Ask Sonny Anything… did you know Jerry Lee Lewis or Stringbean?

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.

Sonny, I’ve been reading Hellfire, a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. A true madman and a great, great singer, although not bluegrass of course. There’s a hair-raising account of his appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in January 1973. I’m wondering if you happened to witness this or if you ever encountered “the killer.”

A fan for more than 60 (!) years,
Fred G.

Fred G….I knew Jerry pretty well…first name basis. Although I have been present at some of his crazy antics, he always treated me with the greatest respect. I was never a big fan of Jerry’s music although I respected it, and him to the utmost…and I don’t suppose he was much of a fan of our music, but we seemed to co-exist and become pretty good friends.

For sure, I witnessed a lot. Macon, Georgia coliseum… The show promoters went to him before the show started and called him MR Lewis. Explaining that they had just received their Steinway piano back from a complete overhaul and it had been tuned just before it was returned that afternoon, and would he please be gentle with it. He said “why of course!” With that reply, I figured school was out for that Steinway. Sure enough, when he was introduced and with both hands just started beating on the keyboard of the aforementioned Steinway who had been tuned, etc that day. Piano, Jerry, bench, all were mounted on a platform with rollers. Stage hands appeared and proceeded to roll piano and all passengers aboard the platform, right off the stage. I’ll stop right there because it got ugly during the following 20 minutes.

BOWIE MARYLAND RACE TRACK IN THE RAIN. They moved the show to the bleachers. We played to 40 people, Jerry was introduced to the same disgruntled 40. He hit a chord on this antique upright piano which was as out of tune, if not more so than any piano I’ve ever seen or heard…and that includes the Kimball sitting in my living room as we speak. Jerry called a band member to come down and help and they proceeded to literally climb inside that old relic and did a number on the hammers and pieces of felt among what ever else was in there. All 40 people were in the aisle laughing, as was I. When he was finished he said..”Well, nobody else will ever have a problem with that thang!” Only Jerry made that statement a bit more colorful, actually, a whole bunch more!


Hello Sonny, can you tell us any stories of Stringbean? And why is he not in the country music hall of fame? One of my heroes.

Jacob P.

Jacob P. welcome, come on in hyer….David Akeman…Stringbean. One of the nicer people I met during my career. I knew him well enough that when he was brutally murdered it hurt. Really hurt. We were sitting at a truck stop a few miles west of Warrenton, VA and heard Grant Turner announced their deaths. We had seen them the night before at the Opry and just like that they were gone.

Bean had approached me the night before and asked if I would be interested in buying some property with him. He would find out on Monday the actual information. We had been members of the Opry 11 years when he was killed…murdered. Guess what, the SOB who did it is walking the streets of Nashville now. Paroled.

They tell me that after a person does a third of their time they become eligible for parole. Big deal. They murdered two innocent, honest, wonderful people and we, through our tax dollars, house and feed them, give free medical, TV, iPads… and after a while turn them loose on society. Oh, they have been rehabbed. TWO WORDS.

More than occasionally he would look me up and stand there holding that pipe. Finally he would ask if I had any extra banjo strings and I would give him a few sets. Over the 11 years I probably gave him 30-50 sets. Why he is not in the Country Music Hall of Fame, or the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, I’m afraid I can’t answer that. Personally I think he should be but….David was a good man.


Sonny, did you ever use any picks, hand made by James R, “Jimmy” Hypes. We were in the Navy together, and he also played banjo back in the early to mid fifties. He was also an Aviation Metalsmith. He later sold his picks all over the world, he was originally from around Princeton, WV.

Dallas H.

Dallas. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it. I did not get to use Hypes picks. I trust from your description of Mr. Hypes, he was pretty smart when it comes to metal work. Sorry to say I didn’t have the opportunity of using, or trying his finger picks.

My choice throughout my career were National picks made in the ’30s-’40s. They were supposed to be made with German Silver. What is German Silver…I don’t know what that would have to do with it, but they were good. The best I used or saw until Dean Hoffmeyer started making finger picks. I liked them so well I asked him to put my name on them. They are as close to the old Nationals as anything I’ve seen. Am I bragging about them because my name is on them? You got that right. I put my name on anything I could use, like GHS Strings, Elliott Capos, The Chief Banjo, and Osborne Hoffmeyer finger picks. They are the real deal.


Hi Mr. Sonny,
The post from Karen Artis caught my eye (you mentioned you knew a fellow named Bob). Any-who I print these out weekly to give to my Dad as he is not computer savvy and doesn’t even own one. I grew up with my parents in Calcutta/East Liverpool, Ohio (we now live close to Bakersfield, California) and my Dad was friends with Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers group along with the Wildwood Express, mainly guilty by association with a fellar named Jim Osborne in the ’70s.

For the most part the Dixie Travelers played at Walsh’s Lounge and various local festivals, along with good ole fashioned back porch pickin’. His favorite banjo player has and will always be Billy Bryant. Also my Dad has a Bill Monroe biography that Bob Artis wrote and signed and is one of his treasures. I’m sure my Dad would get a kick out of any stories you have to tell (I haven’t told him I’m writing this, wanted it to be a surprise when he reads it).

Thank you very much
C. Pezer

C. Pezer….I thank you for your time however I’m not sure I can answer this. The name Mac Martin is vaguely familiar to me but the rest is not. You mentioned stories and that’s 80% of what this thing is about, plus questions folks have concerning my career. Most of the people I write about are those I know or have known. I’m truly sorry because I feel I have let you down, but I just don’t have stories about these folks…not even here-say. Surely, I should know a banjo player by ANY name, but Billy Bryant escapes me. I knew Donnie Bryant but not Billy. I’m sorry but if you have a question I’ll be glad to go for it. I know Herb Pederson, Buck, Merle, Roy Nichols, Norm Hamlet, The Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Sorry.


The Chief Banjos first came into existence on June 16, 1998. I received the first one from my builder Frank Neat…it was prototype number 00. I still have it. Great banjo very close to the old Granada sound. This week one friend, Roger Sterry sold 0001 to another friend – Lincoln Hensley. Going back to when this banjo was new, Dale deceased…was the original owner. When Dale passed this life his widow sent the banjo to me to sell for her. I took it back to Frank and had him go over and repair anything which he saw that was out of order. When he returned it, Roger bought it from me in 2014. This week he asked me to find a new home for it and I asked Lincoln if he was interested. Long story short, Roger got a great price, Lincoln? he got his “Dream banjo.” And I have two happy friends.

I heard 0001 on Facebook last night and again today I tell you the fact, this is the closest sound to the old banjos, and surpassing some. It’s 22 years old now and maybe like some humans, start to mature at about that age. I better check 00 again….if it’s anywhere near it’s brother, I think the price just went up on 00…maybe add a couple more 00 zeros…like $$$$. That 0001 sound got right on in my head.


Incidentally: Roger is wanting a Sonny Osborne model Vega. If anyone knows where there is one for sale, contact me at through Bluegrass Today and I’ll get the word to him. Thanks..

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.