Ask Sonny Anything… More on the KANG of Bluegrass

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 am a person who loves and respects Sonny……but I also love and respect Jimmy Martin too! After all, Jimmy gave ME a chance to be in the “Big Show” (I love Sonny’s use of baseball terminology!), so I feel a need to come to Jimmy’s rescue here. In regards to the title, “King of Bluegrass,” I respectfully submit that Jimmy DID NOT give himself that title! A country DJ by the name of Tom “Cat” Reeder was the first person to refer to Jimmy as the “King of Bluegrass”.. Did Jimmy take the title and run with it? Of course he did! Did Jimmy assume the role of the “King”? Of course he did!! But he DID NOT present himself the crown!!!!

Lynwood L.

Hey Lynwood. Long time since I’ve seen you, and it’s good to hear from you. When Jimmy was in the hospital, the final time, I think he knew he didn’t have much time. Tim Dilman told me if I wanted to see Jimmy, I should go soon. I did. Jimmy asked everyone to clear the room. We talked, cried a little, talked and cried a little bit more. He said something that I won’t ever forget. Above all else you, and we might have heard or seen, my opinion, this takes the prize. “Sonny, I love you and Bob. We played the best Bluegrass Music that will ever be played.” That’s strong! Incidentally, for the record, Bobby went to see him too.

The things I’m saying pertaining to Jimmy Martin are not, and should not be taken as negative. The statements made about Jimmy are truth. I’m asked questions, I answer them. This thing is titled; “ASK SONNY ANYTHING!” So…Nope, not really necessary to come to Jimmy’s rescue. He deserved what he got from life and music. I told Jimmy dozens of times, “If you would keep your mouth shut you would go farther than the rest of us!” But he didn’t. Jimmy Martin was his own worst enemy. Jimmy thought the whole world was against him. Jimmy Martin was a star, Big Time. But Lynwood, I was there before you and saw some things that can’t be repeated here, things you might not have seen. Going back to 1952. He was obsessed with the Opry and whether you know or believe it, he kept himself off the Opry and laid the blame to Lester and Earl, Bill, Jim and Jesse, and Bobby and I. I promise you we did nothing to even attempt to keep him off. In those days no one could keep another off the Opry, he did it himself. I had rather not state the ACTUAL reasons, but I will …if pressured!

Lynwood, you know one side of the “King” story and you are right, Tom did in fact call Jimmy that, but it started on Ralph Emery’s all night show on WSM. I told you the statement and I heard it. Once more: “Bill Monroe is The Father of Bluegrass, Roy Acuff is the Father of Country Music, so I guess that makes me king (KANG) of bluegrass.” Jimmy’s words. If they archived Ralph’s shows, you’ll find it there. I respected the fact that he might have been the “KANG” as he would say it, and just look at the guys he gave a shot at the BIG TIME. Lynwood, JD, Paul Craft, Paul Williams, Dana Cupp, and this year’s inductee into the IBMA Hall Of Fame, Bill Emerson, and the list goes on.

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I’ve been asked several times to clarify just what I meant when I referred to Jimmy as having been to “The Show.” I was referring to The Grand Ole Opry, because In those days it was just that. Jimmy had worked with Bill Monroe in 1949-1950 at “The Opry,” or “The Show,” and by getting me the job with Bill, he was also giving me “The Show” as well.
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Love this column! Sonny, My favorite memory (see what I did there ūüėČ ) is anytime the Osborne Brothers performed at Lakeside Amusement Park in Salem, VA. You’d get a mad look when the roller coaster would rumble by during a slow song lol. Do you have any fond memories of playing there? Good or bad? I’d like to share to the Lakeside page on facebook if you don’t mind. Sadly missed, the park closed in 1986 and now sits a Kroger store.

Gary J.

Gary, I remember Lakeside Park well. I loved playing there because there was a Holiday Inn sitting on a hill about 2 miles down the road and we could sleep. SLEEP! For us in those days was a rarity indeed. We were working 250 days per year and, not to complain, but we drove a lot. I do remember when the roller coaster came roaring by, almost had to stop. AND, My Favorite Memory is my personal favorite song that we did.

