Ask Sonny Anything is a recurring feature where our readers pose questions to the great Sonny Osborne, one half of the iconic Osborne Brothers who redefined bluegrass music in the 1960s, and noted banjo maven and collector of fine prewar instruments. Everyone is encouraged to pose queries of your own each week in the comments, about his history in the music, his wealth of banjo knowledge, or regarding any life advice you might be needing.
I’m an old bluegrasser from Ontario, Canada. I attended nearly all the bluegrass festivals that were held at Courtcliff Park in Carlisle, ON. For many years I worked in the back stage area. The first festival there was organized by Jim Clark. It was not a success, due to low attendance. Somewhere I still have a poster from it. My memory may be totally wrong, but I seem to recall your bus pulling into the site and then leaving almost immediately when you saw the small crowd and realized you would not likely get paid. Is this correct? Don’t know if it is true or not but I heard that Clark had a history of not paying bands.
After the first festival the park owners, the Weaver family, took over and ran a very successful event for many years. Guess you would characterize it as a hippie fest, but man we had some huge crowds, great music, and no bands got stiffed. We had every big name band perform there at some point. I believe you judged a banjo competition once.
Do you have any particular memories or stories pertaining to the Bluegrass Canada Festival?
Hey Tom…eh? That’s a little Canadian, you know. Thank you for comin’ right on in there! Wasn’t Court and or Cliff the Weavers’ names? I have several memories of Carlisle. The first getting across the stupid border. They made us unload everything in the motorhome and if that were not bad enough, getting back in the American side was worse. We finally started renting a room and putting our stuff in it, went across with nothing, came back with nothing. Once I was driving through to get to the back stage area and there is a little bridge we had to cross. It was a tight turn and when we got across the bridge, Paul Brewster said…”I think you knocked a guy off the bridge.” I looked back and sure enough he was climbing back up with a big smile on his face. He was so messed up he thought it was part of the show…I think.
Then there was the “flasher.” A guy dressed in an overcoat. He charged $5 and he would go to the person you wanted flashed and this guy would get right in front of said person and open the overcoat. Of course the “Flasher” had nothing on.
Around the stage area was a 12-15 foot chain link fence, so that none of the wildest crowd you ever saw, could get to the entertainers. So we were on stage playing Salty Dog Rag and this old boy decided to climb the fence. The mean security guys…about 10 strong… met him as he jumped over and proceeded to throw him right back over the fence. I bet you the next day his a.. was sore, ’cause that’s where he landed.
The Jim Clark incident is something we would have done, and I remember doing just that on several occasions involving Jim, but I don’t remember it being there. If we knew we were not going to get paid, we would pay our guys for a day’s work and go check in and get a good night’s sleep. Jim was a good guy but he had a problem of getting in over his head. The Weaver folks were as good as gold in the bank. Man they had some huge crowds there. Good sound, good attitude. s
Sonny, why were so many bluegrass stars from the Dayton/Hamilton, Ohio area?
Ben, thank you. Welcome, anytime. That’s a tough question. I think during the 2nd world war, jobs were plentiful in Ohio, Michigan, and more of the Northern states so a lot of the people seeking a better way of life for their families headed that way. Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hamilton, Toledo, Detroit, all of which were right in the path of their travels.
My Father settled in Dayton…he had heard of work at the National Cash Register Co. and he took off. Delco, Moraine Products, Inland, all were hiring and so were many places in the other cities. My Mom and Dad both worked. She worked at Inland, making bullets. So, southern people came and their Grand Ole Opry type music came with them. Lots of them, men and women, played the fiddle, claw hammer banjo, and guitar, of course. As their children grew, that’s what they heard, and that’s what they wanted to play, and that was what was to become bluegrass music. It wasn’t called bluegrass until the very early ’50s, if my memory serves me correctly. You want to know the first person I heard call it bluegrass? It was Frank Wakefield. Well, he actually called it “grass.” I don’t know exactly to whom he was talking but he said; “come over to my house and lets pick a little grass.” That’s the best I can do.
First – I love this part of Bluegrass Today, the questions and answers are always a delight.
Regarding the questions of country and or bluegrass influences on the Beatles – I submit this video from the Beatles Anthology video series, the last time the the tree remaining (at that time 1995) played together, what did they play? Of course this is the Elvis re-working, but it’s still Bill Monroe.
Sonny asked for any thoughts on influences – here are some of mine; In terms of vocals, what I hear is the influence of The Everly Brothers primarily and from the Everlys you can draw a line back to the Louvins or the Monroe Brothers pretty easily. Listen to songs like If I Fell, This Boy, or I’m Looking Through You. The last one there I could imagine the Louvin Brothers doing. So the influences might be a step or two away from the original source but I think it’s fair to say there’s a line there from point A to B to C.
