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 need to remind everyone who reads these lines of wit and woe…. When I mention specific dates and/or places, you must remember that most of the time we’re talking about something that might have happened 50 years ago… and I AM 82.5 YEARS OLD AND I HAVE APPROXIMATELY 4 MILLION MILES ON ME AND DROVE A GOODLY PORTION OF THEM! Raymond Huffmaster drove the other 358!!!! (Three hundred and fifty eight miles!)
Someone heard me say something about “The Ugly Banjo” and asked me to explain just exactly what it is. I had Frank Neat make a neck for me several years ago with an extended peghead that would accommodate ugly tuners, Keith tuners, and a set of cam tuners that George Hoppers made and gave to me in the late ’60s. Only hitch to that is that I couldn’t get the cams to work. Lincoln Hensley had a set that he said worked and they were made by old friend and great banjo player, Jerry Keys. I shipped the ugly banjo off to Lincoln and told him to fix it. He got with Jerry and they did just that. Now it has a set of Keith tuners on the first and fourth strings, a set of ugly tuners for the second and third strings and the Jerry Keys cam tuners also for the second and third strings. I know what you’re thinking…”What’re you gonna do with it now?” I don’t know just yet, but I’ve been thinking about it lately. I’ll come up with something. I mentioned Jerry Keys, who plays the fine banjo with the Paul Williams Victory Trio. If you’re not familiar with Jerry’s playing, you should be ’cause he’s the kind of guy you really should want to hear, especially if you’re getting started or hung up with your playing. Jerry is a guy that’s been around for a while and knows how to play. Excellent, great detail player. Every note in it’s place type of player. And those cam tuners he makes are just what you would expect from him too. Man, they work.
Sonny, I remember back in the early 1960s, I purchased an LP (I believe on MGM Records) and it was my first Osborne Bros. project. It had some great (ballad) material that I feature to this day on my radio program over NPR. I can’t remember, but it may have been Jimmy Brown Jr. working with you and Bobby at the time. Selections such as New Partner Waltz, and Sweet Thing, are still among my favorite Osborne Brothers’ recordings. (Give This Message To Your Heart w/Ira Louvin was also a favorite, but not from this specific LP) You told me of that trio once at a festival in NC that y’all were playing as we (East Virginia) were at the same time.
My question is: Do you have a time period, or perhaps a project that you thought was (possibly) your favorite? Seems like there is always a time period, or a band make-up that just seems like things sounded better, or the material was collected and recorded better, or a host of other concepts.
To you, thanks for being a part of bluegrass history, yours and Bobby’s contribution and induction into the HOF. Thank you for initiating the Osborne Bros. (trademark) sound back with Red Allen, and thank you for your quote to me back many years ago, that I have never forgotten. We were at a ball park in Hampton, VA doing a show with y’all and we were talking a while back stage, and you told me then (as I commented in a tiring schedule that was looking at both bands that summer) (you told me, and I quote) “the price you pay to be a hillbilly.” You were right then, and I never forgot.
Stay well my friend,
HAROLD, Thanks for taking the time to be here. Actually there was no direct time but rather a period of time covering several years. Probably from 1969 to 1976. We were all, Bobby and I and the band, were so focused that it seemed we could do no wrong. There was no owner, or leader…we all had our jobs and we did it. The whole group was The Osborne Brothers. Dale Sledd used to say, “One for one and all for all and every man for himself.” Figure that out and it’s right funny. Clicking on all cylinders, I think is what it’s called. Then, in the end – 220 days a year on the road, broken backs, white hair, arthritic hands and legs, worn out knees…That is the price you pay to be a Hillbilly. Lordy what a ride it was.
I am really enjoying your column. I grew up in Maryland listening to bluegrass on WAMU in the ’70s and ’80s, but now live in Clinton, SC. You mentioned playing here in 1963 (I think) which is before I was born, of course. Clinton is still a pretty small town so I imagine it was a much different place back then. What else do you remember about that show? Did you play at the local college (Presbyterian College) or on the town square? Thanks for all the music!