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Mr. Osborne,

I have been playing for a couple of years, and realizing now that some poor right hand habits are holding me back, especially my thumb attack. Could you talk about your right hand in regards to what came naturally and what you had to discipline your hand to do? I enjoy reading “Ask Sonny,” your generosity in sharing is amazing.

Brent W.

Brent, thank you for taking the time to ask me anything..I’m hoping the answer I give you is of some benefit to you. If it isn’t clear, let me know and I’ll try a different approach.

I was fortunate enough to not have much trouble with the right hand, after I learned the existence of a backward roll. Nothing made much sense before that. My brother Bobby had played a couple shows with Lester and Earl, and he paid close enough attention to hear the thing Earl was doing that made the timing work out. Hence, the backward roll.

I can tell you what I did to make sure my hand was in the same position every time I played. I placed my little finger so that the first joint of that finger lightly touched the bottom point of the bridge. I didn’t leave it there, but I used that as a reference point. So I would always get basically the same tone. More problems, describe them and send them in. I’ll do my best.

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Sonny, When talking about Jimmy Martin, you mentioned that he thought your banjo playing should go one way and you felt it should go another. Would you mind expounding upon the differing opinions you both had on this? Thanks so much.

Still

I was totally wrapped up in Earl because he played everything so everyone could understand and hear exactly how the song or tune melody went. Jimmy wanted me to play what he showed me. His right hand consisted of the index finger and thumb. I just didn’t want to play what he would so graciously show me. He told me over and over how if I kept playing like Earl, I would make us sound like them. I told him over and over that if I could ever get my right hand to do what Earl did, I would be happy. We argued about it, sometimes anger would pop up and it would last indefinitely. I continued to play how I wanted my playing to sound, and Jimmy continued his quest for trying to change my way of thinking…whatever, I never could figure it out. I like proof. We recorded a song entitled 20-20 Vision in which I played some bluesy licks which Jimmy didn’t like, but that’s how I played it. Later when JD was playing with him, he used the same licks that Jimmy was so displeased with when I did them!!!….GO FIGGER! I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like nor respect Jimmy Martin. Our personalities just clashed. So, we went our way and he went his and we both did OK.

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I can not remember a time in my life that I was not a Sonny Osborne fan. I am not a picker, not a singer, just a life long lover of Bluegrass Music. Our farm joins the old Hillbilly Park near Newark, Ohio. Rumor has it Bobby & Sonny played at Hillbilly Park, back in the day. If I remember correctly it closed down in 1963. There are still several local musicians still living that played Hillbilly Park, one of those is fiddle icon, Kenny Sidle. I cherish the stories they tell as I do not personally remember Hillbilly park. With all the venues you have played, do you have any memories of Hillbilly Park?, and what you can tell me about it?

Stacey W.

Stacy…thank you for joining us here at “To Tell The Truth”!

I remember Hill Billy Park quite well. Red Allen, Bobby, and I played there in 1957. I remember it being somewhere close to Newark, Ohio. A funny story comes to mind told to us by a picker named Joe(?) who played at the Hillbilly Haven in Columbus. Seems Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers were at Hill Billy Park and Peewee Lambert, who played mandolin and sang tenor with the Stanley Brothers, had loaned Bill a mandolin which he had not returned, and Peewee wanted it back. If you remember there was an open field in front and Peewee caught up with Bill in that field. He said; “Hey Bill, where’s my Blankety Blank mandolin”? Bill’s reply was; “I left it at home…It ain’t no good no way.” Peewee said; “It musta been some good, you kept it Blankety Blank.” If I’m not terribly mistaken, Kenny played fiddle in a band in Middletown, Ohio in the late ’40s. My Brother Bobby playing in that band too. Chuck Swain, Shorty Hobbs, Girl singer Jo Depew, Smokey Ward. I think Bobby and Larry Richardson was there for a very short time. 1947 or 48? Right?

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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.