Ask Sonny Anything… banjo toss at Bean Blossom?

Ask Sonny Anything will be 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.

You’ve pretty well seen it all (and created a lot of it) when it comes to bluegrass music. Do you ever get nostalgic for the way the music sounded back in the early/mid 50’s (before it was called bluegrass)? Why does it sound so different? What has it lost, if anything? What has it gained?
– wretchasketch

Just the music. Yes I miss it when Monroe, Flatt, Scruggs, Wise, and Cedric were creating what we called Bluegrass back in the day. They were learning and it was interesting to hear the progress being made. Of course, being able now to look back allows me to think in this manner.

What has it lost? Sincerity. Listen closely (if you can) to Monroe sing Blue Moon of Kentucky, Flatt singing are you Washed in The Blood, Chubby Wise break on Blue Moon, Earl’s background on I’ll Never Love Another. Sincerity… love of what they were doing. I’ve seen Benny Martin stare at the neck of the fiddle whilst playing as if to say; My God, I love how you sound! It sounds different because of the quality of the instruments, the players and the amount of time devoted to practice and the number of things there is to deal with now which was not available in Thousand Sticks, or Flint Hill.

What has it gained? Intelligence. Knowledge. A method in which to reach Point A and get to point B by playing Cripple Creek and not starving to death in the process! KNOWLEDGE AND INTELLIGENCE. We knew that we had something that could not be duplicated…. Bobby’s voice and our unique trio… Knowledge to realize that success would come if you could create a need and be able to fill it. Knowledge of the need to get your records and product, played by the media, and getting your product to the public so they can hear it, and the Intelligence in which to make it happen. All given by the mistakes, and successes of the ones who suffered through “back in the day!” which I was (am) part of both!

Since so many great banjo players were from North Carolina: Earl Scruggs, Snuffy Jenkins, Terry Baucom, Jim Mills, Steve Dilling, Marc Pruett – how good do you think you would have been if you had been born in North Carolina ???
p.s. I already think you pretty awesome and your Banjo Medley is the background to my sweetest dreams. 🙂
– Cindy B. in NC

Well, Cindy…It all depends on how you define “Great” when it comes to banjo players. To me when someone is “Great,” that means they have reached a point that can’t be surpassed, by anyone. Very few have done that. Of course you realize that this is just my opinion. (Opinions are like a certain part of the anatomy of all creation)

To be serious… Doesn’t matter where you are from or where you’re going… the love for the banjo, the amount of work you are driven to put into the banjo, and how well you are able to concentrate, that intensity is what determines the finished product. That Banjo Medley from Stockholm Sweden, I consider the top of my game. Now you have me wondering if I had been born in North Carolina, if I could have played it better or differently…HMMMM…Answer is YES. I would have left out Cumberland Gap, and maybe played El Paso, Spanish Flea, and maybe ended it with America The Most Beautiful…AMEN!

Sonny, what’s the nicest thing Bobby ever said to you?
– Anna W.

The nicest thing Bobby ever said to me….”If you think you can drive it any better, you get your big … up here and drive it yourself!”

Really, the nicest thing I ever heard Bobby say, concerning me, was in an interview he did, (I don’t remember where). It was his reply when asked about his opinion of my banjo playing. “Sonny took, and takes banjo playing to another level!” I was standing in the other end of the dressing room and I’m sure he didn’t know I overheard him say this.

Bobby and I worked together for 52 years and never had an argument…we had disagreements, I’m sure but that’s as far as it went. Also we never talked much about the others talent nor how we each played our part. Bobby was a much better mandolin player…. he created a style that everyone plays now… he would have gotten more credit but he just so happened to be the best voice ever!

Sonny, did you ever throw a drunk guys banjo in the pond behind the stage at Bean Blossom? Yes, I actually heard some old dude bloviating about seeing you do that many years ago but I never believed it. LOL!
– Dave R.

Nope, I would never do a thing like that. I loved and respected the banjo more than the drunk that was abusing it. I might have thrown the drunk in, or had Birch sidle down there and escort him out to the parking lot and check out his medicine.

If you could fill in on banjo with any band touring today, who would it be?
– John G.

We’re talking about if I were on top of my game banjo wise. It would be Rhonda Vincent’s band. She’s got it going as much or more than anyone else right now. I love Rhonda and her music… and everyone in that band. Aaron McDaris is (almost) unbeatable, Josh Williams is the best, Hunter Berry is the best, Mickey Harris is the best for her band…. I would like to play with that quality of people and music.

Tell us how Sledd came into the band…where did you all find him?
Raymond E.H.

Spring or early Summer of 1966. We played at Lake of The Ozarks at a place maybe Austin? something… Gordon Cash was playing guitar and doing vocal with us. The house band consisted of Dale and Patsy Sledd. We were there two days and Dale invited us to their “Trailer House” for a late snack and perhaps pick a bit. Gordon didn’t go.

So we did pick some and it turned out that Dale knew every song we had recorded to that point, and knew the correct third part of our unique harmony. (High lead, Baritone, and low tenor) AND, he just so happened to be the best guitar player a banjo player could wish for. Reason being, he was a pretty good banjo player too. We offered him he job immediately and he took it, but he couldn’t come to Nashville until the place they were playing closed…which was September.

September 10, 1966 Dale Sledd came to Nashville and he became an Osborne Brother for the next 12 years.

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About the Author

Sonny Osborne

Surely among the most influential banjo players of all time, Sonny Osborne has dedicated his life to bluegrass music, and the five string banjo. For 50 years he toured with his brother, Bobby, as The Osborne Brothers and were one of the top acts in bluegrass and country music in the 1960s and '70s. He retired in 2005 but remains active in the banjo world with the manufacture and distribution of his Chief banjos.