Here are two things learned during a phone conversation with Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys:
1. Almost every day has been Christmas in 2019.
2. Kenny Rogers was immune from pranks during the golden era of practical jokes.
The Oak Ridge Boys, managed for decades by Tulsa-based music impresario Jim Halsey, will perform 8 p.m. Saturday at Paradise Cove inside the River Spirit Casino Resort.
It’s best to immediately clarify that the performance won’t be a Christmas show. It will be a “regular” show full of songs from the group’s framed-on-the-wall albums — 12 gold, three platinum and one double platinum.
Bonsall said there won’t be a Christmas song in the Tulsa show.
“It’s October,” he said. “My gosh, Dracula hasn’t even come yet.”
But it’s important to make that clear since the Oak Ridge Boys, soon after being on stage in Tulsa, will release their eighth Christmas album and embark on a Christmas tour for the 30th year. The album (“Down Home Christmas”) will be released 20 days after the Tulsa show. The Christmas tour begins Nov. 13 in Branson. Also, the Oak Ridge Boys teamed with John Rich and Dionne Warwick to record a version of “Jingle Bells” that will be a track on a Warwick Christmas album.
Because of all the rehearsing and recording for Christmas-related projects, the holiday season has been neverending.
“And then by the time we get home (from the tour) on the 23rd, then we have Christmas with our families,” Bonsall said. “Man, it’s like a whole year of Christmas.”
Dave Cobb, who produced the Christmas album, is a six-time Grammy winner who is a generation younger than the Oak Ridge Boys. Bonsall said Cobb stops producing the Chris Stapletons of the world long enough to “come on over and make us happen.”
“He’s just fun to be with,” Bonsall said. “He gets excited about everything. He is young and energetic and we have known him now for 12 years. We have just become brothers and family. He calls us his crazy uncles.”
Cobb has worked with the group before, most recently on the 2018 album “17th Avenue Revival.”
“He is the master of taking the old-time retro feel and making it brand new,” Bonsall said. “He did that with us on ‘17th Avenue Revival’ and he did it on this Christmas album.”
The Christmas album includes “Amazing Grace” and “Silent Night.” Other tracks are new Christmas songs that were sort of written in the heat of the moment. Bonsall said it was almost like recording in old-time Nashville. He said the Oak Ridge Boys would huddle with Cobb and talk about, for instance, singing around a family piano. Then Cobb would forward the idea to a stable of writers to craft a song.
Said Bonsall: “I would say 75% of the songs were written by writers upstairs who came down with songs that we happened to think were better than anything we were going to record in the first place.”
If you’ve been reading this far to get to the practical jokes part of the story, here you go:
Richard Sterban, owner of the booming voice you hear in “Elvira” and other Oak Ridge Boys songs, wrote in his book that the group was responsible for a number of practical jokes through the years. He specifically mentioned pranking another vocal group, the Statler Brothers. The license plate on the Statler Brothers’ tour bus was replaced with a souvenir Oak Ridge Boys plate. Sterban wrote that it was weeks before the Statlers noticed.
“Us and the Statlers were always at it,” Bonsall said. “They had to have gotten us back.”
The Oak Ridge Boys were a gospel group before transitioning to country. Bonsall said there was more pranking during the gospel days. He said the Speer Family once put limburger cheese on the manifold of a tour bus and made the bus smell awful.
“And they took off laughing, but we had put a bunch of crickets in their bus,” Bonsall said. “So they are going down the road now and they had crickets just everywhere. It took them forever to get the crickets out of that bus. That’s the kind of stuff that always went on back in the gospel days. Country is a little tamer. I didn’t see quite as much practical joking (in country music). We toured with Kenny Rogers forever and I don’t think we ever did it to Kenny Rogers.”
Why? Would he not have handled it well?
“He would have taken it well,” Bonsall said. “He was a funny dude. But it just didn’t seem like the thing to do with Kenny Rogers. You don’t put a whoopee cushion under Kenny Rogers. ... just like you wouldn’t prank Dolly Parton, for crying out loud.”