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.
I recently found a YouTube video of a live version of Don’t let Smoky Mountain Smoke Get In Your Eyes in which you went into Reuben a little on your banjo break. I noticed this is not on the album version. I am young (Senior in High School), and never had the opportunity to see you and Bobby live. Was it common for you on stage to quote a different tune during your breaks, or was this just a coincidence that it happened to be on video?
Howdy Dan’l….welcome in hyer!
Don’t Let Smokey Mtn. Smoke lent itself and begged to hear me play Reuben, so I thought it would be a fun thing to just go right into it after my normal break and make “Smoke” happy.. Somewhere, Woodstock, Wisconsin I think, I did that and Bobby turned to Terry Eldredge and said “Do you hear what he’s doing.” We were never the type people who stood on the stage and looked stone faced and stiff. We were doing what we were put on this earth to do, and loving every minute of it. How do I know that, you ask? Simple, Bobby would have never made it out of Korea in one piece if there did not exist a higher power with another plan for us. Another thing, we were always at the right place at the right time…What do I mean? How bout MGM, The Opry, Decca records, Rocky Top, Carlton Haney, Merle Haggard, and the list can go on….Thank you Lord!
Hello Sonny! What was the motivation for your excursion into electrified music, and did you have to endure excessive amounts of criticism from your fans or conversely, did it wind up bringing new listeners into your camp and enlarging your fan base?
The motivation was survival. Electric added to our instruments came as a necessity at the Flame Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We were booked there for a week, and the first night the folks sat out there and talked instead of listening to us. We decided make or break. They might not like us but they WERE going to at least hear us. Long story short, we blew the paint off the walls the next set. They listened, and heard bluegrass and liked it. Later Carlton Haney used us on all his Huge Country Package shows throughout the South, and a few scattered other places. We were competing with The Big Name COUNTRY ACTS WITH THEIR VERY LOUD ELECTRIC instruments. We’re talking 8-15,000 crowds and we were dying because folks couldn’t hear us. So we drug out the amps and pickups and blew more paint off the walls, and they loved it. We did too. Yes, we took a lot of heat from the diehard bluegrass fans, but we did what we had to do. Yes, by playing the venues where the large crowds were increased our popularity and fan base, probably equal to Flatt and Scruggs who in the late ’50s and early to mid ’60s was the standard we used. All was not lovely though, at Berryville, VA… Watermelon Park someone eased their way to the stage and cut my banjo cord. No problem, I had plenty more cords as this was not the first time that had been done. It worked so well for us that other bluegrass acts, JD and Adcock come to mind, tried it for a short while. But…WE HAD BOBBY, AND NO ONE ELSE DID AND HE COULDN’T BE DUPLICATED. Our record sales went through the roof and life was good. There are a couple interesting, funny stories about The Flame. You wanta hear it, I’ll get into that at a later date.
Back in my high school days, myself and two other class mates played music together, and we played together for many years afterwards. Sonny and Bobby were our idols. I played the 5-string and the others guys played flat-top and mandolin, respectively. And when we played, it was played just like the record. We love your music and your style thanks for being the greatest of the greats. And still today there is no one like The Osborne Brothers… Thanks for the memories and making Bluegrass Music what it is today…….
Thank you, Tim, for the kind words.
Compliments have always been important, always nice to know that our accomplishments are recognized and appreciated. At age 82, and soon to be 88 those words are quite a bit more important to a couple of advanced age, has-been hillbillies from so deep in the hills of Southeast Kentucky, why…the Grand Ole Opry didn’t get to us till Wednesday! And sometimes the battery radio would run down…which brings up another question. When the battery ran down, how did my Dad recharge it. We didn’t have electricity to plug in a charger, so…how? You ain’ta gonna believe this….it was so unique for someone to have a radio or record player (Talking machine) they would gather on Saturday night (I was just joking about Wednesday) to listen to George D. Hay, Founder of the Grand Ole Opry (The Solemn Ole Judge), Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb or Bill Monroe, then have discussions about how they looked, judging on their sound. I remember hearing Gabriel Heater’s news cast, (sponsored by WHIZ, THE BEST NICKEL CANDY THERE IS) and Joe Lewis knocking out Billy Conn. AND, Kentucky Wildcat Basketball. Where would we be without memories.
