Ask Sonny Anything… “I bet I can sing higher than Bobby!”

Good morning Chief, it’s that time again. I’m out here in the bus with Larry, Lincoln and Professor Dan. The Prof. was sick about missing last week’s trip, but is raring to go this morning. And I mean that literally. He’s so jacked up on caffeine I haven’t been able to get a word in edgewise…and you may not either. He drank 3 double espressos and topped it off with a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk, caramel drizzle and half twist of lime!


Hey T, good to see you. Derek, Aynsley, and Nick are late. She’ll worry us all to the brink. She won’t put that fiddle down. That’s alright though. Thought we’d run over to Knoxville. Maybe get up with Larrry Mathis and Jim Smith. Man, Larry used to have the best RB-11 I ever, ever, saw. Reckon he’s still got it, Man it was a dandy. Used to work at WROL over in Knoxville…lived at the Gilbert Hotel, ate every day at the Golden Sun, right across the street from the Gilbert. Made $25 per week plus the extra we made from playing a percentage school house at night…this brought in an extra $10 (or less) every night. We didn’t draw large crowds in 1953. Ate a few Blue Circle hamburgers every night.

T. S. Old Lawrence can drive that bus can’t he. His and Dreamer’s little girl, Whisper, is into barrel racing I think, pretty good too.


Sonny, when I was a kid you guys played an old school house in Hickory Grove, SC. I think the local fire department held the event to raise money. Hickory Grove, SC was the home town of bluegrass promoter Roy Martin. Hickory Grove was in the middle of nowhere. Lol. Anyway, there was a guy in the crowd who actually had a very powerful, high range voice. He would continually yell out, “play that Cotton Eyed Joe.” I think he finally pissed you off and you let him have it. Lol. Do you recall this at all? I thought it was hilarious!! Hope you are doing well.

Cleveland, NC

Neil…Thank you for jumping right on back there to ’66 or ’67. I believe Roy was there that night. And if I’m not mistaken, we had a decent crowd of folks. If we had a heckler, that was one of our most detested parts of the business, and I would bet some pretty good $ that Bobby, or I didn’t let it go on very long. I never got the meaning of what a person who disrupted everyone came for. Recognition, surely if he kept on he was certain to get…reprimanded…or chastised…which one is the most harsh. What do you reckon they’re trying to do… embarrass the artist. Why do they pay $10-$20 to even come? If they come to see the Brothers’ show in Hickory Grove, South Carolina why in Heaven’s name would they request Cotton Eyed Joe when at the time we did not have a fiddle player.

I don’t recall that specific incident but I have been there done that many times. Once in Lavonia, or Ella Jay, Georgia. We had played song after song with no talking…must have been nearly 40 minutes, as we did on most our shows. We stopped to introduce our band and this goofball immediately starts screaming for us to play, not talk. I stopped the show, called for security to come get this guy, go to the gate and give his money back, and get him outa here. I said I would pay for his return money. They did.



Hello Sonny. There have been many great musicians who have become, for lack of a better term, forgotten by many as time has passed. One such musician is the great banjo player, Emmett Sullivan. Being the phenomenal player that you are, what are your thoughts on Emmett’s playing and what were some of your personal experiences with him?

Eli P.

Eli, I appreciate you taking the time. In answer to your question… Emmett was a good friend, funny man…very funny man. We didn’t work much with the Sullivan Family, but when we did, Emmett and I were close. I have run into this and been asked the same thing more than once, so I do have an answer that makes sense, to me. When a good player such as Emmett, plays with a group such as the Sullivan Family, their fans on a normal basis, come to hear the message in the songs, not specifically to hear Emmett…or others in this same predicament…who play the banjo, or fiddle, etc. I believe it happened to Allen Shelton because he worked for Jim and Jesse most of his career. He was not the featured musician in that band. Jesse’s unique style of playing the mandolin was the center of attention, thus getting Allen overlooked.



Sonny, one thing that amazes me in these exchanges is your ability to remember specific shows from specific years, many of which were decades ago. One would think that, as hard as you hit the road for so many years, that each show, festival, and town would blur into the next, and each year would sort of blur into the next. How are you able to recall so many shows so specifically?

Brian M.

Brian….appreciate your company. Come on in out of the cold, sit right there by the “far…but don’t git barnt!”

