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 just found out this is thanksgiving. The day the pilgrims sat down with Indian Savages and et squirrels and rabbits and the Indians contributed raw deer meat and possum guts. Then we/they gave you Manhattan! Happy Thanksgiving!
Let me begin by saying that you’ve always been my favorite banjo player and one of the coolest personalities in bluegrass music. I saw the Osborne Brothers for the first time in the downriver Detroit area back in the early ’60s, and I was blown away by your banjo picking and vocal harmonies. I particularly enjoyed your backup and always got a kick out of your creative, subtle, sometimes funny and zany riffs that you would throw in with that impish grin on your face.
Since you have opinions on most everything, I wonder if you could share yours thoughts on why some artists in country and bluegrass continue to perform long after they’ve worn out their performance skills. Some of the singing and playing I hear can be painful to listen to. When is it “time to hang it up?”
Hey John C. Glad you could make it. I could answer your question with one or two words.
As a participant in this group I can and will answer that so that you and anyone reading this will understand. EGO….most pickers and singers know, deep down, that they can really cut it. So, most of them will not admit when it’s over. Now, don’t tell me we/they don’t know when it’s over because, I can tell you first hand, we know. I knew the moment when the end was nigh. I was playing the banjo break on Roll Muddy River (3-2-5-1 roll with 7 repeats at top speed). Last night it was done without a thought, tonight it was a struggle. A really good, dedicated banjo player would know when I immediately went into the “create a shortcut mode.” When a banjo player’s right hand goes, it’s over.. for the most part. Oh, we can create short cuts which are designed to fool most of the public listening audience but we, the player knows that just around the corner is another shortcut, then another, and another. Some lick which was easy to do last night was a struggle tonight. You know, then and there, it’s basically over.
A singer knows the same, as well. Sometimes they ignore it and I guess they think they’re still doing it, when they ain’t. Grandpa Jones lost his hearing and continued. Bill’s vocal and mandolin playing was not his best, Lester’s health was bad… I could go on but this sounds as though I’m picking on certain people. I’m not. Not by a long shot. I grew up with these people, knowing them, loving them for their musical contributions and as just wonderful people. But I wish they would have realized it when it was over. WHEN IT’S GONE, IT’S REALLY GONE. TIME TO PASS THE TORCH TO SOMEONE ELSE. IT’S THEIR TURN. But how are they to be told…. the greatest that ever did IT, that IT was gone. Not Me, NO LORD, NOT ME.
Hello Sonny, so glad to see you’re doing well. My question is concerning Bear Family Records. I own both of the boxed sets they produced on your Decca/MCA recordings. In the discography for the second set, they mention that some of the masters are owned by you and Bobby and you didn’t want to release them. I was just curious as to how artists feel about having their entire recorded output released as I have read Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others, didn’t seem too happy about it for whatever reasons. Is Bear Family as fun for the artists to deal with as it is for “obsessive” fans like myself that love to have all the out-takes and studio chatter?
Cory, welcome. Bear Family was a good thing for some and a bad thing for others. In our case, a little of both. We were lucky in one sense because they went back to our MGM days and those things were long out of print, so we gained some good sales, but on the other hand they also got the whole Decca catalog and that included some masters which were not mixed nor mastered, and we did not want the material to come out as it was. So we bought the masters and after we remixed and mastered it we released it on Pinecastle, I believe. It was titled Nashville.
Pinecastle? Why? Simple. When we left them Tom Riggs bought the entire lot of material and that was part of the sale. Lets talk about Tom Riggs for a moment here. Off subject, I know, but Tom deserves to be talked about for a little bit. Tom was a successful business man from Louisville, Kentucky. He decided to start a record company… Pinecastle. Not sure, but I believe this was the name of the community where he lived in Florida. Tom and I were sitting in lawn chairs having a conversation… some place in New York. He just asked if we would be interested in doing some recording for him. I asked Bobby and we both said, sure, why not. IF we could have complete control of our product. He would get a completely mixed, mastered album. He agreed to put them out as he received them. Our association with Tom Riggs was one of the best that we had during our career. Tom and I were friends. Most record people are not of that caliber. Tom was.
Back to the original subject. They would tend to put things out as they were. Sometimes that’s not good. Eddie Stubbs and I went through our second Bear Family release and located many errors in the liner notes. I’ve talked enough about this drivel.
Hey Sonny, I was wondering what’s your opinion of your nephew Wynn’s banjo playing? I’ve always thought his playing never received the attention that it deserved. And, in your opinion, what other banjo picker comes the closest to copying your style of playing? Again, I would vote for Wynn! Many thanks!
Lynwood, we meet again. My opinion of Wynn… That would go back a way. Wynn came on our show at the Opry once when he was about 13, and played Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I mean he played it as good as it can be played. To a packed house at the Grand Ole Opry in the Ryman Auditorium. No easy task. He also recorded an album for CMH which I produced. At that point in time he was the best I ever heard. You get that LP and listen closely. Simply the best.
