In the family
The Bonhams have entertained with music for generations.
Olie Bonham was homesick. He’d made it back from Korea, landed a steady job at Tinker Air Force Base and settled in Oklahoma City with his wife, Callie, and their two children.
But home was a partly-timbered 80 acres east of Atoka that his father, O.C. Bonham, purchased in 1910, having driven from Texas in a covered wagon in 1895.
That land had sustained the Bonhams and some of their destitute neighbors during the Great Depression, and it helped feed the youngest of his 12 children after O.C. died from a stroke in the middle of World War II.
Olie Bonham missed his brothers and sisters, who were raising their kids on or near the home place. And he missed the music.
So at least one weekend a month, Olie and Callie and their children David and Tina made the nearly three-hour car trip.
“They played music, and we played with the cousins,” Tina, 56, said. “It was a place where we could all get together. It was the only connection we had to the grandfather we never knew.”
And so the tradition was kept alive that began when O.C., born in 1866, was required by his parents to study a musical instrument. He played fiddle and guitar, and his children learned all manner of stringed and keyboard instruments, and their children after them.
Olie and his brothers Orville and Ben made up the original Bonham Brothers band. Orville at 15 was the oldest. Orville’s sons Glen and Virgil started playing with him when they were teenagers.
“We would play before going to school and after we got home from school,” Virgil, now 57, said of their practice schedule. “Dad taught us that people pay for quality music from quality musicians so that has been our goal from early on.”
David and Tina had learned guitar, bass, banjo and mandolin. They got their start singing and playing at Oklahoma City churches. When David was 15 he joined a band called BlueGrass ReVue. He dropped out after finishing high school and was replaced by a young mandolin player by the name of Vince Gill.
Bluegrass and country music fans across the country know the Bonham name and have followed their careers with bands including Signal Mountain, Bonham ReVue and Brigade. Glen and Virgil are members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
“They’ve been a mainstay of bluegrass music in Oklahoma for many years,” said Byron Berline, a three-time national fiddle champion and founder of Guthrie’s Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival. “Bluegrass music is America’s music, the original stuff. It’s better to see it live, that’s the best experience.”
Glen, 61, lived in Nashville for a few years and played bass with Moe Bandy, The Whites and the legendary Bill Monroe. He’s been on the Grand Ole’ Opry stage 12 times. He knew that singing was his gift when he was 11 years old and first performed “How Great Thou Art” at a Baptist church. It remains his signature song, and he always does at least one verse in the Choctaw language.
There’s no mistaking the Choctaw lineage of Glen and Virgil. Glen, a veteran of the pow wow circuit, spent 10 years portraying American Indians and Mexicans and doing stunt work for the popular television series “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He had a recurring role in a dream sequence, dancing around a campfire.
“Nearly all of my kids were in the show, too,” Glen said. “It was awesome. I loved it.”
Lillie May Harris, who was half Choctaw, caught Orville’s eye at a homecoming dance when she was 17. She was a cheerleader, he had been a high school athlete.
“She was very pretty and was always smiling,” Tina said. “All of us thought a lot of her.”
Not every Bonham trait is commendable, said David, 61.
“We are stubborn as all get out,” he said. “We don’t like being told we can’t do something.”
The Bonhams love to play and sing, and career success is important to them, but not as important as family ties. Three years ago, the two sets of siblings and banjo player Mickey Flatt formed yet another band, this one called simply “The Bonhams,” and it’s drawn them even closer to one another. While the cousins had drifted in and out of each other’s bands through the years, there had never been a group all four were members of.
“We wanted to do material we grew up with that nobody sings anymore,” Virgil said. “It’s been our best family musical experience.”
Many of the next generation of Bonhams have performance experience but aren’t currently band regulars. Glen’s young grandson sometimes straps on his tiny guitar and takes the stage with The Bonhams, upping the cuteness factor considerably.
“That’s the reason we have the Bonham ReVue. If they want to perform, it’s there,” Virgil said of his three children.
The gospel music that first put David on a stage is designed to be instructive. The same can be said of bluegrass, with its recurring themes of wayward children and marital infidelity. He likely was influenced by those lyrics, David said, but it’s not something he ever really thought about.
His values, he said, are a result of his upbringing.
They’re a result of the hours he and his sister spent in the back seat of a car, rolling down the highway toward a patch of land that meant everything to his father. They’re a result of the legacy of his county commissioner grandfather, an industrious, generous man who outlived two wives and then married a former employee who was 37 years his junior. O.C. was 70 when he fathered his youngest child.
David, Tina, Virgil and Glen descend from that third wife. From her grandmother, Tina said she learned perhaps all she ever needed to know about O.C. Bonham. “When I was about 9, I asked my grandmother if he was romantic. She would just smile and say ‘well he dressed nice.’ She said he didn’t look his age, and she didn’t know how old he was until a little before she married him.
“Until she died I never heard her say one bad thing about him.”
Gathered in front of the family cabin during the Bonhams’ early years in Atoka are, from left, O.C. Bonham, Carl Bonham, Zed Bonham, Minnie Bonham Rains, and Lizzie Bonham Adams and her husband Collie Adams.
Ben Bonham, left, and
Olie Bonham were two of the original members of the Bonham Brothers Band, as was their brother Orville.
From left to right are Glen, Tina, Virgil and David, during a concert at the Greater Oklahoma Bluegrass Music Society in Del City.