Ask Sonny Anything… Bluegrass at the CMAs

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 was asked a couple weeks ago for my opinion on the future of bluegrass music. I gave an answer but thought about it some more and decided to expound on that a bit. So, without sounding as though I were a pundit, I believe bluegrass is making a somewhat natural progression. Look back to the early days of country music. I bet you never heard of The York Brothers, Cousin Emmy, The Fruit Jar Drinkers, The Possum Hunters, Lazy Jim Day, Rod Brassfield, Sam and Kirk McGee, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Roy Drusky… and a host of others, some who were there before it was called country music. Hillbilly music became country, and long before it was called bluegrass, our music was referred to as “Shit kickin'” music. For real. Would I lie? NO!

So look how much country has changed… it’s almost hard to recognize the junk played nowadays compared to true country music, but it is what it is. Bluegrass has and will change in the same manner. As musicians and singers become more educated, and/or sophisticated, it’s bound to change. So, when you ask me what my thoughts are on the future of the music, I can’t answer that intelligently because the bluegrass music that I knew and loved has been replaced, for the most part, by something I don’t care for nor do I have an opinion on. Bill, Lester and Earl, Howard Watts, Mac, Don and Red, Chubby Wise, Rudy Lyle, Red Taylor, Bobby Osborne, Tommy Jackson, Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Martin, Ira, and several more…. They ain’t no more of that caliber, IN MY OPINION.

A few are still here. Rhonda and her band, Joe Mullins, Sammy Shelor, Larry Sparks, Larry Stephenson, and several more. If I left out your favorite, I apologize. And the sad part of all this… We were some of the guys who helped create change in the ’60s and ’70s. Somehow I regret that. WHY? Bluegrass music from 1946 to 1956… man that’s the real deal. I loved it so much, and I still do. Sweetheart You Done me Wrong, Molly and Tenbrooks, That Home Above, No Mother or Dad, White Dove, Vision of Mother…. nothing like it! This might not make sense, but…โ€ฆ.
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Sonny,

Your love and respect for Earl was strong. But Louise ran the show behind the scenes and she was a task master who had the ability to intimidate just about anyone she wanted to LOL. Just wondering if you could share some of your memories or a personal story about her.

Will H.

Hey Will. Good to hear from you. Louise was a unique person, that’s for sure. She was all for Earl. 200%.

Earl and I were shooting pool once and she was in the office obviously talking to a promoter who wanted to hire Lester and Earl, but he thought the price was too high. She held for a moment and then said, “Well, give me an answer yes or no. If you don’t want them for that date at that price, I have a man on the other line who will pay that price for the same date. But you were first so what’s your answer?” One of the first really great business people who dealt with bluegrass music third, Lester and Earl second, and Earl FIRST. What a great commodity to have that going for you.

Hanging on the wall at Earl’s house was a portrait of Earl. I remembered I had seen that before, but it had Lester on it too. I asked and Louise told me she had Lester removed after the breakup. Fast forward 6 months. I was having some old pictures restored and was in the shop and saw a portrait of Lester and remembered that I had seen the other half of it hanging on Earl’s wall. I asked the owner about it and he said Gladys Flatt had him remove Earl. Hilarious….! Had I been either one I would have done the same thing. I loved them all and they knew it.

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We just watched the 53rd CMA Awards on Wednesday and I thought about you and Bobby. I was hoping you could recap the 1971 CMA Awards Show when The Osborne Brothers were awarded Vocal Group of the Year… were you confident going into the show about your chances or surprised? Overall, what was the reception from the mainstream country music crowd? Many credit Skaggs taking bluegrass to the mainstream in the early ’80s, but honestly, Sonny & Bobby were doing it a decade earlier….

Cindy

Well Cindy, thank you for joining us. We’re having a ball.

This is the truth if I ever told it.

I had been cutting grass for most of the day and I WAS HOT, DUSTY SWEATY, and tired. The phone rang and it was Boudleaux (Bood Low) Bryant calling to tell me we had won. My answer was WHAT did we win. He told me the Vocal Group of The Year. Then I remembered the CMA awards show, The Big Deal was tonight. Man, we won the country vocal group of the year. A bluegrass band had won. I called Bobby and he asked the same thing, “What did we win?” I’ll never forget what he said next… “We beat ’em didn’t we?” We certainly did. At their own game. To my knowledge, The CMA award for Vocal Group of The Year was won by a bluegrass band, never done before or since.