He moved to Florida and I lost being in touch. What I’m about to say is only MY OPINION. NOTHING MORE. Wynn Osborne was near the top at one point. AND… what he played, to my knowledge he learned it all by himself. Somewhere along the line he got away from how I had heard him play before. He was flawless and very clean before, and his choice of notes fit. I heard him play and now the notes are there but they don’t fit. I thought it was just me until I heard him play with Bobby at Bean Blossom. I’m not saying his playing was not good, it might well have been, but the notes he was using just didn’t fit the songs they were playing. He seemed to be playing for himself rather than the man at the mic.
Lynwood, as a banjo player I think you might understand what I’m saying here. OK, you asked about Wynn playing my style. Whatever “My style” is. I’m just playing what I heard in my head. If that’s a style, OK, I accept that. I’ve heard Wynn play some of the things I did and, yes, he’s doing the right notes but in the wrong places. He’s a good player and a PRETTY GOOD GUY TOO. He also had a good Granada at one time. I don’t know for sure but I heard he sold it. Wynn kept track of every date we played and the amount of money we were paid up until 1978.
Sonny, I saw you and Bobby at a festival just east of Columbus Oh…. Frontier Ranch. You and Bobby were standing there talking to a good friend of mine, Harley Gabbard. A lady that just purchased two cassette tapes of the Osborne Bros came over and asked Bobby if y’all would sign them. Bobby said no. She dropped the tapes to the ground and stomped them to pieces. My question is, why so rude to what used to be fans?
Doug. I don’t remember that particular incident. I do remember a time at Frontier Ranch. A good friend brought a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken… who was the friend? Tony Grigsby was his name….we had manhandled that bucket of chicken and had grease on our hands. A lady came up to me and asked me to sign her Opry Picture Book and I explained that if I touched any of the slick paper pages in her book they would be ruined and if she would wait a few minutes until I wiped my hands I would sign our picture in her book. She said to go ahead and sign it now. I don’t guess she believed me, so I signed it, got chicken grease on the picture and ruined the book. Then she wanted me to replace the book. I didn’t. I told her what would happen, she chose to do it anyhow, ’twas her decision. Ruined the book.
Your story concerned Bobby, I know him pretty well, if he refused to sign he had reason. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I believe you, I’m just saying I know him well enough to guess there was more to it that you might not have seen or heard.
I miss Harley…he was a special person. Loved to hear Bobby sing Today Has Been a Lonesome Day! He worked with us for about a year and WHAT a year it was! RIP Harley.
Hey Sonny, your time with Bill Monroe is legendary. A teenager getting to play with Monroe had to be one of the most thrilling accomplishments in your life. About one month after your famous recordings with Monroe, you were doing your last show for the summer in Grundy, VA on August 19, 1952. Monroe had just gotten his famous Gibson F-5 mandolin back from the “botched” factory repair job in early December, 1951 according to Gibson shipping repair records. It’s reported he immediately used his pocket pen knife to remove the “Gibson” pearl logo leaving only the pearl “The” at the headstock top. You have told stories of Monroe scrapping the finish off in Grundy, VA when you and the others band members walked in on Monroe sitting down taking the top coat finish off of the top only. I’ve heard he used a pen knife and others have said he used a broken piece of glass. Do you recall what he used to scrape the finish off the top? Can you tell us more details about this event? And had the Gibson logo already been removed months before you saw him scrape the finish?
PS: I think the CD project you helped put together from the Osborne’s Live in Germany is the finest and best sounding live recordings the Osborne Brothers have ever done.
Charles….thank you for the tough question. I can only tell you what I saw. Jimmy Martin, Charlie Cline, and I had been to et between shows. As we entered the theatre we heard THIS WEIRD SCRAPING SOUND. When we went in the little room where Mr. William Smith Monroe was working on the finish of his mandolin. Actually scraping it off. It seemed to me that he had a little knife…a pocket knife. Where the glass came from, we’ll never know. All that would know have gone on to their maker, ‘cept me…(to copy a phrase from Merle Travis) Merle signed a picture to me once…”To the ugliest man on the Opry, ‘cept me!”
Another funny thing happened as we came into Grundy that afternoon. The whole side of the building was a painted billboard advertising the show that afternoon and night. Some bunch of Grundy Old Boys had climbed up on a ladder and fixed the lettering to read; “In Person Bill Monroe and the Blue Ass Boys.” The Old Man was furious. I call him “The Old Man” when he was only 40 at the time. I actually heard this. My Dad asked Bill why he had taken the GIBSON NAME OUT AND HIS ANSWER WAS; “Nobody wants to mess with an ugly THE Mandolin.” Mister Bill, there was only one of them and thank God for letting some of we lucky ones see him and live to tell about the MR. MONROE!
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.