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.
To Stacey Wright: Last week, Stacey Wright told about how he and his father came to EJ Work auditorium in Wadsworth Ohio to see us. He asked Bobby if we would do Georgia Mules and Bobby agreed to do it… but when he asked me, I refused saying I never liked that song. I do not remember that but I also don’t deny it. I want to offer you a long overdue apology. It isn’t my nature to be rude without reason, and asking me to do a song is certainly not rude. Thank you for your participation in this fiasco. I love it…
I appreciate all the talk about banjos, but I know you are a student of all of the bluegrass instruments. I have a day job with folks that don’t study the fiddle greats, and I find myself regularly explaining my “Mount Rushmore” of fiddle greats. If you had a day job with folks that weren’t familiar with the fiddle and you were trying to explain the 4 greats and their contributions, who would be on your “Mount Rushmore” of the fiddle and what songs would be inscribed below their image? Here is my working list: (1) Chubby Wise – Blue Moon of Kentucky with the original bluegrass band (with an honorable mention for the Orange Blossom Special, although Scotty Stoneman is the recording that plays in my head when someone says Orange Blossom Special); (ii) Kenny Baker – almost anything off Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, but probably Jerusalem Ridge; (iii) Benny Martin – Someone Took My Place with You (Flatt and Scruggs); and then it gets tough . . . probably Tommy Jackson on Fraulein or a Ray Price record. What says the chief?
They ain’t but one Woppo. Smartest dude I ever knew. FIDDLE PLAYERS. Number uno. Ein. one. Bobby Helms version of Fraulein, 1956. Ray Price Version of Cold Cold Heart. Both played by Tommy Jackson. TWO. Bill Monroe version of Blue Moon of Kentucky and Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong, 1946. Fiddle on both played by Chubby Wise. THREE. Martin Waltz. 1953 from Flatt Scruggs morning radio show. Fiddle by Benny Martin *** FOUR. Earl’s version of Flint Hill Special, 1952, and Someone Took My Place With You, 1954. Fiddle on both played by Benny Martin. FIVE. Ashokan Farewell. Osborne Brothers live show at Renfro Valley Kentucky. about 1995. Fiddle played by David Crow. FIVE also. The Wreck of Old 97. Osborne Brothers TV show 1985. Fiddle played by Blaine Sprouse. Information about Woppo, From the 6th grade on through his education, I’m told, never got a grade below a 4.0. YEAH RIGHT. Me too. I’m not sure about the 10th grade as I wasn’t there. I was playing at the banjo with Bill Monroe. (Note: I said Playing at) Woppo finally passed the Bar on his 10th try (That was a made up lie right there.) He’s part owner of one of the busiest law firms in Nashville. Still does The Opry with my Brother Bobby. 25 Years now!
Sonny, what did you really think of those Vega banjos?
The Vega company was owned by Bill Nelson, who pronounced it, VEEGA. I had 5 different versions of their instruments leading up to my Sonny Osborne model. Workmanship was impeccable but they basically all sounded the same, this due to the fact that all they changed from one to another was the cosmetics… how they looked. The tone ring stayed the same… and that was the weakest part. They would change everything that made a difference except the BIG DUDE… the tone ring. One of those banjos stood apart from the others however. I recorded Roll Muddy River with it. The only difference was gold plating. Kenny Ingram played it and recorded with that Vega banjo for 10 years with The Larry Stephenson Band. He made some pretty good things with it. I played Vega banjos from 1965 to 1971. I liked having my own model banjo. Prestige. My business, at the time, that was very important. Earl was known as the best, he had a Vega model, I was always chasing him, I had a model. Prestige. (That was all in my head though. I never came close) But then, neither did anyone else, and no one will ever equal his great right hand. I’m talking Earl of 1950-1956. Unbeatable right hand. Thank you Brian for joining us hyer on BLUEGRASS TODAY! Y’all come back now, heah?
