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.
As this year marks 75 years since Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band, I’m wondering if you could reflect on your earliest memories of hearing him play, and what it was that connected so profoundly with you.
Thank you for your time. At this time, I really really appreciate your participation.
Earl was 21 when he went to work with Bill. I was 8 years old and I hardly remember Earl’s early days with Bill, although we were to find out later that he was the most important thing to ever happen to music. Not just bluegrass music, but to music worldwide. Earl’s banjo playing changed that instrument from a parlor instrument to a lead instrument, and eventually played by millions, including me 3 years later.
When I really started playing the banjo was the year Lester and Earl left Monroe and went to Hickory, NC. I was drawn to Earl by the solid performance of his right hand. About 3 ½ years later, I shook hands with that same right hand and it scared me to death. Jimmy Martin asked Earl if he would show me how he played, and Earl got out of it by saying the winding on his 4th string was broke. And to play, hurt his fingers on the left hand. So that passed.
About 30 minutes later Lester and Earl were called up to the stage to play, and me, a 14 year old, wandered out to the crowd to watch the great Earl, and he and Lester played and that broken winding on the 4th string didn’t seem to hurt him a damn bit. And that 14 year old kid? Well it scared him so bad his knees buckled and he held onto a steel post to keep from falling. That 14 yearyr old kid, that night, learned how to rely on the binding of the 4th string to keep from showing people stuff. 10-4 That lesson was never to be forgotten throughout my career. It seems that I appropriately always had a messed-up 4th string. Later, as we became close friends, I never used that on Earl.
Hi Sonny, hope you’re recovering from your fall… Being 80 I love traditional bluegrass, but it seems to me today’s pickers are getting away from that. They’re very talented, but the songs themselves don’t sound like bluegrass. I hate to see the music I love go the way of country. Would like to know your thoughts on this without putting anyone down. Keep up the good work you’re doing, you are a wealth of information.
Thank you for your time, Roger. With your admission to being 80, and that puts me at almost 83, gives me the right to say just about anything. I love traditional music, be it bluegrass or country. I miss Earl, Don, Rudy, Tommy Jackson, Grady Martin ….. those names represent some of the best musicians that ever lived, and these clowns nowadays think they can play. My opinion doesn’t agree, although it doesn’t mean much and I realize that.
To me, a song that you can’t hum or whistle while you work or drive a tractor is not a song….it’s a thing. I’m definitely not in a position to put anyone down, and I won’t mention any names, but the junk they’re putting out there now and calling it country and bluegrass, in my opinion, is just that. When traditional music (bluegrass and country) got out of the ’60s and maybe the ’70s it didn’t make any sense to me anymore. I wonder how many bluegrass songs make it to the national charts (Cashbox, Record World, Billboard … if they still exist) because back in the day we put 21 on the national charts, Lester and Earl put 20 and they were all good songs with melodies that you could hum and whistle while you cut your grass or trimmed bushes around your house. Try that now. I have, and I didn’t get very far. I’m not asking anybody else to agree with me, but that’s my opinion of bluegrass and country music now.
We had a bus driver named Raymond E. Huffmaster, and he and I sat up and listened to WWL in New Orleans all night long. Charlie Douglas and his partner Parker kept us up til 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning many many nights playing solid country and some bluegrass music. Those days were fun and when a song came on that Raymond E. didn’t particularly like… he would reach over to the knob on the radio and say “ka-lick-a” and gently, firmly turn the radio off and silence would ensue until he thought about it and turned the radio back on.
I am a long time Osborne Brothers fan. Particularly enjoyed seeing you up close and personal at several Withlacooche Festivals in Florida. I wonder if you remember a friend who had a food concession there. Leonard Durham had “Leonard’s Lemonade.” It was not just lemonade, but all kinds of food. One of Leonard’s specialities was his sausage and onion hoagie. Leonard tells me that you always ended the evening set by announcing over the sound system, “Hey Leonard, fix me two sausage and onion specials to go.” I thought those were great festivals with lots of great talent. Just wondering what you thought of the Withlacooche festivals and if you remember Leonard’s sausage and onion hoagie?
Tom, you have dug up a bone in my memory. First of all, with your mention of Withlacooche, FL and Leonard’s Lemonade. Leonard Durham had the best sausage and onion hoagies that has ever been in this world. Reminds me a great deal of Tommy Jackson. In my opinion, Tommy was the best fiddle player on this earth … ut oh … I digress.
When we played Withlacooche, we would usually close the show and I would say, on the microphone “Hey, Leonard. Get me 2 sausage and onion specials to go.” And before we left, I would go over to his stand or he would bring them to me. And I would have 2 of those things to eat, as I gently but firmly drove that bus or watched Raymond drive it out of that Withlacooche parking lot.
Witchlacooche is where we saw Terry Eldredge make a fool of himself trying to play the fiddle. Gene Wooten laughed so hard that I wanted to make him look foolish too, so I said, “You go over there and play it if you think you can do any better.” And he did, and he did. None of us knew he could, but he just stepped up, took that fiddle and played it!
Lonnie Knight ran that festival and he knew how to do it. It was truly one of my favorite places to play. Huge crowds, good sound. Oh wait, I remember something else that happened there…….. Jeb Bush was there one night and he was backstage and of course he and his whole family were Republicans, and I was too. But…my favorite president of all time was Harry Truman, so we went onstage and I called Mr Bush out to sing with us. And folks… if you think Terry made a fool out of his self… Jeb Bush could not sing, but bless his heart, he tried to sing Rocky Top with us…..Lord how mercy. I miss that so much.
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.