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These Oaks are evergreen

By Tom Weber

weber@postbulletin.com

There may not be a more avid sports fan in the entertainment world than Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys, who is always able to connect sports and music.

On one recent morning Bonsall, calling from his home north of Nashville, was anxious to talk about "my Philadelphia Eagles" and their recently suspended wide receiver Terrell Owen.

"You can equate the same thing with music groups," said Bonsall, a Philadelphia native still loyal to his hometown teams. "If you've got one guy in a group who goes against the grain, that's the end of the group."

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Needless to say, the Oak Ridge Boys, who have been around for decades, don't have that one guy. The Oaks, who will be at Rochester's Mayo Civic Center Sunday to do two performances of their popular Christmas show, still do 160 shows a year, still record new music and still look for new challenges. In Bonsall's case, the latest challenge is playing the banjo, which he took up for the first time only a few years ago.

"I've been working at the banjo for a little over three years now," he said. "I still consider myself a student of the banjo, not a banjo player. I don't think anybody thought I'd keep up with it. But out on the road, I tell you, I play for hours."

He also plays on stage, particularly during a new Christmas tune, "Uncle Luther Made the Stuffin.'"

Meanwhile, Bonsall's interest in the banjo has helped guide the Oaks in a new direction, most evident in the acoustic and bluegrass stylings of their recent "The Journey" album and the new "Christmas Cookies" CD.

Bonsall's new directions are essential to keeping the Oak Ridge Boys vital. "That's what keeps things fresh and new, especially for a place like Rochester, where we've brought our Christmas show in the past."

The new sounds meant the group, despite doing Christmas concert tours for 16 years, needed extra practice before hitting the road this week.

"Right now, we're busting it real hard, rehearsing for Christmas," Bonsall said. "This is new and exciting and refreshing."

Box:

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What: The Oak Ridge Boys Christmas concerts. The first half of each concert is a greatest-hits show, and the second half is entirely Christmas music.

When: 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 27.

Where: Mayo Civic Center auditorium, 30 Civic Center Drive S.E.

Tickets: $35 and $30 at the civic center box office and through Ticketmaster outlets, including by phone at 252-1010 and online at www.ticketmaster.com.

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