Oak Ridge Boys, from left: William Lee Golden, Joseph Bonsall, Duane Allen, and Richard Sterban.
In 1987, the Oak Ridge Boys were at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles as part of Kenny Rogers’ Christmas tour when Joseph Bonsall had a realization.
“We’re up there doing ‘Carol of the Bells,’ and I would never learn my part, which drove Kenny crazy. But I looked around and said to myself, ‘We can do this type of show ourselves,’” Bonsall recalled, chuckling.
This year marks the 28th year of the Oak Ridge Boys doing that Christmas show themselves. The Oaks will be in Toledo at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Stranahan Theater, and the show will have a familiar feel to it. There will be 40 minutes of hits, then about a 15-minute intermission, before Bonsall, Richard Sterban, Duane Allen, and William Lee Golden do their 75-minute Christmas segment, with stories, carols, and music from their Christmas albums.
The Blade will hold a Facebook Live event with Bonsall and Sterban at 6:20 p.m. on Sunday. Readers are invited to submit questions during the event, which can be seen on The Blade’s Facebook page.
For the first time in Toledo, the group will travel with three large video screens that will add some Christmas animation to the experience.
“The Christmas tour has become the biggest part of our year. We do fairs and festivals all year, then get to do this. It sure keeps us busy,” Bonsall said.
The nearly annual holiday visit to Toledo from the Oak Ridge Boys is always an uplifting experience, but Bonsall hopes that this year’s concert will provide a welcome reprieve from the steady stream of bad news and violence that has wracked the country.
The country music industry is still mending from the massacre in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, when a gunman rained down bullets from his Mandalay Bay hotel room onto thousands of people attending a nearby country music festival. He killed 58 people and injured hundreds more. On Nov. 5, another shooter killed 26 people at a Texas Baptist church. The mass shootings have become a new normal, almost, in America.
“I don’t get what’s happening. There is such a pervasion of evil out there,” Bonsall said. “It is emotionally tough for [entertainers appearing before large crowds], but it is such a small percentage of people doing bad things. You can’t stop doing what you do, because then the crazies win.”
About five years ago, Bonsall was headed into church with his family, when his daughter, Sabrina, noticed his 9-millimeter handgun on his hip.
“She said, ‘You’re not going to bring that in, are you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, there are lunatics in church too.’ She doesn’t holler at me anymore,” Bonsall said.
Some country entertainers canceled concerts after the Las Vegas killings, but that isn’t something that the Oaks even considered.
“I’m a Christian. I believe in the Lord,” Bonsall said. “I believe the world has turned in a dark direction, but, again, it is still such a small minority of people doing bad things. Most people out there are those who are working, paying their bills, just trying to live life. I know, because I look them in the eye every day.
And, yes, there have been a lot of eyes for Bonsall to look into over the years. The Oak Ridge Boys have had an amazing career, with no signs of slowing down. Golden left the group for about eight years (1987-1995), but otherwise the four men have been together since 1973, when Bonsall joined the group. They continue to perform around 150 shows a year, are members of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and have produced some of the biggest hits in country music history, including “Elvira,” “Thank God for Kids,” “Fancy Free,” and “American Made.”
The hits have kept the men on the road for nearly 45 years, but at the start the Oak Ridge Boys were a gospel group. Faith and Jesus Christ matter to them. Hope matters to them. And during this time of darkness and uncertainty, Bonsall believes their musical message can help to heal.
“If you come to an Oak Ridge Boys show, my hope is that you leave with a blessing. You need hope and love. We need to be uplifted. I pray that when you come to an Oak Ridge Boys show and you hear ‘Elvira,’ ‘American Made,’ ‘Thank God for Kids,’ then the Christmas story, that you are uplifted.”
The Oak Ridge Boys will be in concert at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Stranahan Theater. Tickets are $29-$59 and are available at stranahantheater.com, at the Stranahan Theater box office, or by phone at 419-381-8851.
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