In Memoriam: Joe Bonsall (1948-2024)

Oak Ridge Boys singer Joe Bonsall, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has passed away.

What I would normally quote at length from the obituary are the most significant career milestones of the artist we have lost.

I can’t do that with Joe Bonsall. As soon as I heard this news from my colleague Jonathan yesterday, I thought, “The world is a darker place today. That man was pure light.”

Covering his songs from the eighties and nineties No. 1 retrospectives, I’ve come to love the Oak Ridge Boys, an act that wasn’t on my parents’ radar enough for me to know anything but “Elvira” as a child. As good as the songs and performances have been from Bonsall and his bandmates, what always stuck with me most was Bonsall’s wide smile that said, “Welcome. We’re glad you’re here. Let’s sing!”

I’ve learned over the years that there isn’t a big gap between stage personas and real life ones. So I was so happy to see that Billboard collected quotes from his bandmates and fellow artists, and the specificity of their grief makes clear that this was a man who lit up the world with his positivity, empathy, and kindness.  I’m going to quote those instead.

From his bandmates:

“When I look at Joe Bonsall’s life, I see a life fulfilled,” said Duane Allen. “…Joe could do anything he set his mind to do, but what impressed me the most was the energy, love, and compassion he put into everything he did and his unique gift to communicate those emotions and feelings into every performance, song, and book.”

“This has been a week of sadness with the loss of my son, Rusty Golden, and now the loss of our brother and our partner of over 50 years, Joe Bonsall,” said William Lee Golden. “Thankfully we have the memories made and the songs that we’ve sang together to get us through. It gives me comfort to know that Joe and Rusty are together again. Our prayers are with his family.”

“For many years, Joe was my best friend,” said Richard Sterban. “We knew each other long before we both became members of The Oak Ridge Boys. He was a special person, who was loved by everyone and was a true inspiration to us all. He was also the best singing partner a person could have. For several years he bravely fought a terrible disease and was a trooper right up until the very end. There is no doubt that today, he is in a much better place.”

“Joe was a true hero to me,” said Ben James. “His singing is something that I have admired since I was a kid. Nobody could do it like Joe could do it. He was such an encouragement to me. I feel honored that he chose me to sing the tenor line when he decided to come off the road. I try my best for Joe and the Boys every night but only Joe can fill that spot.”

Jim Halsey, the long-time manager of the Oak Ridge Boys, said: “God love you, Joe Bonsall. You have been an inspiration to fans, friends, and family, especially to me for 52 years. This is a very rough day.”

From his colleagues:

“I’m saddened by the loss of my friend, Joe Bonsall. For so many years he was the high voice with The Oak Ridge Boys who I toured with almost every year of my career. Joe and I would have conversations on the road sometimes before a concert and sometimes afterward about the crowd, the music, and who we are as Americans. My family sends prayers to the Bonsall family.” – Lee Greenwood

“I have known, worked with, and loved Joe Bonsall and the Oaks for almost 50 years. It’s so hard to say goodbye to old friends, especially a true road warrior like Joe.” – Crystal Gayle

“I’m so terribly saddened and sorry to hear of Joe’s passing. All I can say is from one tenor to another, keep singing in heaven, Joe, that voice of yours, the spirit for the Lord.” – Sam Moore (Sam & Dave)

“We just lost one of the world’s greatest human beings and one of music’s greatest voices. Joe was like a brother and made me a better man. I loved him, and he loved Jesus with all of his heart. He was a sweetheart and every room brightened when he walked in. Sheila and I will miss him terribly. Rest in peace, free of pain, my dear friend.” – T. Graham Brown

“Joe Bonsall and I have crossed paths many times through our careers in music and each time, we picked up right where we left off. Many of us are in our ‘golden’ years now and these times are always particularly difficult. I am thankful for his friendship, the songs he leaves behind, and comfort in the fact that his body isn’t suffering anymore. RIP Joe Bonsall.” – John McEuen

