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.
If you remember 3 Italian beauties from Connecticut that sang bluegrass/country back in the ’50s, then you’ll know that I grew up on your music! (I’m the son of the youngest). Your Decca years were very influential to me as I learned how to play and sing. I LOVED that sound! All of it, vocals, song selections, instrumentation, etc., just blew me away. I remember walking into my aunt’s house one day and hearing Midnight Flyer blasting from the turntable – didn’t get any better than that.
My question is, what was it like working in the studio with the likes of Hal Rugg, Leon Rhodes, Charlie McCoy, Hargus, et al? I know that you also playing on some of my guitar hero Chet’s recordings. Also, who produced your Decca recordings?
Sonny, your picking was so cutting edge, driving, bluesy, and even funky at times, but always just as clean as could be. The sound of that six-string still gets me.
Thanks for all the years of great music !
Thank you Jamie for your time. I do remember those ladies. They could sing. I am friends with Roger Sterry, who is also the son of one of them. You mentioned the Decca years. All 13 of them were special in my opinion. We had good songs from great writers which I believe was a huge part of the success we had. We started out on Decca with one of the best trios ever, in my opinion. Of course with my brother Bobby and Benny Birchfield, who just happens to two of the best harmony singers to ever sing the parts. All I had to do was stand between them and my part would take care of itself. I do appreciate your kind words.
Chester Atkins was a super great guitar player. I did an album with him. At that time however, I had underestimated his playing. After about 15 minutes and the first cut of Lonesome Road Blues I didn’t underestimate him any more. Matter of fact, I was totally in awe of MR. Atkins. He recorded a tune that I wrote, Siempre. You asked how it was to be working in the studio with Hal, Grady, Ray, Leon, Pig, Charlie, and we always used our bass player, plus our mandolin and banjo, and sometimes our guitar guy, if he wasn’t singing. Well, we were all professional players and everyone was in awe of everyone else with one goal, to create the best sound for the particular song we were all doing, as a unit. They respected us because we were pros, and we respected them for their abilities to do what they did, which was better than anyone else. They were called the A TEAM. That is, the best in Nashville.
You also asked who produced us on Decca. To start with and midway through the second session it was Harry Silverstein. Owen Bradley was overseeing everything and he proceeded to tell Harry, “just leave them alone. They know what they’re doing and we don’t.” So from that point on we did the producing, if one would want to call it that. We just went in, Ray would listen to the song and make a chart, get it copied, hand out the chord charts, and we would sing the song for them to get the arrangement and…to quote Tom T. Hall, “Turn it on, Turn it on, Turn it on!”
In all my travels, I’ve yet to find a concise definition of bluegrass music. I believe the industry could benefit from that. As a leading architect of this music, would you be willing to help define the genre in a single paragraph?
TH I don’t honestly know how to answer that, mainly because dozens of people have been trying to do that for years. I think the defining point would be the instrumentation. In the old days (’40s thru the ’70s) guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and acoustic bass would be considered a bluegrass band. Vocals would be lead, tenor, (above lead) and a third part below lead. Song content would almost always be the same story(mountain home, city too complicated, lost love, death needing to get back to the old days and ways). But then came better material, better recording equipment, better engineers and producers, melodic banjo, Josh Williams, Tony Rice, Clarence White, Jens Kreuger, Béla, Vassar Clements, Jethro Burns… and dozens of other really good, better musicians.
Then there came The Osborne Brothers….no, wait…that’s when I woke up. Did someone say they just won the CMA Vocal Group of The Year? HUH? A bluegrass band? Gitawaymhyer! All joking aside. My point is time changes everything… including country, bluegrass, and all things. So there won’t be a definitive way to describe or classify anything, will there be? That was kinda neat how I just threw that in back there wasn’t it?
Sonny, it’s no secret da’ bros and Jimmy Martin were a volatile mix. Yet the music was nothing short of magical. I’m hoping you might share a wonderful story you recall from that short period of time and also, did things between you ever soften before Jimmy exited this world?