I listened to the Osborne Brothers a lot in the ’70s and early ’80s. Then, went with the Bluegrass Cardinals and after that… majorly with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. In 1986, I told my wife-to-be I wanted some bluegrass in our wedding. And so… the bridesmaids came down the aisle to the strains of The Homecoming from your Bluegrass Concerto album! That song was composed by Hagood Hardy who was a Canadian composer/player of jazz and easy listening music. So… How did you pick up on songs like this that are seemingly out of the “circle” of traditional bluegrass fare? Are you an eclectic music listener or do you stay within arms length of the bluegrass music style? (And BTW… I’m coming back to my roots with my own Osborne Brothers playlist on Spotify!!)
Well Ray. Since 1957 I have been listening to every kind of music I could hear, with the exception of Rock and Roll…unless it’s soft rock…very soft at that. Meaning The Beatles Something, or Abbey Road. Music was going to be my quest in life, so if I only listened to Earl, when he lost interest, as he did on Randy Lynn Rag and went South, so would I. I figured I was too young to have that happen so I expanded my musical Ears, and hopefully the brain and hands would follow. Thankfully, they did. THE HOMECOMING came about as I was motoring along in my pickup on the way to The Opry when on the radio I heard this beautiful melody being played on station WLAC. The next day I called the station and told them the time it was played and could they tell me what and by whom the tune was recorded. They told me Hagood Hardy, of whom I never heard, and I had Judy, mine wife, get busy and find that record. She did, and I learned it, and there you have it. The story behind The Homecoming. Beautiful melody which rivals Ashokan Farewell as being the most beautifully written, ever. ‘Course, Sledd Ridin’ wasn’t all that bad…HO HO!
Hi Sonny, you have had a lot of very good sidemen play in your band over the years. Any stand out as exceptional musicians… or eccentric musicians?
Greg,…..Ira Louvin, Shad Cobb, Gene Wooten, Terry Smith, Paul Brewster, Glen Duncan, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Robert Bowlin, Great musicians, I’m talking the best of the best.. I’m not saying that any of the above belong in that category. Didn’t you know that the very best actors, singers, comedians, musicians, POLITICIANS, (They’re in a class all their own) are eccentric. Not stupid, nor dumb, but a little bit off center. That’s what makes them so stand out good. Their focus is on one thing. The instrument, and what they can do with it or make it do for them. This goes back much farther… Liberace, Sinatra… Bing Crosby, and the list can go on and on. Their concentration and focus is so good that nothing else is allowed to enter. Buddy Spicher, one of the greatest fiddle players who worked with us for about a year. He would go to bed on the bus and sleep for 40 minutes and get up and play the fiddle for 15 or 20 minutes, and go back to bed, only to be up again in 30 minutes and do it all over. Understand, this is not a putdown at all. I couldn’t stand to have someone dance while I was trying to play. Or one night in Hamilton, Ohio this woman insisted on playing spoons while we were playing. My brother completely lost it… one of the funniest things ever to see him, probably the best voice we’ll ever hear, completely come undone. Everyone has little quirks, entertainers just has it show up where there are large gatherings. Benny Martin thought the mafia was after him. A super fiddle player who worked for the Bluegrass Cardinals (I can’t remember his name) loved alcohol and couldn’t be depended on to show up at showtime.
Hello Sonny. I have always loved your playing and The Osborne Bros music. I believe maybe the first band you may have played in was with my grandfather, Carl Eldridge. He played fiddle around the Dayton, Ohio area with several musicians. He was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1954. Do you have any recollections of playing with him, or anything you may remember about him? The Dayton area was a hotbed of early bluegrass talent from people that had roots in Kentucky that their families had traveled north for work. Thank you for these Ask Sonny Anything columns. They are great to read.
Best wishes to you,
Hey Carl. I knew Grandfather Carl well. He was to our house many times. Very quiet, very nice, well mannered guy. He, Jerry Williams, Claud Stewart, and I had this little band. They were the first band I played with in public. Happened in Miamisburg, Ohio probably 1949 or ’50. That public appearance was in a little clothing store on a Saturday afternoon, and scared would be a mild way of putting it… petrified would be closer to he truth. Carl was killed after we had stopped playing and everyone had gone separate ways. Several pretty good pickers were in and around Dayton/Middletown area at that time. Red Allen, Frank Wakefield, Red Spurlock, Noah Crase, Paul Mullins (Father of Joe), Smokey Ward, Tommy Sutton. That’s only a few. My memory is not what it used to be.
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