Ask Sonny Anything… did you play a melodic lick on Kaw-liga?

Good morning Chief, and welcome to a brand new year. Let’s hope this one is a little better than the last. Mercy. In the meantime, the fans below are waiting in the bus out front to take you back to the good ol’ days. Enjoy the ride my brother!


I want you to look over there driving us back to 1953…That’s Larry Stephenson. Turn the heat on Lawrence and get us outa hyer…Howdy Huffy, how you doin’?


Sonny, I know you have disdain for melodic style banjo playing, but I’m pretty sure I heard you play a melodic style lick near the end of Kaw-Liga!! You want to comment?

Bro 2a

So, howdy there Bro 2…Thank you for participating…glad to have your company for a few minutes. The thing you are talking about is something I came up with when I recorded some Gospel song. I liked it, and have used it on a numerous amount of songs. I showed it to Kristin Benson, and she used it on Larry Stephenson’s record of Me and My Old Banjo. It’s a good lick, sorry, not melodic. Play that for Brothers Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, or Jens Krüger… they would laugh I bet. I was shamed (by Grady Martin) into doing a melodic ending on Cut The Cornbread. Dammitttttttt! He said I couldn’t. WRONG….



Hey Sonny, I got to see you live at the Milan Bluegrass festival around 2004-2006. J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams were there. It was a blast. I was in my early 20s at the time, and was so stoked to hear ya’ll play. I let J.D. Crowe sign my banjo, and later on you saw me standing off to the side, you grinned and asked if I would like an autograph. I whipped out a piece of paper cause I actually didn’t want you to sign my banjo, I’m embarrassed to say, ’cause I was new to bluegrass, and all I knew was I was solid traditional and had been told you went electric back in the day. I regret that now. You were very gracious to a confused young man and truly made feel comfortable.

Your show was awesome and I have since learned musicians have families who need to eat and you are as traditional as they come in your banjo playing. A true disciple of Earl. Thank you for the years of blessing us with your talent.

Now my question…I really enjoyed the multi faceted banjo playing of Cia Cherryholmes. I’ve heard her play half a roll of Earl and end up in Reno style, go melodic and then back to Earl, all while sounding as old as the hills. Did you ever get to hear her and what were your thoughts?


Well, look at it this way. If you didn’t want me to sign your banjo, then I shouldn’t have signed it…and I hope I didn’t…..HAHAHAHA. The electric thing, the drums, the type material we did, that decision might not have been popular with some, but it sent Judy to the bank every Monday and put us on tour a lot more… and we found a way to put more people in the seats, and that put kids through college, bought houses, farms, and new cars, etc!

It was Bobby, The Grand Ole Opry, Roll Muddy River, Benny Birchfield doing that killer harmony with us on Pathway of Teardrops, ROCKY TOP. If that sounds big headed, conceited, well… listen to this. This’ll blow your hat in the creek….Bluegrass Junction just released a list: “75 of the most important songs of the last 75 years.” With great pride I wish to inform you that Rocky Top came in first and we Brothers had 5 of those 75… So, maybe that is proper grounds to strut and be big headed for a minute or two, huh?… Naw, I think not, I don’t know how to do that!! (Pride is the word. I’ve assured you that there is not a drop of conceit or big headed blood in my body and there still isn’t. BY GOD, it was just too hard and it took it’s toll on us, just getting here.)

So, let us talk about Cia for a moment. I’m actually not familiar with her banjo work. I knew them, and as a family band they were quite popular for a minute there, but for some reason that went away quickly. You say she would play a partial E roll and switch to a Don Reno roll. This tells me the Earl roll got too complicated, so she went to a much more simple right hand roll, and then to the dreaded “melodic.” So that tells me this…. This might be HER thinking whils’t playing. “That roll coming in the next line, I didn’t take the time to learn that funny sounding roll thingy he did, so I’ll switch and start playing like Don…that’s all forward, much easier, wait though…. Here, dang it, I don’t remember how his left hand goes in this next part, I better throw in a couple hundred quick melodic notes that mean nothing…whew, that was a rough one!” Or, perhaps she was just showing her prowess in being able to switch, as I said, I’m not that familiar with her playing. I love making up stuff and having fun doing it. NO HARM INTENDED.



Sonny, I am from Freetown Indiana. My grandfather’s brother was Tommy Sutton. He was a singer, songwriter, DJ in the ’40s through ’60s! Thought you might appreciate this story. In the sixties (my grandfather, Alvin Sutton, was in the hospital (we thought dying, but he rallied that time). They called the family in (a big family with other musical renown). One night, Uncle Tommy and I were the only ones at his bedside all night. Tommy ask me, “Larry, did you ever hear of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?” I said, “Yessir I have!” He said, “Well, I don’t know who they are, but they send me a really nice check every once in a while!”

Do you remember Tommy Sutton from around Youngstown, Ohio? Did you work with him or play at festivals with him? Do you have any interesting stories with him?

Mary E.

