While some might think a man of Choctaw-British descent an unlikely candidate to become a bluegrass star, that’s exactly what Glen Bonham has turned out to be.
Bonham has played with the likes of Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs and Jimmy Martin, and is constantly in demand on the festival circuit. On his new self-titled album for Scena Records, Bonham puts his bluegrass on display in songs such as Jimmie Skinner’s “You Don’t Know My Mind” and Monroe’s “Walk Softly (On This Heart Of Mine)”, while also delivering country classics such as Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and Lawton Williams’ “Fraulein”.
Bonham’s vocal delivery is best described as a lament laced with joy. He sings lonesome, heartfelt songs without breaking a sweat, his voice never wavering as it explores the emotional minefields of Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” or an original composition called “Mr. Homeless”.
Bonham says he was “born with the tradition of music” in his blood. Bonham’s father, Orville, was a talented fiddler of British descent with 1/16 Choctaw blood; Glen grew up watching his dad and uncles pick on the porch. When Glen was 10, his father noticed he was listening to the likes of Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and his favorite, George Jones, so he bought his son a used Kay guitar, hoping he would play it. “We were never forced into anything,” Bonham is quick to say. “They let us do it all on our own.”
His father needn’t have worried; Bonham had already caught the music fever a year earlier. At age 9 he sang “How Great Thou Art” at the Harmony Baptist Church and felt the immediate satisfaction of being onstage and stirring up emotions in people. “Afterwards, the preacher told me that God had given me a gift and I ought to share it,” he says. “That stuck with me from then on.”
This first performance undoubtedly pleased Bonham’s mother, Lillie, a full-blooded Choctaw and a devout Baptist. She traveled to churches around Bonham’s hometown of Atoka, Oklahoma, with her sons in tow. “My brother, mother and cousin had a gospel group and sometimes my mother would sing in Choctaw,” he remembers. “Back then I didn’t realize that people loved that.”
However, he did soon realize that people liked to hear him sing, and when he was 11 he attended Grant’s Bluegrass Festival — the first one west of the Mississippi — where Ralph Stanley’s bassist, Jack Cook, gave Bonham some tips. “Jack was so generous; he just said ‘Sure, I can show you,’ and by dark I was able to pretty much play the bass,” Bonham recalls. Within a year, Bonham joined Bill Grant’s band, and played with them until he was 20. Along the way, he met and played with Ricky Skaggs and a young, unknown Vince Gill.
In 1974, Bonham joined the military and discovered martial arts. He had no idea that his instructor, Chuck Norris, would eventually become a legend in the field. After serving in the Marines, Bonham returned to Oklahoma and played in a family country group for awhile before joining a bluegrass band called Signal Mountain. They became the first bluegrass band to perform on Bill Anderson’s “You Can Be A Star” on TNN, winning both the daily and weekly contests but losing the overall championship by one point to Doug Stone.
The members of Signal Mountain went on to considerable success. Joe Diffie became a hit-making songwriter and singer; Billy Joe Foster became a fiddler for Monroe and Skaggs; Craig Fletcher played in Diffie’s band; and Shawn Camp not only had a couple top-30 hits himself, but also wrote chart-toppers for Garth Brooks, Diamond Rio and other big-name country acts.
Bonham took a different path. He had recently married his wife Pam, and they were settling into life together. He formed a country band, City Moon, with his father-in-law and brother, and went through a creative period where he was writing many country and bluegrass songs. Although Nashville was tugging him to move east, he wanted to raise his two sons and three daughters in Oklahoma, and to be available for them as much as possible.
In 1990, Bonham finally moved the entire family out to Tennessee, but they stayed less than three years. “I’m a family-type person,” Bonham says. “Family always brings me home.” He now lives on the family homeplace, surrounded by his five children and seven grandchildren. In fact, he is holding his 16-month-old granddaughter on his lap throughout our interview, answering questions as he coos to the baby. “She’s the only girl of the grandkids,” he says. “And she just took a real liking to me somehow.”
Not long after going back to Oklahoma, Bonham began to get more in touch with his Native American heritage and started doing more of the traditional dancing he had learned from his grandfather when he was small. He took on his Choctaw name, White Cloud, and began to dance at powwows. At one of the events, Glen’s wife encouraged him to talk to a group of CBS scouts who were seeking a Native American dancer for a new television series.
“They said they’d call me and I thought, ‘Yeah, right,’” he says. But a few days later he was called for an audition in Dallas, and once there he met the star of the show — Chuck Norris. They both remembered each other from their days in the Marines, and Bonham quickly won the part of an Indian dancer on “Walker, Texas Ranger”. He was a recurring character during the show’s nine-year run. “I did 122 episodes and had a great time,” he says. “My kids danced on the show; sometimes I played an extra or was a stand-in. But mostly I danced.”
He never forgot his music, though, and kept playing bluegrass in his bands Southern Tradition and Third Generation. In 1999, his dream of playing on the Grand Ole Opry came true when Buck White (who Bonham calls “a second daddy”) asked if he would join the Whites for a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the show.
“I was up there singing and I thought, ‘A Native American on the Opry,’” he marvels. “They told me not to look down at the circle on the floor that came from the Ryman, but I couldn’t help it; I did. It was hard to contain my emotions, but I made it through.” He delivered one verse in Choctaw, to the delight of the crowd.
Bonham says he owes his success not only to his family and his faith, but also to Native Americans who have influenced him throughout his life. He says he never had a Native American to look up to in music until Billy Thunderkloud & the Chieftones came along. “The first time I saw him, I thought, if he can do that, so can I,” he says of Thunderkloud, the lead singer of the Chieftones, who had a string of minor hits in the mid-’70s and put their Native American heritage on display in a way no other artist had ever done before.
Bonham doesn’t want to be a star, though. “All I want is to be able to play and sing, to make music and touch people with that,” he says. “I want to be a role model for Native Americans. I keep the bluegrass tradition on the road and the Indian tradition at home, and I’m proud of that.”
He also travels to schools throughout the region to speak about drug and alcohol awareness, and strives to make the problem of diabetes within the Native American community better-known. Although many Native Americans are affected by this condition, Bonham is the only person in his family who is diabetic.
In the meantime, Bonham is especially pleased with his new record. “This album really covers everything I love — blues, country, bluegrass, all of it,” he says, although he admits regret over the absence of a gospel number (he usually always performs a gospel song or two on the road, whether he’s “in a bar or honky-tonk or wherever”).
He’s also grateful for the supporting cast that helped him in the studio, an accomplished crew that included guitarist Pat Flynn, fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Glen Duncan, dobro players Rob Ickes and Randy Kohrs, bassist Terry Eldredge, drummer Kenny Malone, and backing vocalists Paul Brewster and Darrin Vincent. “I hope people will get to hear the pickers on this album because they’re so great,” he says. “They never get enough credit. I can’t do a thing without them, so I really owe my singing to all these musicians.”
Bonham’s humility is reinforced when he cringes at a sort of misprint with the album’s thank-you notes. “In there, I thank God ‘for a talent that most people don’t get,’” he says. “It’s not clear that what I meant was that I felt blessed to be able to do this for a living. I know that my singing is something that was given to me, but what I’m most thankful for is that I’m able to do this, that I’m able to make music. I can’t think of any other better way to live than to sing and dance and be with my family. I’ve got it all.”