In terms of instrumentation the Rubber Soul album has the most acoustic folk tracks – I’m Looking Through You or I’ve Just Seen a Face are the closest to a country style to my ear. Much of their early rock and roll recordings – One After 909, for example, sound like early Sun records, can I imagine Elvis, Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis tearing it up on that song? Sure. If we accept the rock and roll or rockabilly tracks of the ’50s and ’60s as springing from Honky Tonk I can see the connection. Of course the Beatles were quickly evolving and innovating with their sound – even early records like I Want To Hold Your Hand were altering the normal chords and harmonies and this continued through their career. Also as the recordings progressed more instruments were added and that might obscure the basic song structure. Here’s a later track from Paul McCartney solo that gets back to the roots:
So, yes, I can hear the influences, maybe slightly removed from the source but still there. Thinking about this question has made me wonder what Beatles songs Roy Acuff (since you mentioned him) might sound good doing – I’m imagining him singing Let It Be…might be crazy but I can picture one of his mournful Gospel style versions with some seriously weeping dobro in there.
Once again – love this series of questions and answers and look forward to more
Kevin S. – Louisville, CO
Kevin, thank you. I enjoy doing this and as long as we get responses, we’ll continue. Thanks to The Lawless Herd!
Several days this week I have had a few serious conversations with Derek Vaden, fine banjo player in the Larry Stephenson Band. Conversations dealing with the two words; Inspiration and Influence. Coming to the conclusion that if you play the banjo, you are definitely “influenced” by Earl Scruggs. Be it directly or indirectly. And then, if you SAW someone play a banjo and that caused you to want to play, I feel you were inspired to play by seeing another person play. This happened in my case. When I was 11 years Bobby played in a group that featured banjo player Larry Richardson. Those two came home for Christmas in 1948, and when I saw Larry play it “inspired” me to want to learn to play. I told my Dad that I thought I could do that, He bought a Kay banjo for me.
I was inspired by Larry, he was inspired by someone, etc, etc. back to the influence of Earl. So, if you look at it that way, one could see where the Beatles were indirectly influenced somewhat by Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky….which inspired Elvis to record it, The Beatles heard Elvis, and so Bill’s music was definitely an influence. However you choose to see it, directly, or indirectly. So, does that make Bill Monroe a candidate for the Rock and Roll hall of fame? Maybe….maybe not!
Do you listen to satellite radio and if so, what do you think about it?
Jeff in Nebraska
Hey Jeff. I appreciate your time.
I’ve been in Nebraska twice. Once to North Platte, and a most memorable night driving our Silver Eagle bus across the state on ice. ‘Twas an experience not ever forgotten. Do I listen to satellite radio? Yes in my car. I enjoy some jazz…and I tune to the bluegrass channel sometimes. However, I find that it’s rather hard for me to enjoy any kind of music because I tend to be far too critical and pick it apart instead of listening and hearing the pretty music. The Disc Jockey has a lot to do with my enjoyment too. I like for them to introduce the tune/song, play it and then always tell the title and the artist. This is a must for me. I want to know who did it and the name of the song. AND…I want quiet whilst the above mentioned song or tune is playing.
So, with all those quirks, it’s nearly impossible for me to really listen to any kind of radio. Except of course when I’m totally alone in my car and then, in a 70 mile an hour zone I find myself doing 30 and think automatically, the fiddle is not loud enough, and the damn drums is too loud, the steel should be a little be more out front in the mix…whoever did this mix is…..etc, etc. You see what I MEAN…..The idea of satellite radio is great. It allows you to drive 800 miles and hear one station clearly.
In the old days, back in the ’80s, after a show, Raymond Huffmaster and I would listen to WWL in New Orleans. Charlie Douglas would play the best country stuff ever. It was an AM station and would really get out…staticky at times but man it was good. So good. s
1st, thanks for the music. You’re truly a living legend.
2nd, You recently wrote in a previous post; “Bobby and I and our families lived about 40 miles apart and we saw life itself quite differently so we never associated when we were not working.”
Not knowing either of you personally, that statement (especially seeing life quite differently and not associating) kind of blew my mind a little bit. Could/would you expand upon what you meant there? Without muddin’ up the waters too much of course.
Thanks John. It’s fantastic to have you join us. So, I’m a living legend. Did you get that children? A LIVING LEGEND….ME! So, when I check out and buy the farm, what then? A DEAD LEGEND…or how bout A FORGOTTEN …….?(;-)> Just funnin’ witchi….Thank you, John. Seriously, you know I appreciate those kind words.
I think I can explain this. Bobby, at home was all about music, his kids all played, and he taught them how. They’re good. Really good. They worked with us at one time or another.
I could feel the toll the life style was taking on me, losing sleep, odd hours, odd eating habits, alcohol for a while, pills to stay awake, it became a noticeable problem. (TO BE CRYSTAL CLEAR THAT ALL ENDED 40 YEARS AGO) And, I didn’t want my kids to even WANT to be a part of it so I almost never played at home. I aimed them toward an education so they could have a good job and sleep in their own bed every night. Which both of them did. College grads, great jobs. Yeah, the bluegrass business was extremely good to me, Bobby and I had a great career.
We also saw every brother act arguing and fussing with each other nearly all the time. But, they also saw one another every day while they were not on the road…but then while they were on the road they saw each other then too. So, to put it bluntly, they actually lived together, all the time. And argued constantly. Bobby and I didn’t do that, we saw each other while we were working, but not at home…and we never argued. I emphasize the word NEVER. Surely, WE WORKED TOGETHER 53 YEARS, we disagreed on a lot of things…but never a lingering thing. Always solved.
If you have something you would like to ask Sonny, be sure to post it in the comments below, or send it to us directly.