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.
Hey Chief! Do you remember the details of this photo? Where? When? Bill’s mandolin here appears to be an A style. Remember where he got it, or why he was playing it? Thanks! I’m enjoying these posts immensely every Friday!
Hey Lincoln, I surely do. That was in or near Raleigh, North, Carolina. 1952… late summer I believe. We were doing a week of shows with Hack Johnson, and Bill had closed his mandolin case with a box of Gibson strings under the peghead and pulled the neck loose at the heel causing the strings to be about an inch high and unplayable.
Willie G. Brewster (Father of Paul Brewster) was working with Hack at the time playing the mandolin, so he loaned Bill his mandolin, an A style Martin, to play on that show. Bill played his usual style on that mandolin WHICH WAS NOT SET UP FOR THE BEATING IT WAS TO TAKE. Bill broke several strings, probably 2 or 3. Anyhow, the next day after he “worked on his mandolin” he used it on the show that night. By “working on it” I mean he pulled the neck back and put a piece of wood under the fingerboard extension on all F5 model Gibson mandolins. That didn’t do much good at lowering the action, but he played it.
The Shenandoah Valley trio which consisted of Jimmy, L.E. White, and me. The banjo was useless so Bill asked me if I could chord the mandolin. I said yes so he sent me out there to play rhythm with L.E. and Jimmy. That was quite an experience. I thought he had fixed the mandolin because he played it…took his breaks, etc., but when I tried to play chords my big hands were not strong enough to note it, so what came out sounded like a scratching sound. A snare drum with a brush.
Howdy again Sonny! Recently, I have been enjoying watching reruns of Hee-Haw (that stay at home thing!) and it dawned on me that I don’t recall ever seeing the Osborne Brothers guest appearance on that show. I pretty much thought I had seen every episode……even the very first one…….several times! Did I just miss your appearance? Or for some reason, did you all just never appear on the show?? Keep up the good work!!!
Lynwood, always good to hear from you. We did that show, once. BUT…….
We refused to do Hee-Haw several times because we didn’t want pigs running across the bottom of the screen while we were singing. We figured that we had a hard enough time fighting off the “Hillbilly Hick” horse collar that was placed around the neck of everyone who was Grand Ole Opry or from Kentucky/Tennessee that played what most people referred to as “Shit Kickin'” music.
Listen, we could have used the advertisement by just going ahead and doing it but we chose to not do that show until they promised in writing to suspend that little bit of their hog “Showmanship.” So finally they agreed and we did the show once. Yeah, we stood up in the cornfield in the Liberty bib overalls and all the things required. We were paid for doing it but as far as I know it never aired. I guess the “hogs across the screen” won out as being more important than we were but you know, at the time I really didn’t care. If that were their rules and they chose to pay everyone on the show, so be it. We did alright without Hee-Haw!
Hi Sonny. Love this series. Previously you said about Jimmy Martin, “I’m not knocking Jimmy, he was a solid professional. He (or others) carried himself well, and he dressed like a man going to work at his office, as did his band. I respect that. They entertained the crowd. (Maybe he just didn’t like me nor my banjo playing, and was in a hurry to get it done with).” Once again, I refer to my all-encompassing interview that I did with Jimmy. Here is what he said about playing with you and Bobby, “I did the same amount of practicing with him as I did with Sonny and Bobby, the Osborne Brothers. We used to rehearse about one o’clock until three or four every Tuesday and every Thursday when we were in Detroit, to get our records down like we recorded on RCA Victor.
If you’ll ever listen to the records that me and the Osborne Brothers made you’ll say that there ain’t no better records made in bluegrass. The harmony was there, and the music was there. We all recorded on one mic. Me and Bob and Sonny, Red Taylor, and Cedric Rainwater was on another one. Only had four of us. Me and Bob and Sonny sung in the same mic, and picked our banjo and guitar in the same mic. We had practiced and got ‘em down where Bob and Sonny knew every lick I was doing on the guitar, and I knew every lick they were doing on the mandolin and banjo. And, we knew how loud to hit it, and we knew how soft to hit it when we sang it. They couldn’t turn Bob up, they couldn’t turn Sonny up, and they couldn’t turn me up.”
Derek. Thanks for your time. This is more a statement than a question, so I’ll just choose to let it stand as is. Several things I don’t remember that I will mention… not disagree with, mind you, mention as I remember. Red and Cedric were not on the same mic. Bobby, Jimmy, and I were on one mic, Red and Cedric had one each. As a form of mixing ourselves, They put tape on the floor to tell us where to stand when singing, Playing rhythm, background, or taking a break. Interesting way of doing it.
I hope this message finds you doing well!
