Ask Sonny Anything… Merry Christmas from The Chief!

Greetings, Chief and Happy Holidays. I hope you and Judy have a wonderful Christmas. I know your many fans and friends will be opening gifts this Christmas morning and taking time to enjoy the bluegrass memories you share with all of us in this column. Stay safe and enjoy, Sonny. We all treasure you.

Terry Herd

Terry, John, and all our readers. Christmas is just so special for me, Judy, Karen, and Steve, and now their families… Joseph, Michael, Jennifer, Bailey, Avery, Adelade, Matthew, Savanna, Adalyn, all so special. We celebrate the birth of Jesus. We have people who question the birth being now, and I think, who cares when it happened… I’m convinced and thankful that it happened. It’s so obvious, just look around.

Anyhow, my first Christmas came when I was 1 month and about 25 days old. (JD was 3 months and 27 days old) We hadn’t started playing with the banjo…yet. Me’n JD… we could play Cripple Creek at about the same time. Thank you, Lord, for that. We’ve been close friends for a very long time and I hope that will hold to the end….after all, Crowe bought Number 1…9584-1..2..and 3. Crowe , me, and Earl wound up with those three consecutive numbers. How did that happen? Fate. Go figger!

Earl’s -3, came to him in 1948, my -2 in 1978, Crowe -1 in 2019. (I wish E could have seen J with #1) First time Earl saw me with -2, he stood in front of me and plucked all five strings, smiled and said, “they’ve got a sound all their own, ain’t they?”

So, this is about the most senseless thing I’ve ever written, but we should all feel a little closer to one another on this day… “FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US!” somebody once said! Christmas 2020. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!


Hi Sonny.

Charley Pride’s passing made me think about the songs he recorded with you and Bobby. I’m curious how and why that session came about. Any good stories to pass along? By the way, I’ve always liked your harmonized backup licks in Good Woman’s Love.


Dave S in NH

Brother Dave up ‘er in Massachusetts… Spent some time there. Love Boston. All that history. Charlie was a good friend and he loved bluegrass music. That song came along with my name in it, and he called and wanted me to play on it. What? I’m going to refuse Charlie, hell no. So we played on a couple songs.

Hank Williams Jr. and I were hanging a bit at this time. Mostly at my house. I was teaching Hank to play the banjo. He was in the studio with me that day and I was playing in G. I had obsolete D tuners on my banjo. The song had a D part and I had to immediately be in G after the D part. Not enough time for me to turn the tuners, so I had Hank Jr. turn them while I played. Worked out perfectly. I don’t think he got credit at the time, so I’m giving Hank Williams Jr. credit for being on the Charlie Pride record.

I remember Charlie’s manager was in the control room, and after we did the cut we all went into the control at Victor studio to listen. Someone asked Charlie’s manager how it sounded. He said…”Well, you hear one N…. sing bluegrass, You’ve heard ’em all!” I’m not going to mention his name, he doesn’t deserve that, but then Charlie didn’t deserve that slur either.

I asked Charlie later how it made him feel, because he’s sure to hear it a lot, being he’s the only black person singing country… he said, “I know a lot of black, and white ones. I’m not one of those. So if you’re not one, it shouldn’t bother you!” He also said, “If someone calls you a son of a bitch, and you’re not one, it shouldn’t bother you… should it?”

I loved Charlie Pride. He was my friend. Another thing you should hear… I saw Stevie Wonder sing at the Opry and fall flat…. I saw Charlie the first time at the Opry. He went out and thanked everyone, and said, “Only in America could a guy like me be standing where I’m standing right now.” The Ryman crowd rose to their feet. You Rest in Peace Charlie. (The above quote might not be his exact words, but it’s the best I can remember)


I hear there’s a story behind this, and so I’m asking you. Why wasn’t JD Crowe asked to be a member of the Opry before Rhonda Vincent? I’d be curious to know what you’ve got to say. Thanks for taking the time.


Howdy there A… Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule. You’ve asked a mighty tough question. One which several will not like what I have to say, but I assure you that what I have to say is the truth, and not hearsay!

This has two answers. One, and quite simply, did JD ever ask or make known that he would like to be a member of the Opry? I only know of a handful that they went after. Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens… I’m sure there were more but those come to mind. Interesting, that they were turned down by all except Lefty. Maybe JD didn’t want it… I never asked him.

Now the story. I begged Hal Durham to hire JD when he had that great band. So after the perhaps 10th time he looked me in the eye and said…”You have 2 songs on the first show next Saturday. If you’ll give up one of your songs, I’ll give it to JD Crowe.” I agreed. This was a way to get him in. They called JD and told him he had a spot on the Opry Saturday.

