Joe’s Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, background shows through clearly in his love of the Philadelphia Phillies. According to Joe, “I live and die with the Phillies, no matter where they are. 1993 was great for me; one of the highlights was going home to Philadelphia and taking my parents to two World Series games. That was so cool.”
Now a Nashvillian for almost three decades, Joe is also a Tennessee Titans football fan. He and his wife Mary attend Titans’ games whenever he is in town.
Joe is an avid writer and songwriter. He became a published children’s book author in 1997 with The Molly Books, a four-book series published by Ideal’s Children’s Books. In 2003, New Leaf Press published G. I. Joe and Lillie: Remembering a Life of Love and Loyalty, an inspirational biography Joe penned about his parents. His song by the same name was included in the Oaks' Colors album, released the same year. A music video of the song reemerged in the summer of 2009 and became a YouTube phenomenon, having currently surpassed one and a half million views.
Joe also wrote the title song to the Oaks’ The Journey album, as well as the text for the Oaks’ coffee table book, An American Journey. New Leaf also publishes his Christmas family book, An Inconvenient Christmas. In September 2010, Journey Press, a division of Sheaf House, will release Joe’s latest book, From My Perspective, a collection of commentaries, stories and other writings.
For relaxation, Joe retreats to his farm on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line and can often be found on his John Deere tractor mowing part of his 350-acres—or sitting on his front porch and playing his banjo!
Joe joined the Oaks in 1973. As with the other group members, much of his time is spent on the road performing, but Joe has found his own way to get the maximum possible enjoyment out of touring.
“My life is really pretty simple,” says the Oak who is the principal spokesman on stage. “I go out there and try to sing the best I can and give them physically and mentally every single thing I’ve got. When it’s done, I go back to my room, call home, eat my pizza or sushi, get on my Apple laptop, watch the sports scores and say to myself, ‘Hey, I’ve done what I’m supposed to be doin’ and I feel great about it.’”
Joe has two daughters, Jennifer and Sabrina, and two grandchildren, Breanne and Luke. He and Mary also have nine cats, LT, Sunny, Molly, Sally Ann, Ted, Baybe', Blackie, Callie and Crockett.
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ARTIST INTERVIEW — The Banjo Reserve interviewed Joe Bonsall, here's what he had to say.
Q. WHERE WERE YOU BORN AND RAISED AND DID YOUR GEOGRAPHIC AREA HAVE ANY INFLUENCE ON YOUR DECISION TO PLAY THE BANJO?
A. I was rasied in Philadelphia, PA. The only exposure to banjos when I was a kid was strumming MUMMERS and I HATED them...lol.
Q. HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN THE BANJO AND IS THERE A SPECIFIC BANJO PLAYER OR BAND THAT HAS INFLUENCED YOU THE MOST?
A. I was on a flight with Ned Lubrecki and we talked banjos and bluegrass all the way to Seattle. He encouraged me to give it a try and I DID... that was 12 years ago and I am still learning to play!! I must also credit my friend Ricky Skaggs for encouragment, and for letting me stand in the middle of Kentucky Thunder and listen to Jim Mills up close. The energy that a banjo brings can be quite amazing.
Q. WHAT BANJO STYLE(S) DO YOU PLAY AND WHAT STYLE DO YOU PREFER THE MOST?
A. Pretty much Scruggs style although I love melodic styles in the vein of Bobby Thompson and Tony Trischka... I wish I was better at that!
Q. HOW DID YOU LEARN THE BANJO, WHAT METHOD OF LEARNING DO YOU FEEL IS MOST EFFECTIVE AND WHY?
A. I have never had one teacher but one can always find a player that is willing to share some vocabulary and it is always appreciated. Most of my learning has been through books and DVD's especially the Murphy Method DVD's, Casey Henry DVD's have been very helpful as well. There is still nothing like sitting down with other players and watching and learning though!
Q. DURING THE EARLY STAGES OF LEARNING TO PLAY THE BANJO, WHAT DID YOU FIND MOST CHALLENGING?
A. EVERYTHING... total frustration that it was taking me so long to make the thing sound anywhere NEAR like a banjo. Couldn't roll... chords were terrible... up the neck impossible... but I stayed with it!!! A stone on the mountain every day. You have to put the time in. I would watch a ballgame and do a slow forward TITM roll for hours until my hand finally got it! EVERY NOTE EVEN AND CLEAN... Took me longer than most I'll bet.
