Ask Sonny Anything… Jim Mills asks about Don Reno’s barbering

Howdy folks! Time for this week’s Question and Answer show! Hyar we go…..




A hundred years from now, a young person will be drawn to the sound of bluegrass music, and they will hear that inner voice that tells them “you can do this,” and they will acquire an instrument and begin learning. Inevitably during their journey, that person will discover the Osborne Brothers, and will be mesmerized as they delve into the music you guys made. If you could send a personal note to that person, 100 years in the future, what would it say?

Alan B.

Alan thank you for being part of our search for truthful knowledge, which at any given time you might find one, both, or neither at this location. But we welcome you to….whatever.

100 years from now anyone seeking advice from a 183 year old has been…(or never was)…that feller would be questionable, but lets see hyer… Flatt and Scruggs was in their prime with Bennie Martin about 170 years ago. So that leaves us with an individual who somehow found a note in a bottle of Balvenie scotch somewhere off the coast of Nunavut Canada…and my name as “Bluegrass music” player and singer of note in the year of 2023. So this unfortunate person needs advice from the past. That would be: Bill Monroe- 1940-1947…Flatt and Scruggs-1950-57…Osborne Bros 1963-1979. (this writer is prejudiced…sorry..not!) then practicepracticepracticepracticepractice……….

It is difficult to imagine what advice one would give 100 years in the future, because of the advances in technology by that time, and maybe tv, cds, recording studios, etc will have been obsolete for some time. I’m sure the terminology we use now might be gibberish to these future pickers. You would first have to explain what everything IS ..


This is Jim Mills…and hope you are doing well…I wanted to say I really enjoy reading your “Ask Sonny Anything” column…

That said…And you may have already covered this story on there…If so I apologize for asking…but in 1988…(33 years ago!!!Damn!!!) …Back when I was with Doyle Lawson…and we saw each other nearly every weekend throughout the summer festival season….you told me a story about Don Reno coming up on your motor home at a festival back in the 1970s…it was hot and you guys had a cold AC…while you were both sitting there relaxing and conversing…this long haired hippy guy walks in and sits down…and quickly goes to sleep in the chair…each of you thought he was a friend of the other and so didn’t say anything…when y’all figured out neither of you knew him…Don decided that this fellow was “definitely in need of a hair cut”!!!

Take care Sonny and stay safe and well.


Jimmy Mills (banjo picker supreme and THE authority on vintage banjos) 1970…Watermelon Park, Berryville, VA. Don Reno and I were sitting in our motor home with the ice cold air, blowing on a hot day. Suddenly the door opened and this long haired, obviously inebriated, young man entered and proceeded to sit on a cabinet by the door and immediately passed out…or should I say “fell asleep” in lieu of being protested.

Don and I continued our conversation, solving several world problems per second. Don stopped, and asked me “who is that guy?” I said I thought he was someone who knew you. Don said that he didn’t know him but “he needs a haircut…bad!” With that Reno got up, saying he would be right back. He went next door and got his barber tools.

For you who doesn’t know, Don was a very good barber, so you guessed it, he gave our sleeping intruder one hellacious haircut….Don had all the moves to go with it…you know, stand back and frame his face, then take a little off here, and a bit off there till he got it right.

Oh, I forgot to mention this guy had beautiful long hair reaching below his shoulders. The great cut he got was a very short business man, around the ears job. When Don had him looking good, he gathered his tools and took them back. He came back and we resumed where we left off. The guy slept another 20 minutes, stood up, yawned, and walked out never to be seen again….by us.

I still laugh about it, and hope my wonderful friend Don Reno will smile about it. RIP brother Don.


Thanks for answering….I had a question for your Ask Sonny column. In the ’70s I heard you being interviewed by Hairl Hensley on WSM. At that time, WSM was playing zero bluegrass or anything resembling it. You made the comment to him about them playing Ruby by Buck Owens and Rocky Top by Lynn Anderson, while basically ignoring your and Bobby’s recordings of these songs, which were very superior to the ones they were playing. You were very cordial in your remarks, but you definitely got your point across while I was shouting “Amen” in my car while driving down the road. Just wondered if you recall this incident and would have any comments about it. Thank you sir for taking time to listen.

Cliff Starr

Cliff, it took a while but we finally got to you. Thank you for being a patient guy. We try. I remember the interview with Hairl. He was one of the better WSM people. When I asked him why they didn’t play bluegrass, real bluegrass, he didn’t have an answer. I don’t blame him nor any of the other guys who were under orders from a higher office. I don’t have any way to prove anything I say, just the fact the records were not being played by WSM should have been enough, right? Fact is, when Rocky Top was at its peak every place in town played it every day….not WSM. Well, it kinda made out ok, wouldn’t you say.


Dear Sonny,

I hope you are well. Thank you very much for doing this column. It means a lot to be able to communicate with you in this way. I have been listening to you since I was 1974. I still listen and I still learn.

The Osborne Brothers CMH Classic Collection contains some amazing banjo playing.

Did you tune or capo to C# to record Toy Heart? When you performed it live, did you perform it in the same key?

Your lead and back up playing are wonderful on Toy Heart. Some of the fills in the double tag at the end of the song had me putting back the needle many times! That diminished run is great! It is so cool and yours; and it fits perfectly. And then, to remind folks that you can nail down the Scruggs stuff, you quote some Martha White as a fill. Bravo!

In your great back up playing on slower tunes such tunes as Rank Strangers or A Vision of Mother, and much of your classic country influenced material, you achieve such good long notes on the banjo; the sound of your banjo’s sustain at this tempo is just great. It seems you were aiming for qualities of steel guitar or classic country electric guitar. Who influenced your style in this aspect of your playing? Could you talk a little about what you are focussing on as you play through the part on a slower tune? Earl Scruggs was known for going up on his fingernails to get more sustain from chosen notes. How did you physically approach the playing up the neck?

Thanks very much.

Chris Quinn

Chris, you paid me so many compliments I don’t much know where to start. Beginning is as good as any, I reckon. Toy Heart was recorded in the key of C with the fourth string tuned to C. When we did it live…same key…no capo..straight C. That was a fun song to record. I loved that we got by with the diminished and the “Good Marthy White” tribute to Lester and Earl.

My banjo has better sustain than most others I have played…almost illegal! I liked playing background and always tried to play notes that would make the song and the singer sound better, yet never get in the way, or take away from what was happening at the mic. That should always be on the mind of a musician…never get in the way and play tasty notes. I certainly learned a lot from other instruments, steel, electric guitar, piano…anything I could play on the banjo. I was friends with Earl. Saw him play a lot yet I never saw him use a fingernail…not once.

My mind is always on making the song better. My background almost becomes a behind the scenes solo… my background becomes a song of its own…from beginning to end, written on the spot…sometimes re-written for take 2. Sometimes during a song I hear a note from -2 that is needed at some other place other than where I originally played it, and it needed changed. I hope that explains it, somehow.

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.