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.
TO WHOM (OR WHO) IT MIGHT CONCERN.
I’M CONSTANTLY ASKED IF I HAVE ANY COMPLAINTS. YES…I DO. BUT I FIGURE THIS IS PROBABLY NOT THE PLACE FOR IT. THATS PERSONAL AND I BELIEVE THIS IS NOT. BUT I COULD BE WRONG. YOU RECKON?
Hello Sonny, I was just watching an old Bill Keith set on YouTube from about ’98 that someone had uploaded, and Bill asks a few trivia questions to the audience. He says he will give away a free set of banjo strings if anyone can guess Sonny Osbourne’s real name. Someone eventually says “Roland” and I don’t see a lot of info about why you are called Sonny, so my long-winded question is why do you go by the name Sonny? Love your banjo skills by the way and no one else has the same sound you have! All the best.
Anthony…thanks for joining us. Well, when I was born I was supposed to be named Rolland but at the Hyden hospital nor over on thousand sticks, they might not have known how to spell Rolland so someone might have said, “just put Sonny on the paper till someone straightens it out.”
Guess what, no one ever straightened it out, so to some my “real” name was Rolland and for some reason unbeknownst to all the rest of us, everyone called me Sonny. I know this is confusing but it’s the best I can do.
So, I started school. Central grade school in Dayton, Ohio. First grade, I reckon they asked my mom what’s his name. She said Rolland….didn’t have to prove anything. From that point on I was Rolland at school and Sonny to everyone else. This continued until the 10th grade when Bill Monroe and the banjo came calling.
I went to register for the draft at age 18. He asked my name and had to verify that by seeing my birth certificate. He looked at me right funny and said, “Look, I’m sorry but your name is not Rolland”…and he kinda snickered when he said, “it’s Sonny!” OK, I’m 6’2″ weighing 215 lbs and my rightful name is “Sonny.” Hey, at least it wasn’t SUE…he gave me the birth certificate back and just looked at me and said “You’ll hear from us!”
I went home and brought this up to my Mom and she just looked at me and told me that’s what everyone knows you by, so that’s your name. I never heard from the draft board again, no one ever said that name to me again until some bunch of nosey people with nothing else better to do, found out about Rolland. I didn’t deny it but also never talked about it much until now.
Ole Anthony even spelled my name wrong…well he actually didn’t misspell it, he used the English…OSBOURNE….which is quite alright. Oh, I forgot to tell you one other thing. It’s spelled ROLLAND so all through school they spelled it with one L. I figured they couldn’t show me how to play Cripple Creek in A flat so after 3 months of the 10th grade I opted out of school (partially because my future wife told me about some punks eating lunch in my ’35 Ford every day, and mainly because Bill Monroe had called). And I got right on out of there! har har… it didn’t work out too bad, did it?
Sonny – I have loved your performances since the ’60’s; thank you! Do you recall an incident in the early ’80’s, with the Rhode Island Cajun & Bluegrass Festival, where there was a booking mess-up (uh, mine, actually), and you agreed to a crazy, complicated plan: you drove the band early Sunday morning from Delaware to RI, on little sleep, played a long set for us, then boarded a small jet I’d chartered (it was after all my error…but the promoter’s money), to take you to meet your own band bus at a tiny airfield in VA, where you then played the closing set at another festival? You were real champs, and total pros – and you, Sonny, were a prince for agreeing to do it! I always wondered what that experience was like for you…and what you thought of those nutty bozos in RI.
Michael B….man I remember it so well. Those nutty Bozos in Rhode Island were a pleasure as compared to some of the clientele we must deal with.
Note, I am not complaining but when a promoter pays so little attention to booking artists that they hire us when they actually wanted the OSMOND clan, like Marie and Donnie….there is your BOZO. That has happened. What did I do? Collected the money and proceeded to the next day hoping it would be better. Most times it was.
Now, Michael…about that plane ride. The pilot had me ride in the co-pilot’s seat for some reason yet to be determined. We were going to the airport in Richlands, Virginia. He, the pilot asked me if I knew where this place was supposed to be and I told him I had been there before. He made three passes trying to find an airport. Apparently it showed itself on his chart but it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
Finally, we flew over this mountain and he said…”there it is”….hidden right over that mountain top with thick tree coverage was the Richland airport, where Bobby, some 35-40 years earlier as a member of The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers had worked a date or two with Flatt and Scruggs when they were at WCYB in Bristol.