Q. WHERE DO YOU SEE BANJO MUSIC GOING AND WHAT IS YOUR ROLE IN THAT?
A. Well banjo goes as bluegrass goes and there is certainly a lot of great bands out there. I also love how modern country acts include cool banjo licks under a driving guitar, but many of them do cheat and play a 6 string with a guitar tuning. Steve Martin has been such an ambassador for the banjo and is much appreciated. For me?? As an Oak Ridge Boy I have been able to be an ambassador as well to a point. I have had some great first tier players thank me for speaking up for the banjo and that is always very meaningful. My little Ban-Joey personna that I have built seems to be appreciated by my bluegrass brothers.
Q. WHAT MOST INSPIRES YOU TO PLAY?
A. My love for the banjo. Pure and simple. I love the sound and now that I can play better it is just so much fun to sit on my porch or in the back of the tour bus and pick and experiment and try to improve.
Q. WHAT SONG(S) DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING MOST ON YOUR BANJO?
A. Lots of SCRUGGS of course... all the usual... I once went out on stage with The Grascals and played Foggy Mountain Breakdown with them at The Kentucky State Fair... It went well... Kristen Scott Benson was so nice to me... she could have easily opened fire!
Q. WHAT BAND(S) ARE YOU CURRENTLY A MEMBER? DO YOU PLAY ANY INSTRUMENTS IN THE BAND?
A. The Oak Ridge Boys.... I mainly just sing... Banjo is my only instrument... I play with The Oaks a bit if the song lends itself to banjo....
Q. WHAT GENRE(S) ARE YOU MOST ASSOCIATED WITH?
A. Classic Country and Gospel I would say...
Q. WHAT VENUE(S) DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING THE MOST AND WHY?
A. I am a porch guy... The Oak Ridge Boys are always so busy that my opportunities to play jam sessions are few and far between. But I'll Tell you.... when I get to DO that... I ALWAYS come away a bit better!
Q. WHAT RECORDING LABEL(S) ARE YOU CURRENTLY WITH?
A. The Oak Ridge Boys just released a LIVE ALBUM of HITS on The Cleopatra Label and this spring we will release a HYMNS album on The Gaither Music Label... I play a banjo ride on Power In The Blood... :)
Q. WHAT BAND(S) WERE YOU A MEMBER OF IN THE PAST? DID YOU PLAY ANY INSTRUMENTS IN THIS BAND(S)?
A. Been an OAK for 41 years... before that... Gospel Groups... no banjo at all.
Q. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BANJO MAKE AND MODEL?
A. I am playing an OSBORNE CHIEF most of the time... I also play a Gibson Granada and a Deering tenbrooks. My banjo brother Todd Taylor is having a custom banjo made for me... I can't wait to get my hands on that one!
Q. DO YOU HAVE A NICKNAME FOR YOUR BANJO?
A. I DO call my CHIEF... SONNY... of course..
Q. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BANJO PLAYER(S) THAT IS STILL ACTIVE TODAY
A. I have so much respect for the great players... Shelor, Trishka, Mills, Scruggs of course... I could go on and on... I love Daily and Vincent, The Grascals, Lonesome River band, Rhonda Vincent, Balsam Range... again I could go on... I enjoy listening to great playing. Becoming friends with Marc Pruett this past year has been very meaningful.
Q. BASED ON YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AS A BANJO PLAYER, WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR BEGINNERS?
A. Put the time in!!! Nothing good happens if you are not WILLING on every level to do that! Just think that next year you will be better then you are right now... but you will NOT if you don't work at it!!!
Q. WHAT AWARDS OR RECOGNITION HAVE YOU RECEIVED FOR PLAYING THE BANJO?
A. Not one... lol
Q. WHAT OTHER INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?
A. My wife and I have the Joseph S and Mary Ann Bonsall Foundation that supports responsible pet ownership and many cat causes.
TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU THINK OUR COMMUNITY MIGHT ENJOY.
I love BIRDS.