“Joe Bonsall was a true friend who sang on several of my records. What a great talent who entertained so many people with his great voice and showmanship. I am so saddened. We will miss him so much.” – Moe Bandy

“The concerts I worked with The Oak Ridge Boys were amazing, as I heard their great blend of four voices – Joe had a unique sound and talent that is timeless and universally appreciated, may God rest his soul.” – Janie Fricke

“Joe has been a great friend through the years, and this one hits hard. Prayers for his family, The Oak Ridge Boys, the band, and his fans all over the world.” – Johnny Lee

“The Oak Ridge Boys was the first band I ever toured with. They were so good to me, and Joe was always really friendly and kind. You never forget someone who was that good to you on your first tour – they taught me a lot. Nothing but good memories.” – Lacy J. Dalton

“I am so saddened by today’s news of losing Joe. We go back to the early 80s. We were all nominated for a Grammy, and The Oaks beat us out! We didn’t get to see each other enough. Say hello to Heaven, Joe Bonsall, and prayers to his family!!!” – David Frizzell 

I invite our commenters to share their favorite Oaks songs and Bonsall memories in the comments.  As we did with Toby Keith, I’ll continually update the Spotify and YouTube playlists with the recommendations. I’ve started us off with five of mine.

Our deepest condolences to Bonsall’s family, friends, and fans.

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  1. It is hard to shake the sense of sadness that comes with this loss from the Oak Ridge Boys’ family, another bite from time’s axe at the base of the mighty Oaks.

    It is easy, however, to celebrate Bonsall’s contributions to country music. To my eyes and ears, he had the most gregarious personality of the quartet. He seemingly always offered pure energy and excitement, a kinetic bundle of endless potential energy. He seemed like the most genuine and sincere of hams, a goofy character – a musical magnet – whose contagious charisma brought everyone closer. Bandmate Duane Allen mentioned his energy, love and compassion as a person.

    I have shared before that the Oaks’ “Fancy Free” album was the first one I was ever gifted as a young kid, so this loss feels particularly close and personal. The Oak Ridge Boys have been constant companions on my journey with country music.

    Sharing Bonsall’s contributions to country music is the best way to communicate both my grief and my joy at having had the opportunity to relate so closely to the music of this assembly of the Oak Ridge Boys I knew best.

    Bonsall’s time on earth has come to an end, but he is walking with Jesus now.

    As for some of my favourite Oak Ridge Boys songs that didn’t chart, I offer:

    “When Love Calls You” from “Fancy Free”

    “Take This Heart” from “Together”

    “Easy” from “Y’all Come Back Saloon”

    “Every Now and Then” from “Have Arrived”

    “Hold Me Closely” from “The Boys are Back”

    “Doctor’s Orders” from “Bobbie Sue”

    “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport” from “Bobbie Sue”

  2. Sticking with the hits, I’ll say “Y’all Come Back Saloon” was my favorite from the Oaks. But, then again, how can I not acknowledge the infectious joy brought to listening audiences worldwide through their signature song “Elvira,” the obvious pick?

    RIP Joe Bonsall. And thank you for all of the happy years of uplifting songs and entertainment.

  3. That infectious energy just could not be matched by anyone. Will miss Joe dearly. I’m particularly fond of Trying to Love Two Women, as that energy and charm turned a song that might sound sleazy in another’s hands into one full of humor.

  4. My favorite Oaks single by far is ”Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” but I had other favorites, including ”I Wish You Could Have Turned My Head (And Left My Heart Alone),” ”Come On In (You Did the Best You Could Do),” and ”Gonna Take a Lot of River.”

    The latter was my favorite with Steve Sanders on lead vocals. I remember hearing that song and being pretty impressed with it even at the ripe old age of 12. ”Did the writers of that song really manage to fit the name ’Monongahela’ in a song? Indeed they did. Wow.”

    Also, ALS is an evil disease, second only to Alzheimer’s & dementia. I’m sorry to hear that JB came down with it, but I’m just as glad for him that he didn’t have to live that long with it. May he rest in peace.

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