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.
Editor’s Note: We just wanted to let readers know how seriously Sonny takes this weekly column. Even though he is still convalescing after suffering a serious head injury, and experiencing some brain haze, he wanted to be sure to answer your questions as promised. Thanks Chief!
I know, in the past, you have said you never cared much for melodic style banjo playing. However, you also have said regarding Béla Fleck, if that boy keeps playing like he plays is destined to become one of the greats. What did you hear in Béla’s playing that brought you to that conclusion? You were definitely correct!
Love your playing and everything the Osborne Bros ever recorded!
Neil A. North Carolina
Thank you for sharing your time with us here on this weakened version, of which Judy is typing and I’m trying to dictate.
Melodic banjo playing has never existed in my mind as real banjo playing, because I go back to the 40’s and early 50’s and that kind of playing was done by tenor banjo players or Don Reno. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting anybody down, because how can you put down people as talented as Béla Fleck, Jens Kruger, Tony Trischka, Alison Brown, and extremely talented people like that who chose the banjo to show their wares.
That group, and many more people who belong in that group, are some of the most talented people to ever pick up the banjo, but as I said before I’m from the early days, and traditional banjo playing was the monster of the day, and that’s where my focus was. However, in 1959, I saw Bill Keith for the first time and was not blown away because I think I saw a tidal wave coming….and I was right.
Dozens of boys and girls who had been trying to learn traditional banjo playing went to melodic, especially after Bill Keith’s recording of Sailor’s Hornpipe with Bill Monroe. It just kinda lit a flame under them and it looked kinda crazy after that. Now, to say that I’m not a fan of melodic playing is an understatement… as I told Bill Keith in 1959 “Bill, you have set real banjo playing back 25 years and we may not recover.” Bill’s reply was ‘the Bill Keith grin.’
I think I digressed there, but maybe not. What I have said about Béla Fleck has become a reality, and this is what I mean. Pick up one of Béla’s CDs and try to play what he plays. Can’t do it? Then pick up a Jens Kruger CD and try to do that. Well, I couldn’t. These are very talented men and they chose the banjo. I think I better stop there, before I give too much of my psyche away.
Mac Wiseman had a song called Goin’ Back to Bristol. Do you have a few stories from your time there?
Thank you for your precious time.
I didn’t spend any time in Bristol at WCYB, so I can’t honestly answer your question. Bobby, before the Marine Corps called, spent time there with Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers. Your reference to Mac Wiseman’s song, Goin’ Back to Bristol, and you asked if I had a few stories from my time there, and I don’t because when Bobby mustered out of the Marine Corps we chose Knoxville and Wheeling as our path to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.
Of all the festivals you played in your day, which was the one you most looked forward to every year and why.
…thank you Less, although that’s a really hard question you ask. When you ask of all the festivals I played, man you’re talking about hundreds, and to pick one is a near-impossibility. I can list a few that were really good, however.
Sunset Park in Oxford, PA .. Carlton Haney’s Camp Springs BG festival .. Mr Day’s Starvey Creek Festival in Conway, MO .. Fred Sanders’ Family Festival in McCalester, OK .. Bull Grunt Festival in Hugo, OK (Bill Grant) .. SONNY MADE ME TYPE THAT! .. just about all of Norman Adams’ festivals .. Roy Martin had some good festivals although not very successful .. Grass Valley, CA .. and there was a festival in WA state that was run by all people from TN, that was a bit cultish but it was good .. and then of course we had the Canadian Free-For-All made up mostly of hippies and “the flasher.”
Who was The Flasher, you might ask? He was a young man of about 20-25 years old who wore a very long overcoat. Now understand this, this was in the summertime, and he would go around to everyone in this huge crowd of 1000s and people would pay him $5 to go and “flash” a certain person…male, or female child. He would take their $5, stuff it into his well-heeled pockets, proceed to the victim, and stand before them and whilst stark naked open the overcoat fully. And there before the victim stood a well-endowed young man bare-assed naked. That was “The Flasher.”
It was such that for the entertainers’, protection..they had what looked like a 10-12’ chainlink fence between the audience and stage. On the day we were there, it had rained and the audience section was quite muddy. While we were on, one of the brighter audience participants got the brilliant idea to climb over that protective chainlink fence. When he hit the other side, there were 3 hefty gentlemen waiting for him who proceeded to throw his inebriated (high-on-something) ass back over the 10-12’ chainlink fence whereupon he landed flat on his back in a huge mud puddle. We stopped in the middle of the song and laughed at his inebriated muddy ass.
So much for the fun-filled festival days.
What exactly did you do when brother Bobby joined the military? How did it affect you and what went through you mind, Sonny?
Bobby was 6 years older than I, and he left home when he was just past 16 and I was 10, and not yet having started to play the banjo which came at age 11 for me. I’m sure his being absent was hard on my parents, but I was too young to understand what was going on.
When he got his call to service, it was a blow to everyone but I was just too young for it to make any sense. A year and a half later I was playing banjo for Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, and my mind was in too much of a whirl to think about anything else other than music.
After my first stint with Bill, I went back to school and during that time Bobby was wounded, and I saw my parents who were in their mid-40s go from relatively young to relatively old, and I guess at about that time is when it dawned on me what was actually happening. I never doubted that Bobby would make it OK, and my mind was still trying to figure out what we would do, musically, when he got back.
After he was released, in late-October early-November 1953, Enos Johnson who played guitar had called ahead to Cas Walker and secured a job for us on WROL, and we started there on November 6, 1953. So… taking all this into consideration, my mind actually stayed on music and what we were going to do when he got back. It never once dawned on me, until he got back and told me, that he had gotten 7 pieces of shrapnel in his head and the helmet saved his life. Had I known this, I would have been scared $***less. But I was a kid who had dropped out of school to go play with Bill Monroe. Which was stupid on my part.
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.