OK, now move ahead to show time. JD had Skaggs, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Sloan as his all star band…they were better than good! I introduced them. They played Train 45…. yep, they played Train 45 for 8 minutes. That was a total embarrassment for me. JD is and was a close personal friend. I don’t know why they did it, I never asked. But I’ll tell you this. At the time The Opry was the ultimate country show in the world and artists were lined up waiting for a guest spot, and Hal Durham was head honcho of that show. He did me a favor and let me talk him into having JD on.

I never mentioned it to JD and haven’t to this day, but folks, JD Crowe shot himself in the foot that night for showing a lack of respect for the Opry and it’s members, who were waiting to go on after JD and band were through. Making any chance of getting on the Opry little, or none. I can’t begin to imagine why they did that, but that’s the truth. The Opry depends on appearance, popularity, and who will work enough to help the name and fame of the Grand Ole Opry.

You asked why JD wasn’t hired before Rhonda Vincent. Well, lets put both acts, alone, in Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, Toronto, Atlanta, and see who will consistently come closer to filling a 2,000 seat auditorium. Who do you think? Maybe this is how the Opry thinks, assuming, of course that they have long since forgotten about Train 45. We’ll never know for sure, but they messed with me on that 8 minute Train 45 ride. I didn’t suggest anything to Mr. Durham after that. And, after being hit that hard, right in the middle of the ‘fard’ one has a tough time completely getting over that. I did. (Fard is Thousand Sticks for Forehead)


Mr Sonny, good day to you Sir. This might be a personal question, but I was wondering how you fill the gap that was left when you no longer could play your beloved banjo? This question comes with deep respect and gratefulness to you, but it is something I have thought about. Do you have any other musical outlets? Do you play any other instruments, or are you satisfied with what you laid down and gave as a gift to us all who have seen you live, or who can enjoy you through recordings etc? Blessings.

John E

John, I appreciate you, coming right on in here with a good’n. 2003 I had rotator surgery and my world took a major hit when he gave me the bad news that I had a muscle in my left shoulder that had disintegrated. He hooked everything else back up, but could not find that one, and it was the one which made it possible for the arm to go to the left. So, if you were to hold your left arm straight out in front of you, you can’t make it go left. Thus, ending my banjo playing days forever. I could make it go up the neck, but it wouldn’t go back toward the peghead. I don’t and can’t play the guitar, or any other stringed instrument. And, not smart enough to play the piano. So, I’m done.

Dana Cupp and Daniel Grindstaff played some, but to just stand up there and sing was not for me. I went home for good in 2005. I was ready to quit though. I do wish it could have been on my own terms, but we can’t have everything. I had a great career, was a young Blue Grass Boy, got to stand beside and watch the greatest vocalist of all time (Bobby) bring it every night for 52 years. And, I must not forget Rocky Top, Ruby, and getting to play the best banjo ever made. 9584-2. Great career. Thank you Lord.


Howdy Chief,

There are many rumors as to why Jimmy Martin was never invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. It seems like there were at least a couple times in his career where he may have been on track for this distinction. As someone who was close to both Jimmy and the Opry, can you help separate the fact from fiction?


 Well Professor…You ask a question equal to Mr. Porcello. All together two different answers needed. Seems as though a group of folks got together, all of them Jimmy Martin and JD Crowe advocates. I’ve already approached the Crowe situation so now we’ll see if you’re ready for the Martin thing.

Why wasn’t Jimmy ever asked to be a member of the Opry? First, a story. True and substantiated. Otis Devine, who was an Opry announcer from 1935 to 1959, at which time he became head of the Grand Ole Opry. During the time Jimmy was a Bill Monroe Blue Grass Boy, early ’50s, Jimmy and Ott were hangout buddies. When Jimmy moved to Nashville in or about 1962, he came with the intent of becoming a member of the Opry and he probably thought he would be a shoo in because his buddy Ott Devine was now the head honcho of the Opry.

Remember this now… Ott was one of those people if you touched his side rib in person, he would almost lose his breath. So, moving forward, Jimmy gets backstage and spots his “buddy” walking across the backstage area. He walks up behind Ott and hits Ott in his side rib area with his index fingers and says, “I’m here sport, you can put me on any time you want to.” After Ott came down from the shock and saw Jimmy he said, “You will never be on the Opry as long as I have anything to do with it.” (Note of interest, Ott Devine hired Jim and Jesse and The Osborne Brothers in 1964.Ott retired in 1968.)

