Ask Sonny Anything… Did you teach Hank Jr to play banjo?

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,

Could you talk a little bit about your thoughts on Jimmy Martin’s guitar playing?

David

David. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it, but I bet you ain’t agonna like what I gots to say!

Jimmy Martin was as good as it gets, maybe the best when it comes to vocal, especially when he doesn’t get it too high,…vocally, that is. ;-o But even singing pretty high, he was still good. Of course Lester Flatt nor Larry Sparks, (ole John Deere Tractor) are not too shabby. But, you asked my opinion of Jimmy Martin’s guitar playing, because I didn’t mention Jimmy last week. However, I did mention Dana Cupp because he learned from Jimmy and he worked with us for a while. He’s what Jimmy should have sounded like. Solid and right on top of the beat. I know a lot of you people don’t want to hear this but I was asked for my opinion, and this is it. For me, Jimmy rushed the beat and it made it uncomfortable for me to play the banjo. He was too interested in his guitar runs. To me, that’s bad. Hey, I’m not knocking Jimmy, he was a solid professional. He (or others) carried himself well, and he dressed like a man going to work at his office, as did his band. I respect that. They entertained the crowd. (Maybe he just didn’t like me nor my banjo playing, and was in a hurry to get it done with). šŸ˜‰šŸ˜
s

—–

Hey sonny, I’ve listened to ya’lls music since I was a little feller. I learned to play rhythm guitar by ya’lls records, but the man who helped me the most was James Bowers, we called him Gar. He was my mentor and a good family friend. In Pinnacle, NC I shook your and Bobby’s hand, James introduced us at Lester Flatt’s campground in the ’70s. I thought he was great. Your thoughts please.

Terry C

Terry, welcome, during these trying times for humanity. James came to one of our shows in Mt. Airy once, and he seemed like an alright guy. He was a really good banjo player. Before I was 13 years old and trying to learn, I heard him play with Monroe on the Opry. One tune I was really impressed with was On My Way Back To The Old Home. He had a bit of a different way on his intro that I tried to do when I later went to work with Bill. One of his relatives wrote to me not too long after the show in Mt. Airy and said he had become a “stay at home guy,” and I respected that. Since retirement I have become the same.

Like me, maybe James figured he had seen and gone enough. One question for you concerning James….where did the “GAR” nickname come from? I always wanted to ask someone, so 50 years later it finally hit me, SO I ASK YOU! Thanks for writing. I look forward to hearing from you again. You all make this happen, you know!
s

—–

Hello Sonny,

I became a big fan of bluegrass music and especially Bobby and you while working in construction in Dayton in the late ’60s. At the time I worked with several part-time musicians who had been playing in the bars since moving north after WWII. They told a lot stories about bluegrass in the early ’50s, including one about a bluegrass bar in east Dayton where you had to put a quarter in a cigarbox on the stage before the musicians would get up to play a request. Do you recall this bar and did you and Bobby ever play for quarters?

Tom K

Hey Tom. Thanks for jumping into this bit of …whatever! I appreciate it a bunch. Answering your question, no we never worked for quarters, although it seemed like we were working for less sometimes. We played at several bars in Dayton, Ruby’s White Sands, Chrystal Palace in Fairborn, The Friendly Inn, Ring Bar, Johnny’s Night Club, we made the rounds. We were driving Yellow Cabs, Bobby had the soft job working at the airport in Vandalia, anyhow, driving cabs 6 days a week and working 4 nights a week at Johnny’s place when we were made members of The Grand Ole Opry. But, we never worked for quarters in a cigar box. As I said though, looking back, it seemed like it at times.
s

—–

Sonny,

As a rogue archivist and a student of the history of bluegrass music I am fascinated with the plethora of music parks that existed in the 1930s and into the 1980s. Many of these venues offered Saturday or Sunday (dinner on the grounds) shows and frequently booked bluegrass and country music acts on the same shows. Could you please provide a list that includes the names and locations of the many parks that you performed at, preferably the obscure ones! For instance some of the well know venues included, Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, IN, Watermelon Park in Berryville, VA, and New River Ranch in Rising Sun Maryland, etcā€¦

Thanks,

Danny C.

