Ask Sonny Anything… on Tony Rice, Merle Travis, and the goatee

Good morning Chief. What a strange and sad week we’ve all had, both here in Nashville with the bombing, as well as the larger worldwide music community with the loss of Tony Rice. You had several questions about him, which we’ve narrowed down to the first one contributed by Charles Cornett.

Terry Herd


One of these days I’m going to retell for the umpteenth time, when I played America The Beautiful at IBMA, alone. For the second time in my life I needed a Divine intervention that night, and received it. I don’t want to bore you with it, but I just like to tell it, I guess so you won’t forget it. OK, maybe some of you, or all for that matter, think I’m a dumbass, but I believe! I love to tell the story!



Sonny, we are all reminiscing and recognizing the passing of Tony Rice this week. While a million or so second generation bluegrass players have talked about his influence, how did Tony Rice affect the first generation of stars? For example, did your guitar players begin to include TR style licks after he emerged so prominently? Did you ever “kick a Tony Rice lick” off one of your songs? How about your own guitar playing? Thanks for considering.

Charles C.

Charles…how ’bout going through this day without reminding me of my guitar playing. I checked with the authorities on such matters….I’m listed as the worst guitar player for this time period. Well first off, we never had a guitar player who did the things Tony did. Ours was strictly rhythm and a few runs here and there. Dale Sledd could play some Merle Travis things. Steve Thomas was the closest musician we had who could play that style guitar, but he was our fiddle player. Robert Bowling knew about a million chords which would have fit in with a jazz band….

You asked what the first generation thought of Tony. See, they had already gotten a taste of that style from Clarence White, but I don’t know, nor did I ever hear, anyone say a cross word concerning Tony, about his personality or guitar playing. Me, personally, I thought the world of the guy. I didn’t know him all that well, but he was always the same. I recorded on a Tony Trischka album that Tony Rice, Béla, Tony T, Blaine Sprouse, Sam Bush, and I were present. With that lineup, you ask yourself, what in the hell were you (me) doing there. My answer is, I don’t know. I was happy to be there if just to get my name associated with that group of people. I can tell you this. I came away with a much deeper respect for all, Tony Rice especially, for how calm he was while playing some very unplayable things on the guitar.

I saw Clarence White play once in Newport, Rhode Island and was carried away by the fact that his guitar had no position markers. Tony acquired that guitar after Clarence’s untimely death…it remained the same with no position markers. Tony played it with the same confident air displayed by his predecessor. My opinion…Mr. White, Mr Rice…what can I say, they had nor have no equal. For this day, and in my opinion which I have stated on several occasions, Josh Williams is in that category….along with several others. They play in any key, and what pops into their head, miraculously and immediately comes out of the guitar. Amazing. If I’m not mistaken, and I stand corrected if I’m wrong, but folks, Josh closes his eyes when he plays. REST IN PEACE DAVID ANTHONY RICE. REST IN PEACE MY BROTHER.



Hi Sonny,

In 1972, the Osborne Brothers recorded the Paul Craft song, Midnight Flyer, which was a hit on Billboard’s country charts. Two years later,the Eagles covered your version of the song on their On the Border album. Bernie Leadon must have liked your banjo playing so much that it sounds like he tripled his banjo part. I’m curious to know how you felt about the Eagles doing one of your songs. I’m pretty sure that Paul Craft didn’t mind the extra mailbox money.

Orin Friesen

Orin….It’s been a very long time since we’ve seen one another. So good to hear from you.

Midnight Flyer was a very good record for us. Yes, Paul Craft wrote it and Rocky Top Music, a publishing company owned by Bobby and I, Published The Flyer. We sold about 60K and thought, man that’s pretty good for a bluegrass song…so Bernie Leaden told me, they, The Eagles, were getting songs together for that album, and had run out of ideas. He mentioned The Flyer to them, he played it and they liked it, or was just tired of looking, but regardless of the how it occurred, The Eagles recorded it and we had 100% publishing.

I saw Bernie at Banjo Thon and he told me The Eagles had recorded Midnight Flyer. Bernie is one of the really good guys..and a pretty good banjo player. I thought he was just playing around. But when those checks started coming in, I knew he wasn’t joking. I think they sold upwards of 24 million. That’s a whole lotta albums folks.

How did we feel about it? Well, to hear them saying the words of the song, one must remember that they were one of the biggest rock groups in the world, and they were singing Midnight Flyer, a song written by my friend Paul Craft, and recorded by the Osborne Brothers. We were barely over Rocky Top, (if one ever gets over something like that) Georgia Pineywoods, Tennessee Hound Dog and then along comes The Eagles doing Midnight Flyer and 24 plus Million. How did we feel? GIT AWAY’M HYER!!!!!!



