. “We had five gold albums, we were winning awards, coming off a tour with Kenny Rogers and Dottie West, and we were the hot young country music group. ‘Elvira’ took us from being a major country music act to a household name. The whole summer of ‘81 people were singing ‘oom pa pa mah mah’ along with the Oak Ridge Boys. Still today it is the song people want to hear and our most identifiable song, no matter how many hits we have. It’s a big moment in our show and it was a great moment in our career.”
The Oaks have had such an illustrious career, singing for presidents and royalty, dueting with George Jones and Paul Simon and many others, but Bonsall says the most important accolade was the group being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
“It was a gigantic thrill for us,” he says. “To be in the Country Music Hall of Fame is amazing and it’s pretty moving to me personally. We’re also in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and we probably do more for gospel music every night on our shows than a lot of gospel groups do. It makes me feel good to be surrounded by a bunch of guys who want to do that. We can pretty much do and say what want, it’s a great place to be in your career. We’re the Oak Ridge Boys and people are still coming out to hear us sing, so let’s give ‘em a complete show and shine a little light along the way.”
The “Shine the Light” Tour backs up the Oaks’ latest album, “17th Avenue Revival”, which is a return to gospel roots for the group but also a departure from anything they have done before. The newest album, produced by Dave Cobb, is a throwback to the old rockabilly days of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, not the southern gospel that fans may be used to.
“I think this project is one of the best things we’ve ever done, something different than anything we’ve ever done,” says Bonsall. “I think this album is monumental, Oak Ridge Boys like you’ve never heard before- new, different, and fresh.” One of the songs off the new album that has quickly become a show favorite is “Pray to Jesus”, which is actually nothing like the title suggests, describing a family’s dreams of winning the lottery , balanced with their Sunday morning trips to church.
“This song is such great writing and it grabs you when you hear it,” says Bonsall. “It may make some old-time gospel faithful squirm a little, but it’s really a song about middle America, where we all end up like our parents.”
For those fans who might miss Saturday night’s show, the Oaks will be back in Portsmouth in mid-November, an annual stop as part of their 29th Christmas Tour.
For those who see Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban live this weekend, it will be an evening of high-energy, family entertainment.
“We’re gonna sing a bunch of hits, we’re gonna sing some gospel, we’re gonna sing some new songs, we’re gonna wave the flag a little bit, it’s a show for everybody,” says Bonsall. “You can bring Grandma and she won’t hear anything she doesn’t want to hear. It’s just a lot of music.”