As a matter of fact, Earl and Larry Richardson had a banjo playing contest. Larry played Train 45 and Earl did The Mama Blues. First contest was a tie. Second was no contest. Ezra Cline was doing the MC work and he asked Earl if he wanted any guitar backup and his reply was classic Earl..”HIT DON’T MAKE NO DIFFERENCE!” The first contest ending in a tie, they had a playoff…or in this case a “Pick off” in which Earl won handily. Was there really a tie? My opinion, of course not, but the pickoff drew over a thousand people. Good Business!
Bobby said Lester Flatt was on the radio show next day and talking about their contest, said something like; “Erl’ showed ’em what 5 string pickin’ is all about!” That more than likely was not his exact words but you get the idea, right? The folks who saw it got the idea too. Ole Erl layed the thumb to it and walked away with the champee’nship! Justly so. Thank you Michael, without your error as you called it, this would never have been brought to light again. It certainly lives in our memories though. s
I really like the album you all did with Mac Wiseman. I grew up in Richmond, VA when Mac and Reno & Smiley were on the Old Dominion Barn Dance there. Do you have any good stories about Mac? How about Don Reno? Did you and he ever get together to compare notes on the banjo?
I saw you and Bobby numerous times when you would come down to southern Maryland…first at Take It Easy Ranch and later at Lil Margaret’s Festival. Thanks for all the great music.
St. Inigoes, MD
Bob. Thanks for participating in our weekly free for all.
Take it Easy Ranch… Do you remember the guy with the Huge sunglasses and always drunker than Cootie Brown carrying a quart bottle of Miller’s beer? And how bout the Dog House? Did you ever see us there? Lil Margaret…yep we were on the first festival he had there.
Not many Mac stories floating around, especially that can be related in mixed company English….not here anyhow. Don Reno was another matter altogether. But I’ve told them all so many times now that I forget the ones I’ve already worn thin.
One of our last lunches Larry Stephenson was there and someone asked me to tell something I had told, and I said I had told it a ton and Larry said, “I’ve heard you tell this probably 20 times but I really like this one, so go ahead and tell it again!” I did!
Neither Don, Earl, Kenny or any of the great banjo players that I knew wanted to discuss banjos. Don and I talked once about his and Earl’s trade a little bit. True or not, I don’t know. I just go on what is told to me and by whom.
Don said Earl made three trips to Roanoke trying to trade him out of the Granada. He also RELATED TO ME THAT HIS BANJO WAS IN TERRIBLE CONDITION. I think he said he was stationed in Kansas when he received his orders to go overseas. He shipped the banjo back to South Carolina and a chunk of fiddle resin which was in the banjo case compartment, was placed too close to a heat source and it melted. He said it was pretty bad because by the time he got back to it, the resin after melting had hardened and crystalized. But, Earl wanted it and they traded. A trade which has been discussed and talked about since 1949. Probably will be forever. But, Earl made that banjo come to life, and Don’s playing was perfect for the style 75, so they both came out as winners. I’ve always thought the style 75 was the Foggy Mountain Breakdown banjo, but Earl said no. It was the Granada 9584-3.
I’ve been a fan of the Osborne Brothers for as long as I’ve known what bluegrass is, and I love the column. You and Bobby were able to expand the horizons of bluegrass instrumentally, vocally, and otherwise, while still maintaining the core elements. Do you see any differences between how the Osborne Brothers changed the sound, and the changes you see happening in bluegrass now? And do you think that some modern bluegrass may be starting to stray too far from its roots?
Cameron, thank you for your precious time. Man, it’s appreciated beyond words. This is really tough to answer without offending someone, and I’m not too worried about that. If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. Or somewhere there is an off and on or delete button.
So, as Raymond Huffmaster used to say as he was turning the radio off when he heard something he didn’t want to hear….”CUH LICK UH!” Funny, beautiful, honest, man. Best bus driver ever. Lotta good ones, but Raymond was the best. He drove us for 10 years. Thank you R.E…thank you Lord.
