Ask Sonny Anything… has bluegrass music gone too far from its roots?

Hey Chief, come on out, we’re all ready for another road trip through the pages of time. Take us back to the good ol’ days Sonny. And by the way, you were right. Ol’ Larry backed this monster into the driveway perfectly, just like you said…but I must confess, he had me a little stymied when we flew through the late ’70s straight into the mid ’60s last week. I was watching him carefully and he didn’t appear to change a bit. Time travel on the Bluegrass Express with Larry is strange, he never seems to age. He looks the same today as he did then. What’s up with that?

So, what’s up with the fact that Larry … can I say this?… he never grows old. But, he told me last week that he could back that bus into a mouse hole. So the fact that he never grows old or he can back that bus into a mouse hole both mean the same thing. So what’s up with that?

My grandmother had a little red tricycle and Daddy’s uncle Will had a Radio Flyer wagon that he got from Western Auto, which there wasn’t one within 350 miles of Thousandsticks but he, John Sandlin and Fred Napper, still pulled that little red wagon up and down the creek. And me and Bobby, just little boys at the time, jumped out into the creek and followed them and after that…. So, what’s up with that Terry?

You know, this reminds me a great deal of the Louis L’Amour books that involved the Sacketts. Years ago Raymond Huffmaster got me into reading 27 of L’Amour’s books. What I meant by this reminding me of those books, is that one of the Sacketts who lived in NH would hear that another Sackett who lived in Fort Forth, TX was in trouble. They rode horses, yet one would reach the other the next day. So, Larry can get the bus started and out of his driveway, and immediately we can be in Grass Valley, CA or we can be in Tokyo, Japan or Miami, FL etc etc etc.

You know, going back to Grass Valley, CA and we’re onstage and I’m playing the guitar and as I remember, I was playing You Are My Flower. Suddenly, during one of the breaks, I started playing The Wildwood Flower and Bobby didn’t know that I had changed songs and went to singing The Wildwood Flower which he didn’t know the words to. And that little ordeal went viral on Facebook.



You may or may not remember me. I played mandolin for the Goins Brothers throughout the ’90s, and the night before I got married you gave me a father/talk, I think it was at Paradise Lake in Ohio (still married to that gal, btw). I remember one time a fella asked you to sign a $2 bill and you refused. Melvin asked you why you didn’t touch it and you said they were bad luck. Melvin grumped, “bad luck if you don’t have any.” Just wondered why the thing with two-dollar bills.

John Keith

I remember you, John, playing mandolin with the Goins Brothers, Melvin and Ray. I also remember giving you a little heads-up the night before you got married, and yes that was at the great Paradise Lake in the great state of Ohio. And you say you’re still married to that same gal, and brother I’ve got news for you…I consider myself an expert on the subject because I married a womern from Ohio in 1958 and I’m still married to her, 63 years later. And she’s in the other room yellin’ and screamin’ at me, the same as yours is at you!!!! Or will be, shortly.

Now to get on to the $2 bill subject. I was asked to autograph more than one $2 bill over the years, which I refused to do. It just seems that every time I saw one of those damn things something bad happened. So I just assumed, for the rest of my life, they were just bad luck, and I can understand why Melvin would have said, grumpily, “Bad luck if you don’t have any!”

To say that Melvin was frugal, would be a complete stretch of the imagination, in fact to the breaking point.

I first met Melvin and Ray in Bluefield, WV when I was 11 yr old. Ray had an RB-3 wreath pattern Mastertone borrowed. That was the first REAL Mastertone that I had ever seen.

Nicer men were never born. (Borned …. Charlie Louvin)



Hi Sonny,

The Osborne Brothers seemed to push boundaries musically without leaving the core sound of bluegrass. Is that still a possibility in today’s bluegrass scene or have we gone too far as a genre to keep a foot in tradition while reaching the next musical frontier within the acoustic music spectrum simultaneously? If it is possible, where would we draw the line? If not, how will the music continue to grow if we curtail innovation?

Just Pondering,

Greg J.

Hey, Greg. Thank you for your time and participation. You asked whether we bluegrass people have taken it too far, and I say yes and no.

You are correct in saying that we stepped way out of the boundaries but I’ve always been of the notion that if you have something that can’t be duplicated, take advantage of it. And that is what we did.

