Ask Sonny Anything… did you know Don Stover?

Dear Sonny,

Did you ever cross paths with Don Stover? And if so, what did you make of his banjo style? I’m a New England guy, and Don and the Lilly Brothers meant a lot to us during many years they lived and played in the Boston area. I think it’s fair to say, they taught people around here what bluegrass was all about.



Thank you for participating.

The answer is yes, I did cross paths with Don Stover many times. One of the nicest, fun-loving people I ever knew, and truly a great banjo player. He had his own style and moved at his own pace. I don’t know if you knew it or not, but Don chewed tobacco. At the Hillbilly Ranch he had a spittoon set about 2 feet from the stage, and miraculously he could hit that 7 out of 10 times. I though the world of Don and still do.



Hey Sonny,

I’d like a follow on your decision for going electric. But before my questions, I think you should know my interest in bluegrass fell on the back burner as my mediocre pedal steel playing has kept me booked solid for a long time. Anyways, I recall when electric bass was a hard sell in bluegrass but was eventually accepted all around. Somewhere around that time is when I was musically redirected elsewhere.

There was one other memory at a festival around the Warrenton-Culpepper, VA area where Liz Myer was on stage with Danny Gatton. The festival promoter stormed up on stage and yanked Danny’s amp cord out of the socket…oops.. Now to the meat & taters! By amplifying your instruments, was your stage volume significantly increased? Would you mind sharing the learning curve for going electric? Were you pleased with instrument tone? Did you employ a sound man?

I know you made mention how acoustic to electric was a huge contribution to your success. I’m sorry I missed that transition, but well done sir!

Now fast forward to present day, and the reasoning for my questions. I recently started playing banjo on a more regular basis, and have seen many videos of what I believe to be are newer headliner bluegrass groups. I also made time to see a live performance. There seems to be a common denominator with groups that play plugged in, are wirelessly connected, and some players using small clip on mics. First and foremost, I have yet to hear a very expensive flat top sound almost as good as a 1970s ovation guitar. Banjo tone sounds tinny, or nasal, and many times, lost in the mix. Fiddler’s tone also sounds to me, nasal, but mandolin for whatever reason has acceptable tone. Regardless of how these acoustic instruments sound is probably not relevant to the band’s popularity and ticket sales. If it works, who am I to pass judgement? I just don’t understand why a player wouldn’t want his axe to sound as it was designed and built.

Geez, an old 15K$+ Martin sounding like a beat up ovation…oh well…Anyways Sonny, these are just my thoughts and opinions. And as you know, opinions are like exit ramps, they’re everywhere.

Gary Lee Gimble

Gary Gimble. Thank you for your thesis concerning your mediocre steel guitar playing, which you say has you booked solid for a long time. I would like to ask you a question. Booked solid doing what and where? I know just about every great steel guitar player from Buddy Emmons and Buddy Charlton to Hal Rugg and Paul Franklin, but your work with the steel guitar and your name slips my mind. I would still like to know where and when you are booked solid, and if it’s recording sessions…who and what label.

As far as selling the electric bass, we had no problem and sold thousands of records on Decca label and especially after we hired J. D. Brock and Dennis Digby, stylists in their own right. They were the best. And so we had no trouble selling them, because of their talent.

I can’t go into the problems and equations that we had to work out when it came to electrified instruments. Of course the volume on stage increased drastically because.. hello .. we were electric which made it louder naturally.


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!

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

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.