12/24/2015 by Chuck Dauphin Billboard.com
For 26 years now, Country Music Hall of Fame members The Oak Ridge Boys have been a part of their fans’ holiday seasons via their annual Christmas tour. And the group’s Joe Bonsall tells Billboard that their inspiration for the annual series of shows stems from their long association with another member of the Hall’s esteemed circle.
“Kenny Rogers took us out on his Christmas tour in the mid-'80s for two years in a row,” Bonsall says, also recalling that the opening act for one of those years was a newcomer named Garth Brooks. “We were out there at the Universal Amphitheatre (now known as the Gibson Amphitheare) in L.A., and had recorded two successful Christmas albums at this time. We were out there singing ‘Carol of the Bells’ with Kenny at the end of the show, and we all backed up, looked at each other, and thought ‘We could do this. We’ve got enough Christmas music. We could do a Christmas tour.’ The next thing you know, we’re talking about elf outfits and stage props, and we ended up starting our own Christmas tour.”
Since then, Christmas is very much a part of the life and career of The Oak Ridge Boys. “It’s become the biggest thing we do all year. It’s huge. The venues are always full, and a lot of people traditionally plan their holidays around the Christmas show. It’s become a tradition for so many people, including us. It’s an amazing thing to go out there and do these songs in a full-production Christmas show. We love seeing the kids come up, and Santa Claus, and to have people respond the way they do, to have them be a witness for the Lord at the end of the show with songs that tell the real meaning of Christmas. It all comes together nicely.”
Bonsall says the quartet tries to make the show a well-rounded evening of entertainment. “The whole thing is really a faith and family show. Mom and Dad are out there with the kids and the grandparents. It’s just really important for us to cover every aspect of The Oak Ridge Boys’ career. If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to do the hits -- we take care of that early. We do that for about 45 minutes, then take a break, come back out and do a full-blown Christmas production with fake snow, romance, presents, and Santa Claus."
And sharing their own stories figures into the production as well. "After [Santa] greets the kids, we sit out in our rocking chairs and talk about our own personal lives at Christmas. We get a little more spiritual at that point, which segues into doing some songs about the real meaning of Christmas," says Bonsall. "We try to bring it home with Jesus. Our feeling is that in this day and age, there is so much going on wrong with the world that a little Jesus in the show isn’t going to hurt anything. So, we try to be a good witness for the real reason for the season. It’s really three shows in one.”
The Oaks' Christmas tour closed Wednesday (Dec. 23) with a sold-out show at the Country Music Hall of Fame – marking the first time the group has played the Nashville venue as Hall of Famers. The two-hour performance mixed hits including “Gonna Take A Lot Of River” and “American Made,” along with holiday favorites such as “Christmas Cookies,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Mary, Did You Know?”
Before the show, Bonsall said it promised to be a magical night. “Playing the Hall of Fame is going to be very special. I’m going to have to be careful not to be emotional about it. I want to make sure that we get out there and do the Christmas show like we’ve been doing it. When I sit in the rocking chair, I think I will take my time by talking about what an honor it is to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I think it’s America when four guys who grew up in different parts of this country, all dreaming of singing to the point of driving everyone in their circumference absolutely crazy from the time we were little boys, that’s an amazing thing, and it’s not taken lightly with anyone of us.”
The group had quite the act to follow at the Hall, with the Martin Family Circus performing in the CMA Theater the previous Saturday. Consisting of lead singer Duane Allen’s daughter Jamie, son-in-law Paul Martin from Marty Stuart’s The Fabulous Superlatives, and their children, the Martins made quite an impression when helping to induct The Oaks into the Hall with their electrifying version of “Elvira.”
“Those kids are awesome,” Bonsall exclaimed, adding that “I’ve known Jamie since she was about a year old. Duane and [wife] Norah took me into their house when I first moved to Nashville. I didn’t have an apartment yet, and hadn’t moved my wife and future daughter to Nashville. It’s not because I’ve known Jamie since she was a baby, or think her husband Paul is one of the greatest talents there is. That family can sing. I think if they can stick it out, they are going to be a big act. I think they will turn the world upside down because they are so talented.”
And with a fruitful 2015, next year is already shaping up to be busy: Their 2016 tour is coming together quite well, as are plans for a new studio album – and possibly a seventh Christmas record. "I don’t know how next year could be better, but we’re going to plow into it," says Bonsall. "The old guys are ready to go.”