My opinion was that we had Bobby’s voice, and our trio starting with Benny Birchfield, Dale Sledd, Ronnie Reno, Paul Brewster, Terry Eldredge, Terry Smith, and Darryl Moseley. None of which could be duplicated, in my opinion, and also in the opinion of the CMA awards people. The people who are playing bluegrass music today that would know something about the old way of doing it would be Jens Kruger, Sam Bush, Tony Trischka, and a few others that could play No Mother or Dad just like ole Earl.

Several others are either not good enough or too good to go back and play the original 1950-1954 bluegrass music, in my opinion.
When you hear a banjo player playing notes that don’t mean anything, that means he ‘doesn’t get it.’ Several years ago, I was sitting backstage at the IBMA awards show and this fellow came up behind me and began playing No Mother or Dad. That guy was Béla Fleck. He ‘gets it.’

Aaron, Kenny, Lincoln, Derek, and others that I could go on for half a page, they understand what it takes to play that way and why.
So to get back to your original question… “Have we gone too far?” Yes, as a matter of fact, I think we probably went too far but the bottom line is success and selling a product, which we did as did a few others. If you want to call that ‘too far’ so be it.


Hi Sonny, just wondered if you ever stayed at the Rocky Top Motel and in Gatlinburg owned by Boudleaux Bryant? I’m 62 and remember him there sometime when we stayed there when I was a child.

Thanks, Tommy

Tommy, thank you for your time. I appreciate it. You asked about the Rocky Top Motel in Gatlinburg. The Bryants retired from TN and moved the whole operation to Gatlinburg. Boudleaux and Felice bought two motels and joined them, and that became the Rocky Top Motel. Why did they call it the Rocky Top Motel? Because Rocky Top the song was written right down the street and it became one of their most profitable and most popular songs. A state song, the University of Tennessee fight song, and right up there with Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Blue Moon of Kentucky being one of the most popular bluegrass songs in history.

And no, we never stayed at the Rocky Top Motel. The Bryants lived a short distance from there, and they had an apartment above their garage, which is where me and her of 63 years stayed. It helps to have friends in higher places. Yuck Yuck


Sonny, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to see as many touring bluegrass bands as east coasters. Make’s me rather jealous. I will say, though, whenever a band like the Osborne Brothers came through, the bluegrass fans out here didn’t take it for granted. All the shows I’ve been able to attend over the years were filled with highly enthusiastically appreciative bluegrass fans. So my question is simple: You’ve toured all over the world, how did the warmth of the crowds out here compare with the many places you’ve performed?

Kory T.

Kory T…..So Kory, what does the T stand for?

Man, the Pacific Northwest is a long bus ride from here. But we made that trip more than once to Portland, Seattle, and on up into British Columbia and Alberta.

You are correct when you say the crowds were large, but it was kinda funny, because although they enjoyed the music that we did they were more concerned with how we looked, because they stared at us most of the time we were there. It reminded me a lot of riding through Hyden, KY in the ’50s. They almost lined the streets to see a strange car drive through town. It also reminded me that we listened to the Grand Ole Opry on radio and we heard Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, etc and wondered what they actually looked like.

My dad thought Bill Monroe would be a little bitty guy, but he turned out to be 6-4 and 275 lbs. That was when everything at the Grand Ole Opry was a myth. Too bad it’s not like that anymore. Now we know what size shoes everybody wears. So goes the greatest days of the greatest country show that ever existed…the Grand Ole Opry.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Muncton, New Brunswick the crowds were large and appreciative. But Munich and Berlin, Germany and Tokyo, Japan and Sweden….all those places, the crowds were good. They would line up for several blocks to get autographs after our shows.

So you asked how the crowds compared elsewhere in the world with the crowds in the Pacific Northwest. Well, I’m fixin’ to tell you.

In the eastern part of the United States, there were more bluegrass festivals and the crowds were larger. This is where we played most. These crowds saw us more often, and knew what to expect from us, songwise. The appreciation level was still pretty good. Then in the western part of the United States, which includes the great Northwest, where we didn’t appear on a regular basis, and although the crowds were slightly smaller, the appreciation level for our music was actually higher.

Bands like Doyle Lawson, the Seldom Scene, Rhonda Vincent, and some group of brothers would bring the house down no matter where they were playing.

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.