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.
FIRST LET ME SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL. AND THANK YOU TERRY HERD AND JOHN LAWLESS FOR ALLOWING ME TO DO THIS. I LOVE IT.
Question for Mr. Sonny Osborne: Did you ever play for Bill Monroe’s baseball team, and if so can you tell us a story about that? (I believe you played banjo in the Bluegrass Boys in 1951 when I think Monroe was still actively managing a baseball team in addition to the band, featuring many of his players).
John, thank you for contributing. I was not there in 1951. I joined in July 1952. Bill talked very little of the baseball team. The information I give you might not be right, but it’s close. The little bit I know came to me directly from Bill. They would book a place, school, where there was a baseball diamond and BEFORE THE SHOW, Bill would issue a challenge for any team in the area and they would go at it. Bill said Stringbean was a good player. He never mentioned any more of the Blue Grass Boys as players, although I’m sure several were good enough. Rudy Lyle comes to mind as being athletic. When he would mention this it always came to mind how and where they cleaned up for the show. It was summertime, all hot and sweaty. Dust and dirt all over. They never mentioned where they would shower. I wish I could help you more, but that’s about all I know. I got there a year too late. His son James, who was 12, would go on some trips, or he and his Mom, Carolyn, would meet us at a show date, and he would always have a couple gloves and we would pass. Bill was always impressed at how hard I could throw the ball. Sometimes I would overhear him telling someone that when I threw the ball “IT WOULD GO RIGHT ON OUT THERE!”
About arch top banjos…
Sonny, I’ve always played on flat head banjos but I’ve also always been interested in arch tops. They appear to me to be more aggressive and provide clearer and well separated notes. I am referring to artists like Doug Dillard, Allen Shelton and Jereme Brown (of Po’ Ramblin’ Boys). They had – or still have – tremendous rhythm and drive in their playing. Have you ever have experienced these kind of banjos? I’d like to buy one but I hesitate in ordering an all maple arch top banjo or an all mahogany one. What would be your expert’s advice, please?
Charley. I always found that a raised head banjo sounded so good in an enclosed area. Problem is, you can’t always find that place. They never seemed to me to have the projecting ability of a flathead. I played a 1929 RB3 raised head from 1952 until 1956. Original 5 string. While with Monroe in 1952, Stringbean informed me that my banjo wasn’t worth a s—! He gave me an address of a man who had a Gibson Mastertone for sale, just like the banjo Larry Richardson played. We called him, and my Dad bought it (from Shorty Fincher of Hallum, Pennsylvania). He paid $125.00 for it. BUT…I got to noticing that the REAL players, guys like Earl, Don Reno, Rudy Lyle, James Bower, Jim Smoak, and later, Kenny Ingram, Bill Emerson, Kristin, Bela, Alan Munde, Tony Trischka, Jens Kruger all played flathead banjos and I guess that answers the question.
So, back in the ’50s I just assumed they were the best…. I bought my first flathead in 1956. A Gibson RB 3 Mahogany that I played and recorded with for the most part, until 1978 when I bought the flathead Granada. Aaron McDaris (Rhonda Vincent and the Rage) has that RB 3 now and really loves it. Funny, Earl called raised head banjos “ROOM BANJERS.” Larry Stephenson asked me if “it” was “all about the Banjo” ….and to give him a short answer, it most assuredly is. Always has been. Remember, “IT’S” WHAT MADE BLUEGRASS MUSIC. Bluegrass as we know it didn’t exist till Earl. Then it was born.
Hey Sonny, first of all let me say you and Scruggs are my favorite banjo players, and we love your sense of humor and honesty. My wife and I both agree the Osborne Brothers are the one band we could listen to everyday and never get tired of it. It’s so good, and every time I listen, I hear something else I didn’t catch before. My friend Bobby Atkins (who’s like my grandpa) has played banjo for years and used to help Carlton at Camp Springs. He told me something about an incident between you and little Roy. Something about a pie in a banjo? Just wondering if there’s any truth to it, and if so, what’s the story?
Man I really appreciate your kind remarks about my banjo playing. How good it is to be mentioned in the same room with Mr. Earl. We were pretty good friends and I miss the old days when he was so good, he was dangerous for a banjo player to hear him at his best. I must tell you, the first time I saw him play. It was WNOX Knoxville about 1952. It was so good it scared me. Literally scared me. I was 14 years old. It made me realize just how much work I had to do.
Bobby Adkins is a good guy. Goes way back. There were so many things with Little Roy that it’s hard to remember just one of his antics. However, I do remember a thing about a pie… custard…being rubbed in Roy’s face, but I don’t honestly remember it being me that did it. If it wasn’t, I wish it had been. Guarantee, he deserved it. Roy and I had some good, funny times on stage. I remember once in Texas, Kerrville I think. I was standing at the mic COMPLETELY UNAWARE when suddenly Roy dropped and landed right beside me, banjo on, looked up at me and said “How you doin’ Sonny?” He had crawled up into the rafters which were unfinished, positioned himself right above me, and dropped. Man, Roy and I had some times. Now that I’m retired and can look back and reflect, some of that was funny to us, and to an audience. I miss that. We always tried to have a good time with our music and the audience. IT’S CALLED ENTERTAINMENT. We tried give an audience something to talk about in the car on the way home after our show. s
Wondering if you remember about 8 or 10 years ago a fat guy… me… and a couple of your buddies Larry Mathis and Jim Smith paying a visit? I’m just wondering if you ever replaced that plastic chair the “fat guy” broke? Haha! What a embarrassing moment that was for me!
Take care, Gary G.
Howdy Gary. Absolutely I remember the guy who broke a chair on my patio. Actually, you weren’t all that big. The strapping in those old chairs was worn out to the point that the next time I sat in one it would have broken. It just so happened to be you. It was so funny to see your face though. Embarrassed, is a good word for your face, but in reality there should be a better more descriptive way to tell it. Jim Smith and Larry both had a FIELD DAY LAUGHING AT YOU FOR “BREAKING SONNY’S CHAIR.” I haven’t seen Larry in a while. I understand he’s had quite a bout with cancer, and at times within the last year has been pretty sick. Lately though, and according to Jim and Barry Palmer, he has made a comeback and man I’m elated to hear this news. Larry and Peggy are good people.
Where/when did Bobby burst into tears w/B. Monroe on stage?
Hey Jay. Glad you came in here.
To my knowledge that never happened. I believe your informer has given you some bad info. Bobby was/is one tough Dude. The only time I saw Bobby close to tears was in 1951 as a Marine, he was leaving to go to the Korean War. At the Airport in Dayton I believe, saying goodbye to our Mom and Dad. He looked at our Dad and said, “Daddy, old feller!” That was all he got out. I never saw him even close to tears in the 55 years we worked side by side. I will say this… in 1966 when we sang I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling with Bill at Fincastle, VA…. Carlton Haney’s second festival… our first, Bill’s son, James, and a few more of Bill’s Bluegrass Boys were seated on the front row and I remember a couple of them shed a few tears.
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.