The main stream country music crowd were shocked I think, Everyone thought the Statler Brothers were a shoo in, but they all used their game faces when they congratulated us and that was nice, some were sincere… interestingly enough, from what I was hearing the bluegrass mainstream resented us, or envious because they didn’t think to do what we had done. Most said we sold out… I thought, “Hell yeah, I’m in this to make a living, send kids to college, buy houses and such…. and I would much rather be taking home 7k a night instead of $400, right?” Not bad for 1971! And I would bet good money that there isn’t a group of bluegrass pickers out there that wouldn’t trade places with us. And, get this…they hated ROCKY TOP. Probably for the same reasons…who knows? In fact the great Mike Snyder on stage of the Opry said they all belonged to the P.A.R.T. organization. (Pickers Against Rocky Top) But them records just kept on sellin’! Hey I know this sounds like NA- NA- NA- NAAAAA- NAH!!! BUT I SWEAR TO YOU IT’S NOT.

I remember when Ballad of Jed Clampett went number one for Lester and Earl. I was elated. A bluegrass record went number one… uno… first time for that. Maybe we were just too cocky… or something! I wish I knew the answer to that, I’d do it again! ๐Ÿ˜œ๐Ÿ˜ƒ๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ˜.

Ricky did more to give country music a shot in the arm when they needed it most. So far as bluegrass music I really don’t see Skaggs as a savior. He has surely promoted Monroe and the Stanley’s though. As far as I’ve heard in the last few years that’s all he sings. More power to him. He is one of the most authentic country singers to ever sing it. He’s had Paul Brewster, one of the best tenor singers ever….and a great band. I love Paul as a son. He’s been with Skaggs for 25 years.

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Sonny. Is it true that you canโ€™t play the banjo at all anymore? Even just messing around? I also heard that you sold your Granada. Is that true? Thank you for doing this column. It is so inspiring and important to young folks like me who have a long ways to go to absorb even a small amount of the history you made.

Matt P.

Thank you Matthew. Kind of you to drop in and offer nice words.

I had rotator surgery in November of 2003 and I have not played the banjo since. Not just messing around the house, not anywhere. Everything in my left shoulder came loose and when the Good Doctor put it back together there was a muscle that had just deteriorated and it just so happened to be the one that lets you move your arm to the left. I could play up the neck, but getting back to open key, I would have needed help and none of our band guys would offer unless paid handsomely….BOO HOO! So, I had to quit.

Learning to play or sing is determined by how much you want to do it. If you practice once or twice a week and play video games the rest of the time, I’m afraid you will have a long road ahead of you. Practice is what it’s all about. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.

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Sonny, I’ve heard it said that acquiring your Granada made you a better banjo player. Besides the obvious tonal improvements that a great instrument brings, what else do you think it provides to an aspiring musician that can drive them to become even better, like yourself?

Danny P.

Hey Dan’l

I had a perfectly good 1934 RB3 which I recorded many songs and instrumentals. Bought it April, 1956 in Dayton, Ohio at The Dayton Institute of Music, owned and operated by Russell Moore. (Nice Name) I paid $256.00 after paying it off. It served me well but I was never completely happy with the sound. It just didn’t fit my way of playing.

Aaron McDaris (Rhonda Vincent Rage) has it now and it sounds like a million. I’m glad. I bought the Granada from Tom McKinney (1934 original five string flathead) and from the beginning it did everything I asked of it. The notes I heard in my head, that banjo would produce it as I heard it. If I played softly, or harder, it never gave up and the sustain was just awesome. AMAZING. Almost like the Real Granada banjo looked up at me every night and said “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT”…..??? OK… I know I’ve used that line about a million times and Lincoln Hensley, (son of Ted and Nina) a banjo player from Flag Pond, Tennessee, thought so much of it he even used it on Facebook whilst describing the sound of his little banjo.

It definitely made me a much better player and accented my style of playing perfectly. I always thought it told me that I should have confidence in that fact and It would never let me down. I love that banjo.

If a person gets the instrument that compliments the style he/she plays it gives that person a whole boatload of confidence and truthfully, that’s what makes a great banjo player out of a good player. Confidence and practice, practice, PRACTICE. If you love it enough and the banjo fits your playing, you just can’t get enough. I know this sounds like…. whatever… but I’ve gone to bed on our bus, dead tired, Raymond Huffmaster driving, slept and hour and a half, woke up, and opened the case and just stared at it for 30 minutes. It was home. Crazy, stupid, call it what you will, that banjo extended my career 25 years. It brought it’s A game every night, which causes you as a player to bring your A game too.

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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.

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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.