Thank you for starting this column. I think that your music is among the most beautiful ever recorded. It says above that you’re retired. What is your music life like these days? Do you still play? If not, do you hear music in your head and think about arrangements and melodies?
Suzanne, you’re most welcome here.
First and foremost. I did not start this column. Terry Herd and John Lawless are solely responsible. However, I love doing it and I thank them profusely for giving me this great opportunity. First off it’s kind, I believe.
I retired in 2005 and other than some health issues, I have enjoyed retirement and just to not have to rush around needing to be somewhere. I don’t have a schedule. I’m not one of these people that must be doing something, keeping busy. Retirement is supposed to be just what it is, whatever you want to do. That’s my opinion anyhow. Music? I haven’t played the banjo since Rotator Cuff surgery in 2003… November 23 in Myrtle Beach was my last time to play the banjo. I do hear and see things in my head that I would like to hear, and have written a few tunes but I think they are too complicated, not meaning “good” just “on paper” complicated to actually play…maybe someday I’ll show them to someone willing to take the chance. I don’t listen to music, with a few exceptions. I love Tommy Jackson’s fiddle playing….favorite is Fraulein by Bobby Helms. Tommy’s fiddle is just way too good on this song. Recorded in 1956 and stayed on the National charts for a year. I’ve been asked my thoughts on the future of Bluegrass Music. If you’re asking about the bluegrass that I know, I would say in my opinion it’s spiraling. Lacking in leadership. There are no more Flatt and Scruggs, Monroe, Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Stanley’s, Reno/Smiley, etc. To me these folks provided a standard…something to hear and learn from… OK, I included the OB…you think that’s conceited…I don’t. Sorry! Think what you will. My opinion. Always. A few, Rhonda, The Grascals, Joe Mullins, Lonesome River, Junior Sisk, Ralph 2, Del, Larry Sparks, Larry Stephenson…are trying to do it right. IN MY OPINION. I left some out. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t know everything.
Hey Sonny, About 8 years ago I was introduced to the banjo playing of Jens Kruger, and this was the beginning of my addiction to the banjo. Oddly enough I grew up in Kentucky, and was exposed to bluegrass but was “too hip for my fathers music” and listened to rock and roll. Now that I have come around to my musical ancestry and roots I have decided to spend the rest of my life trying to learn to play the banjo (starting in my late ’50s). Thankfully I can watch YouTube to see my wasted years and see everyone I missed live. I seem to remember Jens saying that you were a big influence on his banjo playing. Were you aware of that and have you met him? Thanks for doing this column.
Melinda… Thank you for your contribution to this fiasco. Fun hain’t it?
Yep, I do know Jens, Uwe, and Joel (Landsberg) not well but well enough to know Jens to be the very best mind I have ever encountered when it comes to banjo music. Like Béla Fleck, he is beyond words. Bill Evans and I did a banjo camp for about 13 years here in Nashville. Jens was one of our teachers on two occasions. He is unbelievable, alone and then to add his brudder and Joel, and it is truly better than words can describe. He came over to me once and we had a good conversation. He asked to play my Granada which I believe to be the very best banjo I was ever privileged (spelled properly by Judy) to play. After playing it for about 20 minutes he gave it back and said; “This banjo is like poison to me.” I was shocked. I asked why. He said “Because I don’t own it!” He is one of he most complete musicians I have ever met and also a genuine gentleman. He proceeded to play every break/tune I had ever played. It just totally surprised me and when he was finished he told me that my playing influenced him a great deal. Well, I’m not gullible enough to think what I did would have any thing to do to create this genius standing before me, so I just sat there with my mouth shut. My friend Jim Smith was sitting at the table with me and after Jens left he said something like…”WOW!” That’s what I thought. I don’t claim to understand one tenth of what Jens plays but suffice to say I’ve never heard anyone do what he does with such precision.
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.