Back to Cameron’s question: The bands I’ve listened to are too modernized for my liking. Lead singers are doing the vibrato thing, Banjo player type people who hold the banjo are playing a thousand more notes than is necessary. Meaningless notes that have nothing to do with the song. Did Bill Keith or Bobby Thompson do it like that? If my memory serves me right, I don’t think so!
Mandolin players to the number are playing a style my brother Bobby and Jethro Burns started in the early ’50s, and I would bet a silver dollar that most do not recognize either as mandolin players. That’s a shame too. You don’t believe it? Go listen to records they did in the early ’50s. No, neither of them play the – unrelated to anything notes – you are trying to play now, sounds like mandolin and banjo players have a “HA, I PLAYED MORE NOTES THAN YOU DID!” contest going.
And, so lets get to harmony. Today an engineer mixes harmony like country engineers would do it. Lead in the middle and the other two parts a little below that…volume I’m talking about. You might say, well, these guys who are modernizing bluegrass are taking it to the bank doing this… I might counter that by saying…maybe so, Bobby and I, Lester and Earl, Mac, Don and Red, and of late Rhonda, with a few more made a few trips to the bank too. But, when their records are played, I don’t recognize any of these modern guys…. and you cant rely on the DJ to tell you who is playing what… I guess that’s against the union to do that…my old reliable WSM is playing pop and soft rock…then I go to KNON in Great Falls, Montana and they are playing music I can Identify with. Carl Smith, Ray Price….I’m way off the subject, am I not.
I told you it was a tough subject didn’t I? Are they straying too far from it’s roots? Son, they are in the top of the tree, out on a broken limb and the roots are buried in the ground 150 feet below. Now, you can take that as a YES. One of these days someone will be digging around and find us though…maybe.
I just got Chief 001 from you this week, and boy am I one happy banjo player! Anyways, just wondering when the Osborne Chief banjo line started, how many have been made, and what made you want to start making them?
So, Lincoln… how is old 0001 doing it for you? It surely sounded good the day you picked it up. I just hope that excitement continues.
When a person has that kind of fire in their eyes they can’t help but want to learn to do their best. So it will be for you. So you’ll know it’s history and someday someone who is wanting to get to you a little bit, I’ll just break right on out and tell you now. 0001 started out as all Chief banjos did, except 00 which I intended to keep which I did. 0001 came into this world as a nickel plated banjo with a Huber tone ring and it went to Dale Vanderpool.
After a while Dale called and wanted my opinion on whether he should have it changed to gold plated. He took it to Frank Neat and had it changed and that helped the sound some. Then about 2001 Dale wanted to get a Blaylock tone ring put in it…I had changed to a Blaylock exclusively so I ok’d that change. That banjo really woke up and Dale was satisfied.
After Dale’s untimely passing, Dale’s wife asked if I would take it and sell it for her. I did. Took it to Frank and had them go over it completely. Roger Sterry wanted to buy it because it belonged to Dale, and you now have it, having taken ownership from Roger. It’s a very good banjo, as good as any Chief ever. Equal to the best.
How the banjo company came to be? At lunch one day I made the remark to Wynn, Bobby’s son, that I had seen a Stelling priced at $6000 and it kinda floored me. I just said, for conversation that I bet I could have one built for a couple grand cheaper. He said, “Why don’t you?” I just said “I think I will,” and I called Frank Neat the next day. The word Chief came from the late Ronnie Blackwell. He played bass with us during the mid ’60s and he called me Chief from the moment he arrived. So the banjo became The Osborne Chief.
I would need to get books out to give you an exact count…and I’m not going to guess. But it’s more than 25 and not as many as 500. OK? My thought in the beginning was to build a professional quality banjo and give a Calton Case, Elliott Capo, and a Dogwood Designs leather strap with every Chief sold. I did that until Calton and Elliott priced their way right on out of my budget. I was never in the building business to make a living…but I didn’t want it to cost $$ to keep it up. So I stopped with the Calton attitude and Elliott neglect.
Now I give a Shubb Capo and a very good Osborne Chief case made by TKL. THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT ‘TIL SOMEBODY PROVES ME WRONG!
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.