I can’t explain that memory thing. I have always been very observant and just remembered things, unique things that happen. I can remember an instrument lick that I heard…piano, steel, electric guitar, or Miles Davis. Any instrument, I could just remember it for years… then when a song appeared and that lick would fit right there, I remembered it. We incorporated many steel guitar licks in our vocal. Weird I guess, huh?



Sonny, I was at a show in Summersville, West Virginia, in the late eighties or early nineties that had “The Brothers” on the lineup. I remember being in the backstage area and overhearing you or a band member of yours talking about how high Bobby could sing back in the day. I don’t remember the specifics, just the subject matter. But it was mentioned that a fella one time “challenged” that he could sing higher than Bobby, and Bobby accepted that challenge…whatever that entailed. I’m not sure if there was money involved, bragging rights, or some good old fashioned fisticuffs. Do you remember this incident or did I just dream this?

Dale Vanderpool once told me that Red Allen used to say, “them boys sang so high that the baritone singer would get laryngitis.” Now that is high! Incidentally, I got to play that same festival, in Summersville, West Virginia, a few years back with Bobby. He was feeling a little hoarse that day and decided to sing the low tenor part on the choruses for one set. It didn’t seem right at all to me, but I can now say I got to sing the part above Bobby…more bragging rights, huh. Lol!

On a similar note, I read your “Harley Gabbard stories” section a few weeks back. I heard tale of Harley often coming down by the stage to watch the Brothers back in the day. Legend goes that when Bobby would start into Hey Bartender, Harley would become so excited at hearing Bobby’s high notes that he would haul off and slug whomever was standing next to him square in the upper arm. Not sure if this was a one-time incident or a recurring one, but it’s a pretty good story and sounds exactly like something Harley would have done.

Thanks again for all you’ve done and continue to do to inspire me. You’re one of the good guys.

~Tom F. from Indiana

Tom from Indiana…. I appreciate your kind words, more than you might know. Thank you.

Harley Gabbard would do that when he heard Bobby do Today Has Been a Lonesome Day.. I imagine Bartender too. Bobby was not the dude to challenge. We are completely different on that subject. Bobby’s answer to a challenge of that nature would be, “Prove it!” Mine would be, “OK, good, if you think so, I really don’t care!”

It happened at the University of Chicago. Mike Seeger and I were having a conversation and we overheard this guy tell Bobby that he thought he could sing higher. I had seen this before, and I told Mike that it was not going to have a pretty ending. No money, fistfights, or such was mentioned. But the challenge was there. They were sitting on a couch across the room from us, and it started with each singing a verse of a song with a very high line. Start in G, then A, then Bb, then B, and I could hear this old boy strain a bit. Bobby heard it too I reckon. He said to move it on up to D. Bobby hit the note without a problem. The guy tried, I’ll give him that BUT… Mike and I heard a pop across the room. The guy never said another word. Matter of fact, I saw Mike a couple years later and he told me the guy never sang again.

Lesson: You don’t challenge an old Marine that was front line in Korea that’s had a couple beers!



Since you and Bobby traveled so much did you ever get recognized and get special treatment by a fan at some place like a diner or gas station?

Ever get the “cold shoulder?”

Mike E.

Mike….Thank you for joining this free for all. We a’havin’ a big time. You’ve mentioned something that had happened to us many times but most of the time we declined. We found out early that if you accept their generosity, you leave yourself wide open for future favors, in some instances…not all by a long shot. I don’t mean to imply that at all. Then, if you can’t comply, you become the bad guy all of a sudden… Favors like, get them front row at the Opry, or something of that nature. Their cousin and 6 members of his wife’s third cousin’s brother in law is going to be in town and could you get them in to your show….maybe take them out to dinner after the show.

Now, I do things like this often when I want to, but I want to do it on my terms. Not because we accepted an offer of a Coke in 1956. Believe me, some people are like that….I’ll rephrase that….I want to make certain you understand that I said “some” people are like that. “Cold shoulder?” Why, yes I believe so, a few times. It seemed humorous to me because it was always as “pay back” for not complying to someone’s wishes. Like it was breaking our hearts. My goodness. It really pleases me no end, though, when I can pull some strings and do some one a favor. Don’t cost anything, maybe a phone call and don’t expect anything in return. Good feeling.


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.