I saw Jimmy at perhaps his last guest appearance at the Opry. I’m wondering if it was after Ott was retired. When he was done with his song, he walked to the side of the stage and raised and lowered his hands… sort of like prompting the crowd to create an encore. It didn’t work.

Statement: Jimmy Martin was his own worst enemy. He almost always associated with the wrong people. People who consistently led him to his greatest weakness…alcohol. Paranoia would be close, but I don’t want to, nor try to become a Doctor of sorts here in my 83rd year. Alcohol, and belligerent behavior backstage, I witnessed a few of those times. Bill Anderson and I were having a conversation when Jimmy came through the backstage line, fully dressed for the stage, hat and all, when he saw us he went into a rage. Yelling loud enough so everyone within 30 feet could hear. Pointing at us and saying Bill Anderson and Bill Monroe had kept him off the Opry. He also dropped a couple F bombs in the process. Folks, I saw and heard this. He wanted to fight Bill Anderson right there. Threatened to do him serious bodily harm. We walked away. I felt bad for Jimmy, but he was saturated with whiskey, I could smell it.

There is more to this story, as to why Jimmy was never a member. But I believe I’ve said enough for you to “GET IT!” Invariably, you will wonder why The Brothers and Jimmy split, so I’ll tell you in short the reason why. Jimmy told Bobby that our name would not be on the next RCA records. Bobby told me, and I told Jimmy in that case there wouldn’t be any more records. And there wasn’t. RCA didn’t renew the contract.

Why? I haven’t the slightest idea. That was August of ’55. April of ’56 Ruby came out on MGM. We had a great career, Jimmy also had a great career. I wish he would have become a member of the Opry. He loved it as much as I. That’s what they looked for back in the day, but he let alcohol destroy his chances. I went to see him in the hospital shortly before he died.. He cleared the room when I walked in. We talked a while, laughed a while, and cried a while. Statement he made will stay with me. Through it all, he said…”Sonny, me’n you and Bob played it better than anybody ever did before us, or ever will. You boys had some goodn’s, and I did too, but listen to them Victor records. They ain’t a flaw in ’em. I love you Sonny.”

Rest in Peace James Henry Martin.

(NOTE: I was associated with the Opry for 43 years. I was never approached, nor heard of anyone who tried to get another off the Opry. Ernest Tubb told me that he was asked by Bill Monroe to sign a petition to keep Flatt and Scruggs off the Opry. It failed.)


Sonny, Really enjoy your column.

Back in the summer of 1978 I was playing in a college bar bluegrass band – playing every other weekend at the Holiday Inn lounge in Rock Hill, SC. One of our claims to fame is an ad in the local paper promoting our gig, but it also promoted the act playing on our “off” weekend – “Sonny Osborne.” We were pictured, Sonny was not.

We always assumed it was you, but I haven’t seen any mention of you playing solo dates. Of course, we were playing somewhere else that night (hey, when your cut for a night of playing was around $10, you play as often as possible! Even if it means missing Sonny Osborne!). Did you ever play solo shows?

Thanks for setting the bar so high for all of us perspiring banjo pickers!!

Frank in Rock Hill

Frank…thanks for taking time to join us. In answer to your question, no, I’m sorry to say I actually don’t ever remember being in Rock Hill. And, I didn’t do solo things. I ask myself, what would I do? I could play Cripple Creek a few times. They call that false advertising. But I’ll let them off this time. That would be a real joke. Legal action from 42 years ago…Ha!


Sonny, did you ever get tired of playing Rocky Top, or any other song? I know when I was bass player in country bands Rocky Top was one song I did get tired of playing, great song but I did grow weary of it. I had songs I got sick of playing and ones I never did. I suspect Sonny will say something along the lines of “It put a lot of taters on my plate so I never got tired of it,” but I thought I’d ask.

Love the Q&A format here, and Love the Osborne Brothers!


Trent, welcome in. Did I ever get tired of a certain song?

Actually no. I had certain songs that I really did not like, and others that I liked to play. Maybe easier to play had something to do with it.

You mentioned Rocky Top. I didn’t get tired of Rocky, although I would think we probably played it as much if not more than any other. However, the song Ruby… One of our most requested songs… played in the key of D with the banjo tuned to D. Thing is… I never liked to play the banjo in anything but G tuning, not meaning to say other keys were never used, I could play in Q flat if needed, but I didn’t have to like it. I always had to tune the banjo to D on stage, during the show and invariably I couldn’t get it tuned good enough when he was ready to sing. We hated dead time, so there I was trying to get the banjo in good playable D tune.

Yep…if you think I blamed that on KRAKO you would be right. That led to conversations with the banjo later that night as Raymond Huffmaster took us and the Silver Eagle toward the next date.


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.