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.
I want to thank my friends Aynsley Porchak and Lincoln Hensley for recording a couple tunes for me. Pretty Little Indian and then my all time favorite song and fiddle intro and break, played originally by Tommy Jackson on the Bobby Helms Fraulein. Aynsley is a fiddle player who has yet to get her proper recognition… meaning, SHE CAN PLAY with and above the best. The recording they put together for me contained the complete FRAULEIN, not just the intro, I’m talking all of it. It is so good. You can hear it on Facebook. Several places…The Chief Banjo, Mud Bone, Lincoln Hensley, and public pages. I’ll bet you 30 cents you’ll agree that she can play… good as any, better than most. Thank you children! So, did I ever tell you young folk just how much I enjoy doing this little ole thing? I absolutely love it. I know you chillren don’t understand half what I try to tell you, but lawd how moicy, it’s fun to just sit here and ramble…sometimes.
I’ve been reading all the articles you’ve been posting here, and I am truly enjoying the stories, memories, etc. You mentioned Josh Williams in this article, and I really like what he does with Rhonda Vincent and his solo work. What other younger/newer pickers or bands have you listened to that you feel keep to the roots of the music while providing the originality you also mention wanting to see in music? On the flip side of that, are there more popular groups today that you think have strayed too far to still be considered bluegrass?
Thanks, Drew from WV
Drew from WV, thank you. I’ll try to answer this as best as I can. Of course Josh Williams, Aaron McDaris, Ron Stewart, (if he would ever settle in on one instrument would be one great player) Lincoln Hensley, Brandon Hinson, Aynsley Porchak. Bands?… it does no good to listen. Disc Jockeys of today seem to get right on off by not saying the name of a band… or they talk over the intro. As if to say..”This part of the record is not good and my voice is much more important than the musician who played this worthless intro!” That really upsets me no end when they play something by new groups and don’t tell who they are.
For instance. My favorite record of all time is by Bobby Helms. Came out in 1956. Stayed on the national chart for almost a year. So, my point is this. If one of our brilliant RECORD PLAYER PERSONS were to get hold of that record we would never know that intro was Tommy Jackson. Chubby Wise intro to Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Benny Martin I’ll Go Steppin’ Too, My precious Up This Hill and Down.. Am I making any sense???
If I were to listen it would be Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Paul Williams, Sammy Shelor’s Lonesome River Band, Del McCoury, Larry Stephenson Band. And hey, I know I’m leaving some out but it’s not intentional, probably because I’m closing in on 83 years old. So, I’m lost in the ’50s tonight cause I Like That Old Time Rocky Road Blues. I better quit whilst behind…
I grew up in northern Virginia in the ’70s and got introduced to traditional bluegrass at a young age. I remember the Osborne Brothers and the Country Gentleman playing at the Prince William County Fair. I don’t think we ever missed a show. But I had two questions. Do you remember playing at, I think it was the University of Maryland, and they had a rotating stage? I remember sitting there and the sound following the stage? And did you know or know of Johnnie Whisnant? I think he was also known as half pint. I know he played with Carl Story and Jimmy Martin at some time. I took lessons from him in the late ’70s.
Buddy…thank you for reminding me of Johnnie. I met him once in 1954. WROL Radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee where Bobby and I were working. We were really trying to work ‘twould be a more correct way to put. There was an all night restaurant, Blue Circle I think… they served those little cheap hamburgers… 12 cents each… if I remember right. Roger Miller coined this phrase later… but Bobby and I were so broke we couldn’t pay attention. I’m sure I would have starved to death had it not been for Blue Circle, Golden Sun, and The Gilbert Hotel. Yeah, look at me now and you probably wonder…HIM, STARVE? Well there was a time period before The Grand Ole Opry, Rocky Top, Decca Records, etc. I was so broke… 1953 I had a banjo neck ran over in a parking lot… I mentioned this to Johnny Whisnant and he offered me $25 for it, and I took it. Get this… I laugh about it now but at the time it wasn’t funny… he took the banjo with the broken neck… a Gibson RB 100… was going home to get the money… I never saw Johnny again. I don’t know of him working with Jimmy or Carl. When I heard he had passed from this life, I was reminded…”Hey he never paid me the $25.00!” Oh well….
Sonny, I’ve always been impressed at how well the Osborne Brothers recordings were done, especially those with vocals. You have stated the majority were all done live, as I recall, with few overdubs. Could you perhaps give us the standard set-up in the studio, from mic-ing to positioning, barriers, click tracks (if at all), sidemen, etc. There is no detail that is insignificant to my mind. Finally, thanks so much for the music. The Osborne Brothers have made my life better.
Hey there, Chris B… you know if you were to run those two things together, you would become “CHRISB.” Another feeble try at humor!