Hey Dan. You just mentioned several good places. Take it Easy Ranch in Callaway, Maryland, (Home of Tommy Taylor), Sunset Park in Oxford, PA, Triple Creek in Lancaster, PA, Shorty Fincher’s park in Hallam, PA, Frontier Ranch in Columbus, OH, Hill Billy Park in Hebron, OH, Buck Lake Ranch in Angola, IN, Disney Oklahoma, Hugo, OK, Sanders Family park in McAllester, OK, Kerrville, TX, Emminence, MO, Sally Mountain festival in Northern Missouri, California Bluegrass festival in Grass Valley, CA, Dalonaga, GA, Ellijay, GA, Myrtle Beach, SC, Cherokee, NC. They were all over the US and Canada, Germany, England, Japan, Switzerland. Bluegrass festivals were everywhere I tell you, everywhere! They crisscrossed this country. Seattle to Miami, Maine to San Diego. This could go on into next week but that’s all for now.

I think you were right in your statement about these parks existing from the ’30s but they went much longer than “into the ’80s.” Bluegrass festivals and music parks were still were going strong as late as 2019 until this disastrous Chinese Virus brought the whole world, including bluegrass festival parks to a screeching halt. Who knows what will happen when and if this thing will ever pass. If it does, and we still exist, you can make a pretty safe bet that our way of life won’t be the same. s…..MY OPINION. LIKE CHEVROLETS AND FORDS, EVERYBODY SHOULD HAVE HAD ONE.

—–

Hey Sonny,

I was watching a movie that stared a young Hank Williams JR a few days ago. In one scene he was playing a banjo in a studio setting along with many other well known musicians. The banjo was a Vega Sonny Osborne model. Iā€™ve heard that you taught Hank Jr to play banjo. Is this true and did you have anything to do with him getting that banjo?

Mickey H.

Mickey. Thank you for participating in this fun thang…. As a teenager, probably 17, Hank lived in Franklin with his Mom, Ms Audrey. I received a phone call from him and he asked me to teach him to play the banjo. He said he would come to my house and do these lessons. I told him I would try. To my recollection, that’s how it came about.

I met Hank Senior at the Opry when I was 14, and I saw Junior for the first time at a memorial show for Hank Senior on New Years day 1956-57 in Ohio. Junior was 8 years old. Audrey had him there. He came to my house several times and he learned rather quickly. His main concern was to learn to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I would guesstimate he was there 5-10 times. He wanted a Vega Sonny Osborne model banjo to play. Of course Mr. Nelson gave the banjo to him, for advertisement purposes. Junior played every instrument used on his show. I saw him play that banjo once. He played FMB. We didn’t work with him very many times, but during those banjo visits we became friends.

Judy and I visited his house a couple times, at his request. First time was unforgettable however. We went to the back door and knocked, he yelled from inside for us to come in, so we did. On a table no more than 8 feet from the door, and pointed straight at us, was a WWII Machine Gun, on a tripod, with Ammunition belt full installed. Of course, he was watching and we could hear him laughing. He called us in and proceeded to show us Hank Senior’s Collection of guns, clothes, guitars. He had a room full of things Hank had collected during his short life.

I recorded a song with Charlie Pride. It was titled The Best Banjo Picker in This Whole County. Junior insisted on going to the session at RCA Studio. There was one spot I needed to be in the key of G from D, and didn’t have time to use the tuners. I told Hank what I needed him to do at the exact time I motioned him to do it. He did. While I was playing, he worked both tuners perfectly. Just a little tidbit I wanted to throw in.

I could talk a long time about my association with Junior but I think I’ve said enough this time. Good guy, good friend. Talented beyond words. Great songwriter. Great singer. Great showman/entertainer. He will be 71 in May, I think I have that right. See Ya!
s

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.

Share this:

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.