Ask Sonny Anything… How can we improve bluegrass music?

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.

Lately one of my favorite songs to listen to is Down in Willow Garden. I love the sound of your banjo playing in this song. Any special stories about how you came to record it? Did you perform it in concert very often? By the way, I recently re-visited the Country Family Reunion Grassroots to Bluegrass, and really enjoyed all of your input and good humor. It looked like an incredible time for all of you.

Cory S.

I appreciate you for joining in to our little fiasco.

Down In The Willow Garden has many different versions. One going back to 1811, with slightly different lyrics. The version we did in 1957 with Red Allen, brother Bobby played twin banjos with me. Red (Harley) and Bobby sang a duet, and the lyric we used was the same as Charlie Monroe from his recording in 1947. I think the original title was Rose Connely. Actually the same story, he got her drunk, she passed out, he poisoned her, stabbed her, and then if that wasn’t enough, he threw her in the river…why? Because “his father often told him that money would set him free, If he did murder that dear little girl who’s name was Rose Connely.” The old man would buy his way out of prison and he would escape the hangman’s noose. HELLO…it didn’t work. “So now he sits in his cabin door ah wipin’ his tear dimmed eyes, ah looking at his own dear son upon the scaffold high!” Now, this brings up the question, why did this guy’s Dad want the girl eliminated? My guess is Hanky Panky enters the picture here!!!! YOU RECKON???? “My race is run, beneath the sun, the Gallows is ah waitin’ for me, for I did murder that dear little girl who’s name was Rose Connely.”

Yes we did it on nearly every show…especially during the Red Allen era…1956-1958. Very popular song. After I told my version of the story, people got right into the song. Sold a lot of records. Country Family Reunion shows were the most fun ever. No pressure at all, just sit around and enjoy your friends. Look closely, you’ll find that most are gone.
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Sonny,

If you were granted one wish that would improve the future of bluegrass, what would it be?

Bob R.

Bob…that’s one of the better questions anyone has asked.

And, one of the shortest answers ever. My short answer is: IT WOULD BE MANDATORY FOR EVERYONE WHO ATTEMPTS TO PLAY THE STYLE OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC TO GO BACK AND STUDY IT’S ORIGIN. That’s possible because we know when it began. If one would want to go back to the David Akeman (String Bean) period or to the Flatt and Scruggs era, we know the complete history from then. We know where it started and where it has gone since, and the people who have taken it there. Complete, from the beginning till now.
AND THE GRAND OLE OPRY TO GET OFF THEIR ASS AND HIRE ONE OR MORE OF THESE: RHONDA VINCENT, JOE MULLINS, LARRY STEPHENSON, IIIrd TYME OUT, THE LONESOME RIVER BAND, AND MORE…LOTS MORE OF COURSE. PEOPLE WHO LOVE AND RESPECT THE OPRY… PEOPLE WHO SAY GRAND “OLE” OPRY, NOT GRAND “OLD” OPRY. And…..ANY MEMBER WHO STANDS NEAR THAT CIRCLE AND SAYS “OLD” SHOULD IMMEDIATELY BE FIRED, AND ESCORTED FROM THE BUILDING.đź‘ż It was my life for 43 years, I take it seriously.
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Hey Sonny,

When you and Bobby were getting ready to record, who picked the songs? And was it pretty easy for you two to agree on song choices? Ruby is such an Osborne standard. Who found that hit for ya?

A curious songwriter

Curious

When we were getting material ready for a session, it was usually a joint thing with Bobby having the tiebreaking vote. He had to sing the songs so I thought it only fair that he had the final word. You want to know something? We worked together for over 50 years and had no bad arguments, I’m talking NONE. Surely, we had disagreements, lots of them but never one that couldn’t be solved peacefully. Bobby and I and our families lived about 40 miles apart and we saw life itself quite differently so we never associated when we were not working. We saw enough of one another on the road I guess.

Ruby is a song first recorded by Cousin Emmy and that was the first that we heard it. Our Dad played clawhammer banjo and he taught the song to Bobby. The first appearance Bobby made on WPFB radio in Middletown Ohio, about 1947, he sang Ruby and the station got a bunch of calls to have him do it again. Then when we got our MGM recording contract, Ruby was our first release. Then in 1964 when we became members of The Grand Ole Opry, guess what we sung the night we were introduced as full fledged members of that legendary DREAM…Ole Ruby. Probably our most requested song throughout our career. Bobby’s clear voice just blew everyone away. Aye…I’m one lucky dude to have someone like Bobby to do a lifetime partnership with.
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Sonny,

Your love of the banjo is as evident as your respect and passion for the music itself. Out of all the instruments you could have chosen, what drew you to the banjo? And knowing how hard that instrument is to play well, at what moment did you say to yourself; I think I can do this!

Al in San Diego

Al in beautiful San Diego. Hey, do you know who Wayne Rice is? Used to have a radio show there. KSON? Right?

I saw Larry Richardson play the three finger style and something just happened. Funny thing with Larry. I asked him to let me see the right hand… you know, how he did that sound. He turned his back to me and played it. I mean, I’m 10 years old and you tell me what could I do that would have an affect on his career. The sound of the banjo just drilled it’s way into my brain somehow. I loved that sound from that moment until now… at 82 and it’s still just as strong. Shortly after that incident I asked my Dad if I could have a five string banjo. At my school, Jefferson Township… they were offering lessons if a student would buy the instrument through them. Dad paid the $100 dollars and don’t ask me how, but as soon as I got the Kay banjo I could play We’ll Be Sweethearts in Heaven, (Stanley Brothers) Ralph’s break was so simple, a child could do it… Hello…I was a child… it just came to me and within days, with no lessons, I was able to play Cripple Creek. Not very well, but you could understand what I was playing. It just came to me easy. Thank you Lord! Along about this time I told my Dad I thought I could do this. I was 11 by then. That love never left me AND I STILL HAVE IT NOW, 72 years later.
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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.