When I read the news that Oak Ridge Boys singer Joe Bonsall had died on Tuesday (July 9), my first thought was sadness at the loss of someone everyone in country music will remember as one of the genuinely bright lights in the business.

My second thought was, 'Wow ... what a truly irreplaceable loss for that group.'

When I say "irreplaceable," I don't necessarily mean musically. Bonsall retired from the Oak Ridge Boys as a touring member in January and was, in fact, replaced by a young singer named Ben James, who's been singing his old parts quite capably during the group's farewell tour.

Any singer can be replaced, but what Joe Bonsall brought to the Oak Ridge Boys was so much more important than any singing part, song or onstage performance. The Country Music Hall of Fame — which inducted Bonsall alongside the other Oaks in 2015 — put it best, referring to Bonsall as the group's "sparkplug" in an online tribute.

Joe Bonsall was the Oak Ridge Boys' biggest cheerleader, unabashed fan, PR guy and relentless promoter, all in one.

I first interviewed Joe Bonsall in 2014 for ToC's partner site, The Boot, and the thing that struck me immediately was his obvious, unbridled and genuine passion and enthusiasm for the group he was in.

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"Far from projecting the seen-it-all cynicism of many career musicians, Bonsall speaks as enthusiastically about the new project and his fellow band members as if this were his first album, and it's contagious," I wrote. "It's not hard to imagine that if anyone ever tried to resist the Oak Ridge Boys in their career goals, the irrepressible singer would simply talk them into going along with whatever he wanted with his trademark mix of enthusiasm, charm and wit — and they wouldn't even realize that it hadn't been their idea all along."

It was clear that Bonsall was not putting on a show when he talked about how the Oaks maintained their longevity:

Well, we're all as different as night is from day. Each guy is an individual, each guy brings a different type of talent and energy to the table, I believe, and we all love each other and respect each other as friends. And as years have gone by, all of that's actually gotten easier. There's no weird egos here, no nothing. It's, 'Let's get on the bus and go sing.'

See, I've always believed -- and this could be a message to the kids singing today -- that the music business can be as easy or as hard as you wanna make it. I mean, how about this -- let's all get along, let's go get onstage, let's give it everything we've got, let's hug each other's necks and get back on the bus, get the check, shake hands and go to the next town. It can be that easy, you know.

When I interviewed Bonsall again for a book project in 2015, he once again spoke of the band and his bandmates in the most glowing terms possible.

"I gotta tell you, I can't even remember a bad word amongst any of us for years," he said. "And even if there is, it's the kind of thing where maybe you have a disagreement about something, and you get it right out there and you talk about it, talk it through and put it right out there on the table. You don't sit back and harbor anything. You always have to be open to the fact that your brother, your partner, may actually have a better idea than you."

Forty years into a career at that point, Bonsall turned humorous when asked if the group ever thought about how it would end.

"I think the end scares us a little bit. We never talk about it," he said. "I think we've been able to plan every aspect of our career except how to end it, so I guess we'll just have to leave that with God.

"I think God will tell us when there's no more Oak Ridge Boys. It won't be us. We'll probably fall down out there singing somewhere, and then that'll be the end," he said with a laugh. "It'll be settled for us, man. 'Where's Joe?' 'Uh . . . he ain't coming anymore," he added with another laugh. "'God done said he's done.' So I guess that's pretty much how we look at it."

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Bonsall did keep singing and performing until very nearly the end of his life, even performing seated at some shows in 2023 due to his advancing battle with ALS. And while the Oak Ridge Boys still have concerts on their calendar through December, those shows are bound to be bittersweet for a group that, according to Bonsall, never wanted to see it end.

"The great thing is that all four Oak Ridge Boys are forward-thinking guys. There's no slowing down in anybody," he told ToC. "There's just no quit in these guys. It's always, 'What do we do next? How do we make things better tomorrow than they are today?' And that's the glory, because it only takes one guy ... I don't think anyone in this group wants to see this legacy end. All these decades, all these miles, all these songs, all this water under all these bridges — who would want to be the guy to say, 'Let's end it'? Nobody. Not even close."

Sterling Whitaker is a Senior Writer and Senior Editor for Taste of Country. He focuses on celebrity real estate, as well as coverage of Yellowstone and related shows like 1883 and 1923. He's interviewed cast members including Cole Hauser, Kelly Reilly, Sam Elliott and Harrison Ford, and Whitaker is also known for his in-depth interviews with country legends including Don Henley, Rodney Crowell, Trace Adkins, Ronnie Milsap, Ricky Skaggs and more.

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