As the anticipation for this year’s Jett Williams Festival heightens in Macon County, which promises to include a star-studded line-up of over 30 musical performances, Joe Bonsall, a 35-year member of The Oakridge Boys and part-time Macon County resident, is anxiously waiting to take the stage and, more importantly, raise money for tornado victims in the community he has grown to love.
The owner of a 400-acre farm in Macon County, that he and his family frequent to get away from life in the city, Joe, and the rest of The Oakridge Boys, were deeply disheartened when tornados tore through the area.
And when the phone call came in from Jett Williams herself, asking if the Grammy Award winning country music group would perform in this year’s festival, which will donate all proceeds to tornado victims in Macon, Trousdale and Sumner Counties, there was no question that The Oakridge Boys would commit to a performance.
“After the tornado hit, I saw the devastation in Macon County,” Joe said. “It blew me away to see how much destruction it left in its path. When the tornados hit Sumner County, it took William Golden’s house (a member of The Oakridge Boys) and we all witnessed the healing process tornado victims go through. We did a benefit concert for the tornado victims there and it was very moving to me.”
As a group, The Oakridge Boys have been involved with several humanitarian organizations including Habitat For Humanity, Feed The Children, Boy Scouts of America, the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse and the Tennessee Adopt-A-Highway Program.
“We were all raised on gospel music,” Joe said. “Our group came up raised in the churches and giving back to the community is something that’s instilled in each one of us. We’ve always had our own philosophy . . . a music group can affect the world in a positive way, a negative way or not at all. We just want to leave our footprints along the way. We’re excited about performing at the festival and we feel great that the whole group is able to come.”
Inspired by Southern style gospel quartets while growing up in Philadelphia, Joe was only 15-years-old when he decided he was destined to become part of a harmonized foursome himself, but it wasn’t until he was 32 years old that he would begin to reap the benefits of a musical career.
A gospel show promoter in Pennsylvania and a penniless member of The Keystones gospel group, Joe was offered a spot with The Oakridge Boys in 1973 after befriending some its members and since then, has felt blessed to take the stage with group members William Golden, Richard Sterban and Duane Allen.
“I’m almost 60 years old,” Joe said laughing. “And I get to hold a microphone in my right hand and sing for a living. I’m blessed to be in a group of like-minded guys who have the same never-say-die attitude.”
When Joe isn’t on the road, traveling to one of the 150 personal appearances The Oakridge Boys attend each year, or working on his farm, he finds that writing has become his personal outlet.
The author of seven books including a 4-book children’s series entitled The Molly Books, G.I. Joe and Lillie: Remembering A Life of Love and Loyalty; an inspirational biography about his parents, An American Journey; the story of The Oakridge Boys and An Inconvenient Christmas; family’s holiday tale, Joe also writes his own commentaries available for reading on his website www.josephsbonsall.com.
While The Oakridge Boys have three decades of charted singles and 50 years of tradition under their belt, honored with Grammy, Dove, CMA and ACM awards and owning a string of hits including Elvira, Bobbie Sue, Dream On, Thank God for Kids, Fancy Free and American Made, there are some moments in Joe’s career that stand out more than others.
“Personally, the highlight of my career so far has been getting inducted into the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame,” Joe said. “I grew up in Philly listening to a lot of those guys and to know that my name is hanging up there with all of theirs is really cool.”
As a group, Joe said that the induction of The Oakridge Boys into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame was an accomplishment that each of them are equally proud to be a part of.
“Gospel music is where our roots and heritage are,” he said. “Southern style gospel music is still a part of what we do, where our heritage resides . . . and that was a really great moment for us.”
Working with music greats Paul Simon, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers, Billy Ray Cyrus, Ray Charles and Kenny Rogers, just to name a few, has also given The Oakridge Boys a collection of memories that they wouldn’t trade for the world.
Never having performed in Macon County before, The Oakridge Boys will be bringing some old favorites and a few new tunes to this year’s Jett Williams Festival.
“Our shows are always fast-paced and exciting,” Joe said. “Our music is positive and we’ve always been proud that people can bring their moms, dads, children and grandmothers to our performances.”
After 35 years as a member of The Oakridge Boys, Joe has no intentions of retiring anytime soon, and with a 50-year tradition in the gospel and country music industry, The Oakridge Boys and their fan-base is still going strong.
“As long as we’re all still healthy, we’re still going to rock shows as often as possible,” he said. “Those younger acts . . . well, they better have their singing britches on.”
Other acts anticipated to perform at the 2008 Jett Williams Disaster Relief Festival in Red Boiling Springs include: Tanya Tucker, Jett Williams, Aaron Tippin, Pam Tillis, Johnny Counterfit and Jimmy Fortune. (For a complete list visit the Macon County website at www.maconcountytn.com.)
Tickets for the event are currently available at www.jettwilliams.com or TicketsNashville.com.