Where do I start…. we three stood in a tight little circle. If you can imagine a triangle with the points at the North, South, and East. We had Bobby at North, Me at South, and third part at East. South and East and slightly angled so we can see Bobby at all times. 99% of the time, I also played the banjo, and Bobby played the mandolin. The third part didn’t play an instrument. We always sang on separate Neuman U87 Mics. I played the banjo on another one and Bobby played the mandolin on yet another one (5 U87s). 5 feet to my right is Grady Martin, seated. 5 feet in front of him is Ray Edenton seated, rhythm guitar. 10 feet to his right (north) and 6 feet east is Hal Rugg, the steel guitar player. Directly in front of Hal, about 10 feet, is Pig Robins, greatest piano player. About 10 feet behind Pig, and 10 feet behind Bobby is the bass man, to his right is the fiddle. Straight North and on a riser is the drums.
My suggestion is for you to mark this out on a paper and you will get a better idea. That’s the first time I ever did that. Kinda fun. I could picture all those people doing their thing better than anyone else on the planet, and it showed, in my opinion. And here I am amongst at least 5 of the best who ever did what they are doing! HOLY McWOW! Who? you ask? Well there’s Bobby, Grady, Ray, Hal, Pig. And in the control room is only Owen Bradley…. probably the greatest to ever be in this town. And I’m thinking……”How and why in the hell am I here!”
I have always been curious about the economics of playing bluegrass full time in a touring band, especially in the earlier days. Since travel is so expensive, what did you and Bobby do to keep costs down? Were the steaks you ate “the ground up kind?” Did you ever stay with friends, family, or fans? Did you ever have to sleep in your car? Did you get to shower more than once a week? I’ve heard some grim stories about tour buses and how they are less glamorous once you get inside them. I also know from personal experience that sometimes promoters forget that musicians need food, water, and shelter just like normal human beings.
Mike thank you for the nearly impossible question to answer. The economics of bluegrass music. Brother, I can tell you from experience, and how luck and your choices stand between you and sleeping in a car, or missing a couple meals. Hey, listen in the early days I called my parents on more than a few occasions. Finally, at three in the morning my Dad would answer the phone and when he found out who it was he merely said, “How much and where are you?” He never turned me down. They had so much faith in us. Tough to be in that predicament but Bobby and I had it rough until perhaps 1963. Stupidity and poor management, bad choices got us there. We were driving taxi cabs in Dayton, Ohio, working 16 – 18 hours a day, when I found out that we were going to be made members of the Grand Ole Opry… That was about on Wednesday. They wanted us there that coming Friday and Saturday. We thought that was when life would get easy, but Hello! That’s when the real work began. More money, yeah. But gone to places we had only heard of. Bobby’s son Wynn kept track of every date we worked from 1963 to 1978. 183.5 days per year.
Hey Sonny. I have a question about a live show you and Bobby did with Jimmy Martin. It was July 8, 1972 at Watermelon Park in Virginia. When y’all were doing Save It, Save It, it sounded like Jimmy changed a line in it. The original line being “If you don’t stop you’ll flub your dub,” but in this live recording it sounds like Jimmy says “if you don’t stop you’ll f… it up.” Just wanted to hear from you on that.
Thanks, Briley B.
Briley. Thank you for reminding me of this little incident. I thought I had gotten it from my mind completely, but I realize that will never happen. I know exactly what you are making reference to, however. Red Allen and Jimmy Martin had this thing of wanting, or needing to do or say vulgar language on stage, on mic, in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. Red made his final exit from our stage at Camp Springs, NC after I had warned him to not do it. I politely asked him to leave the stage. Jimmy did his little thing on that song. He sang the correct words but the song was written by Rufus Shoffner and the word was supposed to be be said like “You’ll flub your dud.” Don’t ask me what it means. But Jimmy insisted on saying it in two syllables… like “Fluh-hup your dub.” Use your imagination on how he made it come out. I just don’t see the need to want to show your ugly side with a portion of people in the audience with children, or just flat out don’t want to hear it.
Hi Sonny. Long time lover of your playing. Your backup playing is the best, in my opinion. Just watched a video of you and the band playing El Rondo and Sledd Riding. I’ve always loved Siempre, but had never heard El Rondo before. I also can’t find it on any of my many Osborne Brother albums. I do have a tab from a booklet that came with a Homespun dvd that I have named El Randa. My questions are which is the correct spelling and have you ever recorded the tune? Thanks again for all you done and this column.
Lloyd…Thank you for your time and effort. The correct spelling is El Randa. I was told it meant “The Pickpocket.” However, since then I have been led to believe it to mean…”The Happy Go Lucky Thief.” Pretty much the same thing, huh? I reckon I can accept that. I did record it but I can’t tell you the album title. I’ll look it up and tell you. I wrote El Randa. Obviously I believe it’s a great tune.
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.
The Chief with two of his best pals – J.D. Crowe, Kenny Ingram, Sonny Osborne