When my best friend Alice and I were barely in our teens, we'd go to every country music show that came to the old World War Memorial building in town. We barely cared who was playing, some old codgers like Ernest Tubb or Kitty Wells or a singer we'd only heard one song from on the radio. There wasn't much to do in our little town. We could either see a movie or go bowling. And most of the movies were awful, generally some hastily spat-out Elvis flick or something like Paint Your Wagon. The only fun we had at those movies was making fun of them. Thus, we attended a lot of what were called package shows, with a headliner and two opening acts.

On one of those shows the opening act was a southern gospel quartet called The Plainsmen. We'd, of course, never heard of them. Living in the Upper Midwest, we hadn't heard any southern gospel. They were great! High energy; a perfect blend of lead, tenor, baritone, and bass, with songs like Have a Little Talk With Jesus and other gospel tunes we might have heard one time in our lives (we were barely churchgoers, much less attendees of any service with this kind of music). 

The Oak Ridge Boys, too, began as a gospel group. And they just might have been "secular gospel" throughout their careers. They tended toward tracks with that same kind of vibe, from Elvira to Love Song. Yes, they had "smoother" hits, too, but it was that gospel arrangement that shot them to fifty years of fame. Was there ever a time when The Oak Ridge Boys didn't exist in our consciousness?

Like most every long-time country fan, I, too, saw The Oaks in person. It was right around the height of their Elvira/Bobbie Sue fame, and I saw them from a seat at a State Fair grandstand, from which they were quite tiny, but the sound was still huge. Seeing them had been on my bucket list for a while, so I grabbed my chance. My kids were little, but they went, too, along with my parents.

I think the first Oaks album I ever bought turned out to be, accidentally, a gospel album. The LP's name, simply "The Oak Ridge Boys", didn't give it away as such. It wasn't that I had anything against gospel, of course, but I'd meant to buy one of their country albums. That album was good! It had country tracks that could be construed as "sort of" gospel, like The Baptism of Jesse Taylor and Why Me, as well as Loves Me Like a Rock. 

Two Oaks hits from 1977 cemented my fandom:


Here is a Rodney Crowell song:

In case you don't know, Joe Bonsall was the tenor of the group. He's featured on this one:


Love Song demonstrates the call and response I referenced in the group's gospel style. The Oaks excelled at it. 

The thing about The Oak Ridge Boys was that while a few of their tracks did highlight one singer's vocals, that wasn't the norm. They were a group in the purest sense of the word. Yes, I talk about them in past tense, because the group will be no more. The remaining members are in bad health, and with Joe Bonsall's passing, there will be no replacing him (if that was even possible). There was a brief period when William Lee Golden left, that a replacement was found. It turned out to be a sad chapter. And in recent years, fill-ins have stepped in from time to time. It's sad to ponder that those years are gone, but they aren't really. We still have their music and we have the videos. 

I'm glad I made their musical acquaintance. 

RIP, Joe.