Ask Sonny Anything… did you ever play clawhammer banjo?

Hey Good morning Chief! We just swung by the electronic post office, and we have a bag of questions for you. Hey, there’s some doozies in here. Be forewarned, we have an onion and a glass of water next to your donuts…some come join us if you dare!



Chief, hope you’re doing well. I look forward each week to your stories and your humble and honest opinions. It’s a priceless treasure that we should all be grateful for. I enjoyed your insight on my past few questions and stories. I had a couple more short stories that I wanted to ask about that came from my good friend, the late Dale Vanderpool. Dale was as big a fan of the “Brothers” as anyone I’ve ever know and just a good person.

Years ago, Dale told me of a couple stories he allegedly got from you. I wanted to ask if you can remember and/or verify these stories. Here goes:

During an early “Brothers” trip, Bobby and yourself stopped into a truck stop/small diner for a meal. It was hot inside and you both were road-weary. While waiting on your food, a persistent fly found its way to your table and relentlessly pestered Bobby. After a few minutes of dealing with the uninvited table guest, Bobby seized the opportunity as the fly landed on the window blinds next to the table, and proceeded to dowse the fly with a full glass of water and exclaim, “there, take that…you red-eyed blue ****!!!” Dale and I would often bring the story up while traveling…especially anytime we were visited by a fly…and laugh extensively about it. Even if you can’t remember, or this simply didn’t take place, it’s still fun to imagine!

Also, Dale shared the story that Bobby, in his younger days, would eat a whole onion, in the same manner as folks would eat an apple, in claims that it had benefits to his voice and range of singing. Is this something that you recall? I know ole Bobby is tough as they come, but I would think it takes a heck of a man to eat an entire onion in one sitting. Just a thought.

Thanks for everything you do and the best music and a lifetime of memories!

Tom, (the Boy from Indiana)

Tom, thank you for your participation. If you had a good friend in Dale Vanderpool, you had a good friend in the best.

Now this first story that he told you, is the absolute truth. The only thing different is that Bobby not only threw water on the fly, he threw the whole glass (which was plastic of course) and then he said, “There, take that, you red-eyed blue f-bomb.” Had you been there when it happened, you would have come unglued.

The thing about Bobby eating a whole onion like an apple, I never saw that, but I wouldn’t doubt it.

Thanks Tom, if I’m not sadly mistaken, that would be Tom Holt because lo and behold during their heyday, Tom was a Boy from Indiana. And they were good! And every time we would show up and they were there, we knew that we would be eating well that day, because every one of them was a great cook. I would imagine that Tom could tell some stories too because Harley Gabbard was also in that band.



Hi Sonny. Stan here…you have been gracious enough to answer a few questions in the past, and I am forever grateful…one question I still wonder about is the Brothers’ relationship with Mac Wiseman. Mac is one of my favorites and I grew up listening to Renfro Valley on Sunday mornings. Your rendition of Take Me Back to Renfro Valley always reminds me of those mornings! How did you two meet Mac, and how did you decide what songs to sing on your collaborations, including The Essential Bluegrass Album? Who made those decisions and do you have any good stories regarding the many performances you did while performing together at the numerous festivals you played? Lastly, thank you again for doing this and for letting us share in your memories of bluegrass music, and the wild adventures of your and Bobby’s lives!!


Hey Stan, thank you for joining us today. Beautiful day here in Tennessee, as long as you like the threat of rain and sometimes sunshine and cloud cover….and then every now and then the educated ones get it right. But that hasn’t happened this year…yet!!!!

You know what Stan? I don’t remember first meeting Mac Wiseman, although I knew of Mac from when he was with Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. And then he was in Shreveport with his own band, and Joe Medford played the banjo with him and they were good. The double album we did with Mac was a combination of Bobby’s idea, my idea, and then we asked Mac and he said, “When do we start?” I called Martin Haerle, owner of CMH Records, and he gave the go-ahead, and so that meant that we were on our own to get it done. I set up studio time at Hilltop and as far as the songs we did, we didn’t actually rehearse…we just said titles and every one of us knew the songs. Take Me Back to Renfro Valley was a song written by Ralph Gabbard, and while me and Judy were using his seats one night at a Kentucky basketball game, he mentioned in passing that he had a good song for us that he had written. Turns out, it was Take Me Back to Renfro Valley. That’s not the only great song in that album. It’s loaded with them.

Our songs, Mac’s songs, and songs from just about anybody we could think of. Mac and Bobby could sing anything.