Mary, thank you for your time. The Tommy Sutton I thought I knew happens to be the same person you knew. He was a DJ at WPFB in Middletown, Ohio and then moved to WONE, WING, WHIO in Dayton when I knew Tommy and Mary Lou. However, I googled Sutton and learned a great deal about Tommy Sutton.

My Sutton was very instrumental in acquiring our MGM record contract in 1956. He worked in Youngstown, Ohio, Wheeling, WV, St Louis, Indianapolis, he was all over. Yes he did play the bass, sang, acted a little bit. I am not aware of Tommy as being a songwriter, although his name is on quite a few songs…some that we recorded. I know he did not write those songs.

Here is/was the process. A person would promise the writer that if they would give up half the writer credit, this person would get it recorded. This was done as a common practice. Also a songwriter would sell songs when they needed money. Some mighty big songs were sold to artists who would put their name on it as writer. This practice goes back to and before the ’30s, and I suppose it happens now…. I’m telling you of the times of which I am certain.

A name appeared on several songs which Wade Birchfield was the sole writer. Songs he wrote while living in the same apartment in Detroit, 1954-55, with Jimmy and I. (or is it me, Sandy?) Does this surprise you. It shouldn’t. If there is money involved, every kind of scheme imaginable will happen. Just any way to get it to go from a needy/GREEDY person to a recipient of the same ilk. (thank you, Judy)

After Dayton, Tommy Sutton retired and moved to Gallatin, Tennessee…I assume, where he and his wife resided until his death…in 1992..



1) Hi Sonny. I’m a big fan! Had the privilege to see you a few times growing up both at Bean Blossom and Renfro Valley in the ’70s and early ’80s. I’m wondering if you have an opinion on Sturgill Simpson as a singer/song writer/picker (not strictly bluegrass, but he cut his teeth on it). He’s a good ol’ Eastern Kentucky boy like yourself, and covered, Listening to the Rain. I’m wondering if you have heard his version of this song or anything off of his new bluegrass Album, Cuttin’ Grass (seems to me I’ve heard that album title before). I know you’ve already shared your opinion on some other newer artists like Billy Strings…wondering if you have an opinion on Sturgill. If not him, are there any new artists that you have taken a shine to?

2) Next question, I’ve had the privilege to spend some time with George Gruhn and done some business with him over the past couple years. Do you know George and, in your opinion is there a more knowledgeable individual on stringed instruments (guitars, mandolins, and banjos)? If so, who? Ever do business with George or spend any time with him?


Scott. Welcome and thank you for joining us. I am not familiar with Sturgill Simpson nor his recording of Listening To The Rain. I am aware however, of the use of Cuttin’ Grass for his album title. Which was a title used years ago by an up and coming act from the hills of Kentucky, Hyden to be more specific, Thousand Sticks, to be absolutely correct, how about Bull Creek (Thank you, Karen).

I don’t know very many new artists, mainly because I just don’t listen very much. You mentioned Billy Strings. I don’t personally know him as an adult, and I have seen very few TV clips, not enough to actually form an opinion other than he seems to be one hellacious guitar player. I heard his Opry debut. I believe it was from 2018. His band played a bluegrass song and honestly, I was not impressed.

The disc jockey of this day plays the records and never tells you the artist’s name, side men, nor song title most of the time. I detest that and if I were able to meet one I would have two words for him!!! I wish I understood their idea of playing records, but I do not. If I’m listening to a radio program and he/she plays one song and doesn’t give the artist credit, “cu-lick uh”…oh…what is that sound? That’s the show being turned off.

I’ll tell you a few great new players, in my opinion. Brandon Hinson, Ronnie and Robin Floyd McCoury, and we can’t leave out Jason Carter…all part of the Del McCoury band and the Traveling McCoury’s band…. Derek Vaden (works with The Larry Stephenson Band) and Lincoln Hensley. You can hear these guys on Facebook. Brandon recently posted a series of tunes, and Derek posts some things also and when we get back to normal (if ever), you can hear him with Larry’s band.

Lincoln ‘bigmouth’ Hensley, plays some great banjo with Aynsley Porchak (Fiddle_) and Lieutenant Professor Dan’l Boner. (Guitar and my favorite vocal) They do a thing every Tuesday called Tone Tuesday featuring some old bluegrass songs and instrumentals that’ll take you back to 1954 if you’re not careful. That girl Aynsley can play some fiddle. Think not? Get this: She won the Grand Masters here in Nashville in 2018, and…how about the Canadian Grand Masters in 2017. Git away’m hy’er! If you like old style bluegrass music done right, you won’t go wrong with these people. Lincoln, Brandon, and Derek will remind you of a traditional day when music was just plain good. You can understand what they are playing…without a degree in something or other.

George Gruhn. My friend for nigh onto 50 years. Good business man. I think George is the most knowledgeable, always honest with me, authority on vintage instruments I have known. Personally, I would not so much as consider the purchase of any instrument without contacting and showing it to George, and getting his approval. (I even have his cell number!!!!! {;-o)


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.