Ross J. from Denver, CO here. I really enjoy reading your column in Bluegrass Today. Conjures up memories of seeing The Osborne Brothers at the Starvy Creek festival in Missouri (where I was born and raised), or going back a lot further, the Pat Jones’ Exotic Animal Paradise festival.
Also brings back memories of several camps I attended in Nashville that you and Bill Evans hosted. Loved to sit back and listen to stories of your days ‘in the thick of it,’ on the road! Also, I was standing right beside you and Jens Kruger when Jens first picked your old Granada (and proclaimed it the ‘best banjo in the world’). I remember you cautioned Jens about playing his music on your banjo since “he’d put demons in it” (you were kidding of course!). I then remember you getting wide-eyed when Jens proceeded to play a bunch of your solos and licks, obscure stuff that you exclaimed few people knew and even fewer played them the way you did.
I have always loved the banjo playing of both you and Jens and I have treasured a compliment you gave me the night after a long jam session in the instructor’s cabin, during one of the camps. We met up the next morning on the way to breakfast and you commented that you and Bill (Emerson) had both enjoyed my picking the night before and that I was developing my own style. Well, son, I was on Cloud 9 after hearing that, and have really never descended since! (I also remember doing some singing with you and Miss Cindy Sinclair, during which time you commented how my singing was “loud as ‘heck. Right in tune, but loud” Ha.
True stories. I don’t know if you remember any of this but it sure made a lifelong impression on me! If you and Bill Evans ever decide to host another camp (hint!), I will be there. Be great to see you and visit again.
Best wishes from Colorado
(P.S. — you mentioned wanting to visit England but wouldn’t fly. The Queen Mary II makes that trip in style! Another option)
Ross I do remember quite a lot of what you conjured up. Starvey Creek happens to be my favorite festival to play. Don Day, special man. Your singing with Cindy and I, the Jens Kruger stories I remember quite well. Jim Smith was sitting at the table when that bit happened with the Granada. My Granada. After he played it for a few minutes he paid it the highest compliment by saying it was the best banjo in the world. When he proceeded to play everything I had recorded over the past 40 years it literally took my breath away. He must have played the banjo for 20 minutes more or less. And when he gave it back to me he said, “This banjo is like poison, because it’s not mine!” My goodness, here stands perhaps the very best banjo technician/player if you will, in the world telling me what I had been saying for the years that I owned that Granada. I was totally humbled.
Of course I remember it, a few details might have crossed with one another but they are all there. When we talk about these things is what causes them to live. I do so appreciate your attendance at our camps. Man, they were special. I doubt we will ever do another, Bill has become the New Mexico Flash and my health has deteriorated so much it just won’t allow it to happen. I would love to visit England but I reckon that’s out too…sadly! Strange, dangerous times we’re living in now, huh?
Larry Stephenson (Larry Stephenson Band of 30+ years) asked me if I had any memories of Culpepper, VA. The American Legion Park. The first time Larry saw The Brothers was there… with his Dad, at the age of 14. YES, I surely do have memories of that place and the very large crowds who attended the shows.
We had played in Clinton, South Carolina and heard that the Stanley Brothers were to be in Culpepper the next day. Long story condensed a bit…. we found them and went to the park with them. Bobby was asked to sing a couple with them and he did. One song was this song Carter had written, Vision of Mother. All of a sudden Carter just walked over to the left side of the stage and propped his foot upon the railing which went around the stage. He started fishing around in his pockets looking for a cigarette. He found this wrinkled up smoke, then looked for a match. He came up with one of those kitchen matches that he struck on the leg of his suit pants. Eddie Matherly, who booked them and got us on the stage with them, yelled at me while pointing at Carter who was looking toward the sky puffing his smoke, “look, he’s smoking on the stage!” At that time 1963, smoking on stage was a definite no no!
That same day we were sitting in our motorhome and I saw Johnny Clark walking down the hill. Johnny and his Brother Bo owned and operated a very successful gun shop in Warrenton, VA. Johnny also played the banjo with Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan. Johnny was a big guy, I mean BIG guy. So, here he came toward a picnic bench with a beverage, surely of the adult variety, in one hand and a large sandwich in the other. I would imagine it to be a steak sandwich… probably 30 ounces and brought from home. So John sneaks up on this empty picnic bench and proceeds to sit down, gingerly I might add. No one was sitting on the other side so the side Johnny was sitting on became tremendously overloaded and that side promptly hit the ground with the other side up in the air. Funny part, he must have had this happen before because as he went down he adjusted the angle of the adult beverage and the large sandwich as he went down and didn’t spill a drop of anything. Miraculous things do happen. See you next week!
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.