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The Oak Ridge Boys Found A Friend And A Fan In President George H.W. Bush


Now we're going to hear from a personal friend of President Bush, a member of the Oak Ridge Boys, a country music band from Tennessee. President Bush and his late wife Barbara were both big fans and became close friends. The band frequently performed at the White House and the Bushes' summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and their home in Texas. The band played at the funeral of Barbara Bush in April. Joe Bonsall is a member of the group, and he's with us now from Billings, Mont. Joe, thanks so much for talking to us.

JOE BONSALL: Hello, Michel. I'm sorry for the reason that we're talking, but it's an honor to talk to you. We're all big fans of yours. And thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. How did your relationship with the Bushes, start particularly President George Bush?

BONSALL: Well, it's kind of a unique story. It was 1982. And Ronald Reagan was having a congressional barbecue. And we were invited to perform. Well, that afternoon, we're doing a soundcheck on the lawn of the White House, which is kind of surreal to begin with. But here comes this long, lanky figure running towards us with a bag of goodies. And it's George Bush, vice president. And he says, fellas, I'm a big fan of yours. I've got to go to Africa today, and I'm going to miss the show tonight. Do you guys think you could sing a couple of songs for me?

MARTIN: (Laughter) Oh, sure.

BONSALL: We were blown away.



BONSALL: So, first of all, they handed us this bag full of vice president T-shirt, which we had no idea even existed. And we all chatted for a while, had a good time. He told us about his love for country music and that the Oak Ridge Boys were his favorite act. And he started requesting album cuts. That's how we knew he wasn't kidding.

MARTIN: You can't fake that.

BONSALL: No, you can't. He said, can you guys do "Freckles"? We said, my gosh, the vice president knows "Freckles." Nobody knows "Freckles." So we started singing songs for him. And it was just the greatest time. And I always like to say over the years that we sang for George Bush that night, and we've been singing for him ever since.

MARTIN: What did you like most about him?

BONSALL: He was such a gentleman. He had an incredible sense of humor. And he loved us. And we loved him. And we loved Barbara. When we lost her, it was just heartbreaking. And the only thing that comforts us now is the fact that we know he's with her. And he's with his daughter, who he really loved. He never ever stopped talking about that little girl that they lost.

MARTIN: Really? Robin, who died when she was a small child, a young child.

BONSALL: You know, he talked about her often. And you know how the guys in special ops say, when you talk about a fallen warrior, it keeps them alive? I think he kept her alive that way. And him and Barbara both spoke about her often. We dined around the table with them so many times when it was just the four of us - the Oak Ridge Boys and our wives and George and Barbara Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine. It was always so special. And the times we had, we shared laughs. We shared tears. We shared songs.

And it was just a magical time every single time we were ever in his presence, whether it was Air Force One, the White House, Houston, times they came out to hear us sing. Every year we do a big show in Galveston at the big opera house there, and they used to come on over there and come to the show. I mean, they, probably went to five or six shows there.

MARTIN: You wrote in your book, "On The Road With The Oak Ridge Boys," about traveling with the Bush family on Air Force One during the 1992 re-election campaign which was not successful. And there was a really moving memory, and I just wondered if you would just remind us of it.

BONSALL: We were on the campaign trail with him for about three days, all through the Midwest and ending up in Knoxville, Tenn. From Knoxville, he flew to Houston. And we all knew flying into Knoxville on that last stop that it looked like this young Arkansas guy Bill Clinton was going to win this election. The writing was pretty much on the wall. And it looked like George Bush would not have a second term.

And we were sitting in the back in our assigned seats on Air Force One. And George W. Bush comes up to us. And he says, fellas - and him and his father both called us fellas all the time. Doesn't that that sound like a Bush thing, fellas? He came back there and said, fellas, dad's feeling kind of down up there. And I was wondering if you guys could come on up to the front and maybe sing a song for him. So we said, sure. So we followed him up to the front. There was like a - I don't know how it is on Air Force One now, but that Air Force One had a replica of the Oval Office. And George was sitting there. He was smiling. But you could tell everybody was down.

And I think it was Mary Matalin that said, why don't you guys sing "Amazing Grace"? You know how much he loves it. Well, we kind of kneeled down almost around the desk and sang "Amazing Grace" a cappella. I think it's been documented in about eight books. But we sat around there, and we sang it for him.

And I'll tell you, it was one of the most moving things that I've ever been a part of. To be on Air Force One with the president of the United States who is about to lose an election and him finding comfort in us singing "Amazing Grace," how do you even come to grips with a memory like that?

MARTIN: That's beautiful.

BONSALL: Things like that just don't happen, you know? And we have - we had several things like that. The Republican National Convention, 1988, OK. We're in New Orleans. And he got the nomination that night, as you know. Well, at the end, you know when all the - what we see on TV all of our lives, the balloons are falling, the confetti is falling. He invites us on stage. And he said, sing "God Bless America" while the balloons are falling. And we start singing "God Bless America." Well, he comes up. And here is now the future president the United States, puts his finger in his ear and comes up and sings bass with us with Richard.


BONSALL: He's going, (singing) God bless America. It was terrible.


BONSALL: And that's another one of my great memories.

MARTIN: We can't do everything well. That was Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys. Joe Bonsall, thank you so much for talking with us. And you've made a sad day a little bit more - what can I say? - kinder and gentler.

BONSALL: Well, a little lighter, perhaps. There are some light moments to go with the seriousness, but we will all miss him - a great American, a great patriot. I'm a better American today because I knew this man.

MARTIN: That's wonderful. Joe Bonsall, thank you so much for talking to us.

BONSALL: Thank you, ma'am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.