Sturdy Oaks And A Country Boy From Phila.

Posted: February 22, 1991

Country music has been changing for the last couple of years, emphasizing a return to "roots." But Joe Bonsall - that good ol' boy from the Kensington section of Philadelphia - and the other members of the Oak Ridge Boys continue to roll along.

They do it with a slick sound - a crossover approach calculated to appeal to both country and pop audiences. They sing country songs, backed by what amounts to a rock band. The Oaks have been riding high since 1977, when the transition from gospel quartet to country group became final with a record titled "Y'All Come Back Saloon."

During their 13 years with MCA Records, the Oaks turned out 19 albums. They have a new deal with RCA Records, which resulted in the release of a single, ''Lucky Moon," on Tuesday. A new album, Unstoppable, is due out in April.

How long can the Oaks - appearing through Sunday at Harrah's Casino/Hotel - keep it up? Are they indeed unstoppable?

The guys have given that a lot of thought, according to Bonsall, who joined the Oaks in 1973.

"I'll be 43 in May, and sometimes I think I'll have to slow down at some point," he said before the group's opening last night. "But the thing is, we're all healthy, we all feel great. We've been as enthusiastic the last couple of years as we've ever been. Like it's been a while since we've played Harrah's and we're really excited about it. We're going to hit that stage pounding.

"The way I see it is that if we can maintain this level for a couple more years - doing good dates, making good money - then we can probably squeeze a few more years out of it. But I've been saying that for years, and we're still playing the top parks and fairs, the best rooms. Nothing dinky - no gas station openings and used car lots."

In analyzing the Oaks' appeal, Bonsall stressed their depth and versatility. "It's not like we're one guy singing real country songs under a hat," he said. "Each of the four guys in our group can sing; each guy can take a big, fat lead.

"And then there's the harmony. We can do all kinds of things with the harmony. We can change our sound without changing our identity."

Bonsall said there are never disputes over a specific song. "If one guy doesn't like it, we don't do it. And we just know right away who should sing it."

There was a minor dispute a couple of years ago over a song called "No Matter How High I Get."

"We all thought Steve (Sanders) should do it, but he didn't think he had a feel for it and thought Duane (Allen) should do it. Steve finally did it for the album, though, but he wouldn't sing it on stage. Then it was released as a single and he couldn't believe it. The song became a big hit, though, and now Steve's happy to sing it."

The remaining member of the Oaks, Richard Sterban, is a native of Camden who graduated from Collingswood High School and attended Trenton State

College. He and Bonsall first met as members of a gospel group called the Keystones.

Bonsall now lives, along with the rest of the Oaks, in Hendersonville, Tenn., outside of Nashville. He graduated from Frankford High School and in 1982 received that school's Alumni of the Year Award. "That was something for a guy who just barely got out of school, but I really treasure it," he said.

His parents, Joseph Sr. and Tillie, continue to live in the house where Bonsall grew up near the Tioga El station, and he returns for visits whenever his schedule permits.

Bonsall said that stories identifying him as a former street-gang member are somewhat exaggerated: "Sure, I used to hang out with some guys at K and A (Kensington and Allegheny), and we got into some trouble, but you reach a crossroad where you turn right or left and I turned right."

As a sports fan, Bonsall continues to root for the Philadelphia teams. In the early '80s, he knew several of the Phillies players and would suit up and go out on the field with the team before games whenever he was in town. "I can't tell you what a tremendous kick that was, wearing a Phillies uniform and shagging flies hit by Mike Schmidt."

Bonsall doesn't view country music's back-to-the-roots movement as a threat to the Oak Ridge Boys.

"I think it's probably a good thing," he said. "There's room for everyone. Personally, I think a lot of that singing-through-the-nose stuff is a bit hard to take. Hey, I'm a Philadelphia guy. But I like a lot of it, too. I love Merle Haggard. I could listen to him all day. And I think Emmylou Harris is great. And I like some of these young guys who have come along, like Garth Brooks. The best will survive."

Which is what the Oak Ridge Boys have been doing quite nicely.

IF YOU GO

The Oak Ridge Boys are appearing through Sunday at Harrah's Casino/Hotel, 1725 Brigantine Blvd. Shows are at 10 tonight, 8 and 11:30 p.m. tomorrow and 7 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $24.99 plus tax. Phone: 800-242-7724.

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