Yep. I’ve been waiting to tell this to someone, and now would be the appropriate time. I can’t vouch for it’s validity, but here it is. Jimmy was from Sneedville, TN. There was a fellow that lived there named Woodrow. Supposedly had gone to war in the second world war and was shell shocked. Don’t ask me what that means. A bunch of mean old boys would get him out and tell him that Pepsi would make him drunk if he would drink enough. Well, he got pretty well lit up one night, and Jimmy said he jumped up right in the middle of the floor. He said, “Hot damn, Woodrow’s drunk. I’m gonna go home and whup Granma!” I just tell ’em.
You know, we did some pretty good music. Jimmy was a fine vocal. Man he could sing. He and Bobby had the best duet I ever heard… not better than, but equal to the Louvin Brothers. But here’s the thing, I was so young, and had my banjo pretty much figured out, although it was just everything Earl played, at that time, but I thought it was pretty good. Well Jimmy didn’t like that and wanted me to play the way HE wanted it, and I just couldn’t see it. So we argued. Constantly argued over this one point. He kept on to me about my banjo playing, and I told him that he should take care of the guitar and let me handle the banjo.
We did some records for RCA. 20/20 Vision was one that sold a few. It had a kinda bluesy lick on the banjo that Jimmy did NOT like. Funny, after we left and got our MGM contract, I don’t know when, but Jimmy signed with Decca. He got Paul Williams and JD and they did some really good things. Only, on a couple songs, he had JD play the same lick that I had played on 20/20 Vision. He didn’t like it when I did it. GO FIGGER!
When Jimmy was pretty sick he asked for me to come see him in the hospital. I knew he didn’t have long so I went. He cleared the room and we talked about “things” for the better part of an hour, maybe more, cried awhile, laughed awhile, talked some more. Told me he loved me and asked me to please tell Bob to come see him. As I left he stopped me at the door and said; “We was the best that ever was!” May be some truth to that. I told Bobby to hurry. He did, sad time.
Sonny, if you could only pick a single recording – by anyone – to explain to someone what bluegrass music really is, what would it be?
Ted. Glad you could join in here.
I think I can pick a few that pretty well does the trick. Bill Monroe, 1946-47. Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong, Molly and Tenbrooks, Bluegrass Breakdown… Flatt and Scruggs – Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Cabin in Caroline, Stanley Brothers Vision of Mother, Hello…that’s not what you asked is it? ONE SONG? Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Kentucky. Both tell the story pretty well.
Sonny, one of the “characters” that has always intrigued me is Stringbean. I understand his banjo style differed from the style you and Earl Scruggs played with. But as he was once a Blue Grass Boy, I’m sure there was more to his banjo playing that we got to see with his “Stringbean” act. How good of a banjo player was he?
Cory, thanks for taking the time to ask about String. (David Akeman)
Bean was Bill’s first banjo player and at that time there was no style. Some of the time while he was a Blue Grass Boy, an accordion was in the band. Which was played by Sally Forrester, Big Howdy Forrester’s wife. It is my understanding that she worked with Bill while Howdy was serving our country. You might ask if I knew him and I would answer, yes, but I never knew his first name. Is that weird or what? I think it was Howard, in fact I know it was because I heard Mr. Acuff introduce him as Howard.
String played with the 2 finger style right hand, as did Jackie Phelps when he played the banjo briefly as a Blue Grass Boy. String recorded several tunes with Bill on Columbia. True Life Blues was one title that you might get some idea of his banjo playing style. Mr. Bean was a fine comedian and after he left Monroe, that is what he did for the rest of his career. David and Estelle were good friends. Anytime he needed strings he came to me and I gave, over the years, probably hundreds of banjo strings. String came to me one night and pointed to my RB100 banjo and said; “That thing Ain’t worth a —-!” I cleaned that up for you…. I’m quoting Lincoln Hensley who quoted me whilst I was quoting Mike Snyder. (I gave Mike Snyder credit though) Mr. Akeman gave me the address of Shorty Fincher in Hallum, Pennsylvania who had a 1929 RB 3 Gibson banjo for sale, which became my first Mastertone.
Mr. String Bean and his lovely wife Estelle were brutally murdered by some a——e named Brown, one night while he was at the Opry. They came home while the aforementioned was committing a robbery. Both were shot. We were sitting in a truck stop in Warrenton, VA getting fuel when we heard Grant Turner break the news that they were murdered the previous night when they returned from the Opry. String and Estelle didn’t have an enemy in the world. Their deaths broke the hearts of everyone who knew them. Including mine!
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.