Oak Ridge Boys Celebrate 32 Years of Christmas Tour

Written by Vernell Hackett
Oak Ridge Boys Celebrate 32 Years of Christmas Tour
Oak Ridge Boys Christmas; Photo Credit: Jon Mir

The Oak Ridge Boys have become known as the Christmas Boys, this year celebrating 32 years of Christmas tours with their second year of residency at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. Joe Bonsall recalls the road to their first Christmas tour.

“We toured with Kenny Rogers on his Full House Tour and then his Reunion Tour with Dottie West and Dolly Parton,” Bonsall says. “Then in 1981 Kenny went out on his first Christmas tour and he invited the Oak Ridge Boys to go with him. We did 12 cities that year and the opening act was Garth Brooks. We would end the show, joining Kenny and Garth for ‘Carol Of the Bells.’ That is my least favorite Christmas song of all times and I never got my part right. Kenny used to glare at me, and he got on my ass about it because he knew I didn’t like that song. 

Oak Ridge Boys Christmas; Photo Credit: Jon Mir

“We were doing a Christmas concert at Universal Amphitheater with Kenny and I thought, ‘We could do this, we could do a Christmas tour.’ November and December are hard months to find dates. We would go out and do the rodeo in Las Vegas, but man it was hard to find gigs during that time of the year. We had two Christmas albums out at that point, (Christmas in 1982 and Christmas Again in 1986) so we had a lot of songs to choose from. We started talking about doing a tour and what songs we would do and how to mix the Christmas songs with our hits. We talked about how we would bring Santa along and how we would do our stage, and we decided to do it.”

The Oaks first Christmas tour was in 1998, a co-bill with Marie Osmond called “The Magic Of Christmas.” They did a dozen shows with a good size production. After a couple years touring with Marie they invited Brenda Lee and the Chipmunks to come out with them. The kids loved it so they did that for a couple years. Then the guys decided they could do an entire Christmas show on their own, so they set out to do that the next year.

“We do a selection of our hits, then the rest of the show is Christmas music,” Joe explains that the original formula has not changed since their first solo Christmas tour. “We have done the tour every year since then. Even the year of the shutdown, we were gone for four weeks, playing at performing arts centers or small arenas. We kept recording Christmas albums, so we always have new material to perform.”

Joe admits that when they were approached to do a residency at the Opryland Hotel for a month of Christmas shows, he was a little apprehensive. “It’s cool being home, but I was used to the big tour, which is a big undertaking with all the buses, fuel prices, big production, setting up and tearing down. At Opryland Hotel we put it up once, work on the show a couple months and then get on our bus and go down and do it.”

Oak Ridge Boys Christmas; Photo Credit: Jon Mir

This year’s Christmas show began Thanksgiving Eve and goes through Christmas day for a total of 31 performances. The show is dark on Tuesday. “It is a fun, fast paced show covering every aspect of Christmas,” Bonsall explains. “It’s great to see the place full after we’ve been through the shut-downs. It’s good to see the tables full of people, full of families with kids. Some people fly in, some people drive in and some people come in on bus tours. It’s good to see people coming to Nashville and it’s a really cool thing to be a part of right now.”

Joe, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban are having a good time being at the hotel. While it might seem that 31 shows in one place could mean the entertainers get a little complacent, “That’s not the Oak Ridge Boys,” Joe emphasizes. “Backstage before we go on, we’re like ‘Let’s get out there and kick it.’ Everyone is stoked and the whole show feels good every night.”

The show opens with “Let It Snow” as huge snowflakes dance in the background. The Boys then turn to a selection of their hits because, as Bonsall tells the audience, “We don’t want to be in the middle of ‘Silent Night’ and some guy calls out for us to do ‘Elvira’.” They do indeed do “Elvira,” along with “American Made” and “Ya’ll Come Back Saloon” before breaking into their Christmas set.

Because they have recorded so many Christmas albums – eight to be exact – they have been able to switch Christmas songs back and forth over the 32 years of Christmas concerts. This year they added “Happy Christmas Eve,” from their first Christmas album, joining it with two others from that album, “Jesus Is Born Today” and their chart Christmas single, “Thank God For Kids.” They do the title song from their latest album, Down Home Christmas, and they sing “Reindeer On The Roof.” They also do “Christmas Cookies,” which Bonsall describes as “William Lee Golden doing country rap on a Christmas song about cookies.” Others in the Christmas set include “Blue Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Real” and “White Christmas.”

Oak Ridge Boys Christmas; Photo Credit: Jon Mir

Another song added back in the show this year is “New Kid In Town,” co-written by the late Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook.  Bonsall shares a story that he says he has never told before, about how they found the song and decided to do a second Christmas album. “It goes back to our American Made tour and Exile was on the show with us. One afternoon before rehearsals, Duane came in and said Keith sent us a new Christmas song. We played it at sound check, over the speakers in that auditorium where we were performing that night, and I remember sitting there listening as Keith Whitley’s version came over the speakers. We were like, ‘We have to cut that,’ so that was the impetus for recording a second Christmas album. And I remember recording that song and Keith was in the studio with us. He had on a black leather duster and a hat. So here we are years later and it’s back on the set again. Every song has a good story.” 

The Front Porch segment of the show has the Boys sitting in rockers in front of a huge fireplace, sharing personal memories. Joe talked about growing up in Philadelphia and parents and their love for this country; Duane remembered growing up on a farm in Texas and about the times the entire family would come home, and they would all gather around to sing. William Lee talked about singing around the piano with his family at Christmas and how, at 13, he decided he liked making music more than he did picking cotton. Richard recalled his years in Camden, New Jersey and becoming a member of the Oak Ridge Boys. Each chose one of their favorite Christmas songs to sing. They ended the segment talking about how they came to record “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” for their last album. As their conversation continues, the audience feels as if they are sitting with them in their living room enjoying these poignant moments.

The highlight of the evening is of course the moment Santa Claus makes his entrance. The children in the audience are mesmerized as St. Nick takes a seat onstage and chats back and forth with the Oaks. Finally, it is time for Santa to leave, but to the amazement of the kids, they are invited to the front of the stage to meet Santa. At first it seems they don’t understand, and then one or two brave ones walk forward and soon there is a steady stream of children weaving between the tables to find their way to the front of the room, where Santa takes time to visit a moment with each of them and give them a memory they won’t soon forget.

Oak Ridge Boys Christmas; Photo Credit: Jon Mir

The lighting for the Christmas tour is awesome, as every song is programmed differently, with the Christmas trees at the rear of the stage lighting up to the different beats and stories of the songs. Bonsall praises their lighting director, Dave Boots. “He is one of the best in the business and he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves. We are lucky to have him.” 

The show closed with “Joy To The World” as the audience enthusiastically sang along. 

Bonsall says after the show he checks his Twitter account and there are already pictures from their last show posted with comments from people who were there with them. “Before we took our tour to them, and now they are coming here to see us. Some people stay several days to see the Grand Ole Opry and other shows at Opryland. People make a real sacrifice to come down here from all over the country. I’ve seen familiar faces every single night. People who live around Nashville never get to see us sing, or see the Christmas tour, so they can come out and see us.”

Bonsall offers a simple invite to fans of the Oak Ridge Boys:  “We’re going to be here every single night through Christmas Day, so come on down, enjoy a great gourmet dinner and see the Oak Ridge Boys show.”