In the fam­ily

The Bon­hams have en­ter­tained with mu­sic for gen­er­a­tions.

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SUNDAY LIFE - BY KIM­BERLY BURK For The Ok­la­homan

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.

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