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.
Jamie Grascal Johnson, formerly of The Grascals, (I bet you guessed that didn’t you) wanted to know if I knew Claude Stewart. Maybe his whereabouts. I believe he has passed from this life. But yes, I knew him around the Dayton area when I first began my Journey with the Banjo. Claude was the mandolin player in the first little band in which I played. Claude Stewart, Jerry Williams, Carl Eldredge, and me. The very first time I played on the radio…WPFB in Middletown Ohio…they were doing a remote from a clothing store in Miamisburg, Ohio, Bout 1949-51. I was scared. Funny, wonder what it is you’re scared of. Reckon I was afraid KRAKO was gonna jump out of the radio and do things???
Sonny… I read your description about playing with the symphony and got a good laugh. My question has to do with bridging the gap between the formal music world and bluegrass. Bluegrass seems to struggle getting booked into places like Art Centers because they think it’s beneath them…except when they need your services for free for a fundraiser. Have you ever been snubbed other than that symphony experience?
Nigel, come in and sit right there. If I don’t answer your question specifically, I promise I will next week. Please bear with me while I relive that San Antonio experience. I’m not proud of that, but you must understand the strain and stress we were under at the time. And when we started playing, I guess they had never heard such garbage that they were being asked to play…being downgraded…I mean with all the hours they spent learning to read what is put in front of them, and up there stands five people playing funny sounding “music” (or some would call it that), and they’re just standing there, without music…and they are going what does “that garbage” have to do with us?
The violin section was right behind me, and they laughed. All this was going through my mind and I couldn’t take it any more. A gasket in my brain blew!!
I really don’t see that gap being closed because it is really so involved. We were lucky that we knew BUDDY SPICHER, AND HE KNEW KRIS WILKENSON. The expense to do all they did for us was staggering. And before a performance are rehearsals. *80+ people get paid for that too.
So, I don’t think the bluegrass world will ever have the desire to co-exist with formal music…just that, It’s much too involved. We like to have Raymond park the bus as close to the back door as possible, he gets his “plunder” out and sets it up, we “get dressed” go do our show, (yell at the sound person) do autographs at the “Plunder table,” and while they are tearing down, I go get paid, get back on the bus and Raymond takes us to the next day. Simple.
We Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia….that type old boys…I don’t know if we want the challenge, to bridge that gap. What do you think? ‘Course, nowadays there is so much sophisticism (that ain’t a word) it might…could happen, I reckon!
Sonny, I’m sure this happened pretty often but were there times, do you recall, when Bobby sang a note in a live performance that dropped your jaw? I thought the show in Japan (Country Gold – YouTube) was exceptional. Another example that caught me by surprise was a live performance of Ruby. Instead of hitting the high D in falsetto Bobby hit it in full voice.
Neil, we got plenty room, thank you for taking the time to be with us today. Bobby and his voice…man, he did that to us thousands of times. He was simply the best. I know this is like me bragging … or anything else you can come up with.
Tell you what, I have approximately 70 albums that are proof. Brother was in a world of 1. Funny, when this happened, you could hear Terry Eldredge, or one of the others say Golly…(cleaned up a little) really more like “Damn,” or just a laugh. I just looked at him. Really, you know…I don’t think he had a limit.
I remember when we recorded Mule Skinner Blues, He asked me where the old man…Monroe…did it, I told him G. He said let’s do it in A. We recorded it in A. It’s higher, yes. That’s for his ego. But for reality he’s doing it higher but he isn’t losing quality, or tone…Paul Williams and Ira Louvin retained their tone. My opinion…. s
Sonny, thanks so much for explaining the studio layout. You’ve got a great memory—and those have got to be some favorite memories, too! Could I ask just a few more details?
1) In the older sessions, did you use the same triangle vocal setup, and would I be right to guess in those early sessions the third singer played guitar?
2) Was a click-track used, and if so, about when did that start? Finally:
3) Were headphones used by anybody? Many thanks.
Sandy, Going back to the Jimmy Martin days, no we did not, Red Harley Allen, Yes we did. After that, about 1959…we started using that configuration exclusively, I don’t remember our studio setup during the time on MGM with John Slagle (Jimmy Brown) period.
When we recorded with Benny Birchfield, yes, we used it from that time, 1963 to 2005. Benny, Dale, Ronnie Reno, Paul Brewster and Terry Eldredge all played the guitar except on a difficult song. Ronnie Reno played some mandolin twin with Bobby.
I remember one thing, I believe it was on Son of a Sawmill Man, Ronnie played rhythm on the mandolin. During the mid ’60s is when we got into using the Neuman U87 microphones, for vocal, my banjo and Bobby’s mandolin. Hal Rugg on steel, Grady Martin and Leon Rhodes on electric guitars, Ray Edenton rhythm guitar, Buddy Spicher, Vassar Clements, and Willie Ackerman on drums, and Hargis (pig) Robinson on piano periodically all used head phones, but as a rule, it was all recorded live and, we never used a click track.
Hello Mr. Sonny, my name is Jacob Pattison. I met you in Canton, Texas years ago. I know you said you worked with Stringbean years ago, did you ever work with Grandpa and if you did, do you have a Grandpa story to share? Thank you so much for sharing these stories with us! God Bless!
Jacob….Thank you for the entering the gang of “know everything.” Was Canton the place where I had the ceiling fan ordeal???? Oh well, yes we worked some with Beans…and a few dates with Grandpa Jones.
Mark, Pa’s son, told a funny story about he and his dad putting fence up on their property. When they got it finished they discovered the Jeep was inside the fenced in area, and there was no gate. Pa was not happy.
We played a date with the Great Grandpa Jones in Watertown, Tennessee I believe at the fairgrounds. The stage was set up on the infield and the crowd was in the bleachers. A track was around the infield, which put it between the entertainment stage and the crowd. While Pa was on, a lady was exercising her horse by riding around the track. Wouldn’t you know, that horse stopped right directly in front of Grandpa Jones and relieved herself by unloading at least 5 gallons right there…you might ask, “what did Grandpa Jones say?”….so use your imagination. Oh my goodness, was he mad!!!!!!
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.