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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oak Ridge Boys singer retires from the road after 50 years due to neuromuscular disorder

Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys performs at the Ryman Auditorium on Dec. 12, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee.   (Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Jonah Valdez Los Angeles Times

Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys is retiring from touring after 50 years with the Grammy-winning country and gospel quartet.

The tenor said Wednesday in a statement posted to X that a neuromuscular disorder has made it difficult to walk, forcing him to step away from performing. In the midst of the group’s American Made Farewell tour, the Oak Ridge Boys will replace Bonsall, 75, with 27-year-old singer-songwriter Ben James.

“Many of you know I have been battling a slow onset (over 4 years now) of a neuromuscular disorder,” Bonsall said in the tweet. “I am now to a point that walking is impossible so I have basically retired from the road. It has just gotten too difficult.”

Bonsall went on to thank the quartet’s band and crew for their love, support and prayers. He added support for his replacement.

“There is a young man named Ben James singing for me out there and he needs your love and encouragement … his sound is different than mine but he brings a ton of talent to the table!” he continued. “The @oakridgeboys will finish the Farewell Tour without me but rest assured I am good with all of it! God’s Got It!!!”

Bonsall joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1973 after a stint with the Keystones and went on to be a part of their peak in mainstream success throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The Oak Ridge Boys started performing under different names in the mid-1940s in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, until settling on their current moniker in 1945, according to the group’s website. Over the next several decades, the group would be known mostly in gospel circles.

However, after drawing interest from well-known country-artist manager Jim Halsey around the time of Bonsall’s start with the group, the quartet began branching out into country and more mainstream music, performing and recording with the likes of Paul Simon, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bill Monroe and Ray Charles.

Bonsall was the group’s tenor throughout the peak years, releasing hit crossover tracks “Bobbie Sue” and “Elvira” which climbed to No. 12 and No. 5, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100. There was also a string of singles that topped the Billboard country music charts, including “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes,” “This Crazy Love,” “It Takes a Little Rain” and “No Matter How High.”

“Elvira” would earn them a Country Music Association award for single of the year and a Grammy for country performances by a duo or group with vocal. In all, during Bonsall’s tenure, the group earned four CMA awards, four Grammys and four Gospel Music Association Dove awards. Bonsall was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015 as a member of the Oak Ridge Boys.

That same year, Bonsall also made headlines for his negative reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in the United States. “It’s a sad day for those that care about spirituality and principles based on the Bible!,” he wrote in a tweet. “Move on and join the 21st Century? I choose Jesus!”

Alongside other longtime members Duane Allen (joined in 1966), Richard Sterban (joined in 1972) and William Lee Golden, who joined in 1965 and left for a period in the late 1980 and 1990s, Bonsall has toured virtually nonstop, aside from a brief hiatus in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group’s ongoing Farewell tour began in September and carries on this year, throughout the summer.

“We’re the act that won’t go away,” Bonsall told The Times in 1996 after a local performance in Glendale. “We’re not kids anymore, but we’re out there rockin’.”

However, in recent years, he had missed shows while experiencing various health issues, including pulmonary embolisms in 2022, which he said almost killed him.

“I could have easily died last weekend but God is not through with me yet,” Bonsall tweeted after his health scare. “I am home now after 6 days in the hospital battling pulmonary embolisms … my recovery could take awhile … thanks for the prayers and love shown!”