Hi Sonny,

Here’s something I’ve wondered about for quite sometime. Back in the early days of The Osborne Brothers, you sported a beard. It reminded me of a jazz musician or a beatnik. I can’t think of any other bluegrass musician that sported any facial hair during that period. Did you ever catch any grief for wearing that goatee in the ’60s?

I wonder if you remember playing a little show back in 1984 near Millington, TN called the Lucy Opry. I was just a few months into a 20 year career in the US Navy at the time. I watched many of your shows in Renfro Valley, KY. It’s only a few miles from where I was raised, Orlando, KY. Many thanks for the great music and inspiration!

Martin T.
Kennesaw, GA

Martin T… thank you for the loan of a bit of your time, and letting us hear what’s on your mind. Hey man, thank you for serving our country in the US Navy. Bobby was a Marine during the Korean Conflict….that’s what they called it.

My Goatee… The day we took the picture for the Cutting Grass album that Bobby, and I with Benny Birchfield recorded for MGM in 1963. I was on the way home from a club we played that night. I was driving a ’63 Corvair Greenbrier vehicle. Too fast around a curve that was too much for the van. I turned it over three times cutting my chin pretty bad. I couldn’t shave for a few weeks. During that time we were to go to Nashville to record for Decca and take pictures for an upcoming Decca album. Doyle Wilburn saw my growth and asked if I was going to leave it there during the photo shoot. I couldn’t shave so it stayed, and has remained to this day. Yeah, I took some heat for looking like a Beatnick but, a line I learned from Charlie Pride, “If you’re not one, it shouldn’t bother you…” Thank you Charlie!

I remember the Lucy Opry. Not much comes to mind about it, but yes, Millington and Lucy.



Hi Sonny! I saw you playing a Stelling banjo a few times on video. Was that one Geoff lent you, or was it yours? I know you are Gibson Granada thru and thru, but what did you think of it? I have a Staghorn I bought from Geoff in 1975, and have always thought it sounded great. I am 79 now and losing it, but the banjo still sounds good.

Paul Mc

Paul… thank you, so good to hear from you. I hope you are well and staying safe. I got you by 4 years. I’m 83 and my better days are back there somewhere too.

The Stelling. I made a deal with Geoff, if he would make a banjo for me when I had to fly or leave the USA, I would take it and play it then. Actually, I think Geoff made the deal. Get that right. While he was still in San Diego, had dinner with them. Stelling is one of the good guys, folks. Straight shooter. He made the banjo, called it a SON FLOWER. Great banjo.

I played it on a video I did from Stockholm, Sweden that has been viewed by several millions. (To me, that’s really something.) My problem with the banjo was that I had trouble keeping it in tune. That was probably the first appearance of KRAKO. Anyhow, I took it back to Geoff, he and several more people tried to fix it, to no avail. I think it was finally determined that the fingerboard was the problem. Geoff paid me for my endorsement, fixed it, and sold the banjo to Wayne Rice in San Diego, who has had it for nearly 40 years and he tells me he has not had a tuning problem. That being the case, he has one great banjo. Stelling Son Flower. One of a kind.



Hi Sonny, did you ever have the chance to work with Merle Travis?

Yes, worked on shows with Merle. Good old country boy from Kentucky. Great song writer. 16 Tons: “You load 16 ton and whada you get, another day older and deeper in debt, Saint Peter don’t you call me cause I cain’t go. I owe my soul to the company store!” Nine Pound Hammer, Re Enlisment Blues….and dozens more.

He was in the movie From Here To Eternity. But I bet you didn’t know this little tidbit. We were on a show with Merle in Asheville, NC. Between shows I was sitting in my dressing room when a knock came on the door. It was Merle. I said howdy and all that. He asked to see my banjo…he actually said, “Where’s yi banjer?” I gave it to him and he proceeded to play some good claw hammer. He was good. I mean really good. He played it for at least 30 minutes. He put it back in the case, thanked me, and said, “I love a banjer.”

We talked a few minutes and he left. Several weeks later, at the Opry House, he came in dressing room number 2, we talked about 5 minutes. He had a manila envelope, out of which he took a picture of Merle and me. (I know, it’s supposed to be Merle and I) He had signed it…Now get this…”To Sonny, the ugliest man on the Opry, ‘cept me”…Merle Travis!


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.