Doug, I appreciate your making it from Clinton. I remember that date. The Wilburn Brothers were on the show as was Crystal Gale. She was making a pretty big splash and it was our first time to see or hear her sing. She was a teenager…Loretta Lynn’s half sister. She was very pretty and could sing… beautiful voice. I remember it so well because when she finished her last song and walked off the stage she came straight at me. She stopped in front of me, shaking and nervous. I looked her right in the eyes and said: “That is the worst I have ever heard.” I waited perhaps 30 seconds and she was just on the verge of tearing and I laughed and told her I was joking. She was so nervous. I had that date wrong. I believe it must have been 1964, or perhaps a bit after that even.
Thanks for answering these questions from everyone. You have spoken about your relationship and admiration for Earl. What was your relationship with Lester?
Hey James. Welcome in out of the rain.
I guess I just naturally gravitated to Earl because of the banjo. We had something to talk about. Lester and Earl were both quiet men but gradually they became at ease and were fun to be around. Lester and I had a more business like relationship. Friendly but not the same with Earl. Earl and I did a few things together. Lester, never. Bobby, Lester, and I started a booking agency together and was quite profitable for a while. We discovered the guy running it for us was not doing what he should have been doing. So, we had to split… Lester should buy us out, or we should buy him out, which we did. Before that though we worked many dates together and everything was going smoothly. Flatt was fun to be around. Lester and Earl were successful country people… to me they didn’t want to be anything else. I hope this answers your question. It’s a hard one. It was a shame that it didn’t work out for them… they were so good together. I really loved them both… in a different way.
Who designed the artwork for gold plated Vega you played? The one Kenny Ingram used to tote around. It looked different from the couple other Vega Sonny Osborne models that I’ve seen. Did the Vega company give you much input?
John G. Thank you for your participation. That design was totally Vega. I tend to believe it came about originally in a VOX model, might have been a tenor and/or a plectrum which was more popular at the time of its arriving on the scene. I also believe mine was the first 5 string of that design, or maybe Earl. He had a Vega of close to the same design. Beautiful look and the best of the Vega’s I had… leading up to my Sonny O model. I still own all the banjos Vega made for me. Pro 2, Fat Banjo, Golden guy, and SO. Lincoln Hensley is playing that banjo (Golden) right now with the Price Sisters.
Sonny, how did Rocky Top end up as a “B” side song as a single, and did you have any idea the impact it would make? Also did you have any sort of extraordinary feeling about Rocky Top, or was it released as any other single with no particular expectation? Lastly, how did you feel about it compared to My Favorite Memory?
Rhonda V. Great name. I know another Rhonda V. Talented WOMERN!
We realized at some point that good ballad (slow) songs, if they made it to the charts… Billboard, Record World, and Cash Box were the most important at that time, If a song of that ilk made it to those charts, it would stay there longer, and the longer a song remained on those charts meant it was selling well and disc jockeys nationwide were playing it in their regular rotation.
Up tempo songs would make the charts but they would fade to oblivion at a much faster pace. Then if a slow ballad made it that song could stay in their rotation sometimes as long as a year. Fraulein by Bobby Helms stayed there a year in 1956. I believe that date is correct. When we heard My Favorite Memory we immediately agreed that this just might be the one.
We were going to record soon as I remember and we needed one more song. I called Boudleaux asking if he had anything. He had Rocky Top, I went over to his house and liked it, told him it would make a good bluegrass song. He polished it up a bit and brought the finished product to my house and Bobby, Dale, and I ran over it a couple times and we went that afternoon and recorded it. That was November 16, 1967. We also did a recut on Favorite Memory and it really happened and became our A side and hopefully “THE SONG!” It was released December 25, 1967 and we took it to Ralph Emery’s all night show at WSM and he played Favorite Memory. He liked it, we loved it. He said let’s see what the other side sounds like. He played Rocky Top and the phone lines lit up. In 10 days it had sold 80,000 records. We had “Our Song!”
What did I feel about it as compared to Memory? I liked Rocky and love what it did for Bluegrass Music and our career. It put us, a bluegrass band where no one had ever been. We were in the top 5 for CMA Vocal group of the Year 6 years in a row, winning the award in 1971, and Bluegrass Band of the Year from 1970 through 1979. Bragging? Hell yeah, tell me who wouldn’t? I’m proud of that. However, My Favorite Memory was and remains my favorite Osborne Brothers song. Written by Richard Stadler, a University of Texas student at the time.
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.