Stan, it is my pleasure to be able to do this, and I thank Terry and John for allowing me to get by with saying anything.




I was fortunate to have performed with the late, great Bill Yates for the last 10 years of his life. I always enjoyed listening to his stories relating to his time performing with Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Red Allen and, especially, The Country Gentlemen. Did you ever perform with Bill in the early years or have any Bill Yates stories you could share? Thanks for this column. I enjoy it very much.

Mike Phipps

Hi Mike., I’m going to tell you a story that comes from Bill Yates himself, although I wasn’t there. But it’s too good to pass up.

Bill was working for Jimmy Martin, and they were on the way to a date when Jimmy’s bus broke down. Something serious about the engine. So Bill volunteered to stay behind and try to fix the bus. You need to keep in mind that Bill was a great many things, and a mechanic was one of them. He stayed behind and was lucky enough to find all the parts that he needed, and then proceeded to basically give Jimmy’s bus an overhaul. When he got through, he got on the bus and drove it to where they were playing, and I don’t remember whether the show was over, just ending, or anything else. But I do know that Bill told me, they all got on the bus and took off for the next date. On the way, they stopped at a McDonalds and so Bill ordered a Big Mac and Jimmy went up to him and said, “Don’t worry about this, Sport, I’ve got it and I want to thank you for fixing my bus.” I asked Bill….is that all? He said…”Yep, that’s what I got paid for overhaulling Jimmy’s bus.” You can believe that or not. Yates told it to me shortly after it happened. I tend to believe it. During Bill’s years with The Country Gentlemen, they were good. Real good.



I have been wanting to contact you for some time, but when I read your comment about Casey Clark I had to respond. Casey was my Mom’s cousin. We always enjoyed his band coming to the Clark Reunions at Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky near where the family was from. I was able to contact Casey’s granddaughter K. Stephens living in Minnesota to share your comment with her. Her reply was, “It is wonderful to know that my grandfather is still remembered. Both he and my Mom always had a lot of respect, and liking for both the Osborne Brothers, and Sonny was a particular friend of my Moms.” I thought maybe you would enjoy her response.

The Clark family had many of us who loved our music, and were always singing and playing instruments. Currently Scott Tackett who plays with the bluegrass band Hammertown is from the Clark family. Also many years ago we had a conversation (either at Frontier Ranch or Festival of the Bluegrass) about you attending Fairview High School. I attended Stivers High School in Dayton. I would like to hear of your days of playing music in Dayton, at Frank’s Tavern, Canal Street Tavern with Red Allen, and his sons Harley and his brothers, Frank Wayfield, and many others. Thanks for your time, God Bless, and stay healthy.

Donna Smith

Thank you for your time and comments. Casey was a good guy and always had a good band. While we were there, Buddy Emmons and Herb Williams were members of the band. I don’t think I know Scott Tackett but I do know Hammertown is a good band. And yes, I attended Fairview High School for a few months in the 10th grade. Although I knew of Stivers High School in Dayton, I never knew where it was. By the time bluegrass music arrived in Dayton at places like Frank’s Tavern, Canal Street Tavern… Bobby and I were gone and had been for several years. The places we worked in Dayton several years earlier were The Friendly Inn, the Ring Bar, Engles Tavern, Ruby’s White Sands….and then we moved to Nashville.

Thank you for your participation.



Hello again, Sonny

I once heard a story about you learning clawhammer banjo from Grandpa Jones. Could you elaborate more on this? Also, to answer your question from the last time I wrote in, my full name is Elijah, but I don’t use it. Thank you for your time

Eli P.

Eli wrote in again and stated that his true name was Elijah, but he goes by Eli. We thank you, Eli, for straightening us up on that.

Now, you asked about my experience with Grandpa Jones trying to teach me clawhammer banjo. We sat there in the dressing room of the Ryman Auditorium for 40 minutes, and he tried his damnedest to teach me how to clawhammer. I tried as hard as I could to learn to do that because I really like it, but there was something about that rhythm that I just couldn’t get. And Grandpa, who had quite a temper, finally handed me the banjo… stomped his feet and got up, and he said, “A man like you, that can do what you can do with your fingers, and can’t play clawhammer banjo…I ain’t got nothin’ else to say to him.” Grandpa stormed out of the room, and didn’t speak to me for two years. And we never discussed clawhammer banjo playing again. That’s the truth.

Thank you Eli for participating in our little freeforall.


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.