Ask Sonny Anything… singing harmony and playing fills

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 Sonny,

Much has been asked here in this forum about your incredible contribution as a banjo player, but I’m curious to know what role song lyrics have played in your career and your overall love of music in general. Dixie Hall once said “It All Begins With A Song,” and I’m hoping you can share a little insight into what resonates with you lyrically, as well as some insight into your favorite songs and songwriters.

Terry H.

Rocky Top, Tennessee Houndog, Georgia Pineywoods, Muddy Bottom, Blue Heartache, Midnight Flyer, Beneath Still Waters……. CONCEIT? awww….Not me. Just the facts ma’am…just the facts! I worked too hard not to be proud of it… wouldn’t you?

Well, To start with, I disagree with MS Dixie. If one would think back, the first thing you do is learn G-C-D on a guitar or some similar thing on a piano, bass, banjo..etc. Then comes a Flatt-Scruggs or Osborne Bros. song 😡 so, in our Bluegrass World the song doesn’t necessarily come first. However, in Tom T. and MS Dixie’s world most definitely, to a couple of the world’s best song writers, THE song would be first and foremost. Tom T. just happened to create perhaps one of the top two lines I have ever heard in a song: “God Bless Little Children While They’re Still Too Young To Hate.”….The other being by Alan Jackson: “I Know Jesus And I’ve Talked To God.” So, to take this one step further, my favorite writers are Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Thanks to them, Paul Craft, Ira Louvin, Dallas Frazer… and a few more we were fortunate to put 21 songs in the national Charts. Career making stuff.

ps: (Put a Mahogany Neck in a Curly Maple Granada) Holy McWow!!!! BRILLIANT???? 😩


Hi Sonny, delighted to read your columns on Bluegrass Today.

I’ve always “suspected” that perhaps you enjoyed singing as much as you did picking the banjo. I expect it didn’t start out that way; young fellers are always hot to learn to PICK. What got you started on singing? I know you sang lead in duets with Bobby, and the “middle part” in the trios. Can you tell us more about your enjoyment of singing and how you developed your considerable singing talent?

PS: I think the same thing about JD Crowe — I think he really liked singing near as much as picking. Thanks.

DB, Catskills of NY

-DB….Thank you for you participation. Singing, I actually never wanted to sing. But it was just a necessity. My Sister Louise, Bobby and I made a recording on a wire recorder for a gentleman named Ott Ginter in 1948 on which I sang harmony for the first time. I realized some time later that I heard that part easily. I didn’t have to think about where it was, I just heard it. Then with Bill Monroe he had to have a baritone part in his quartet songs he just looked at me like, it was kinda my job. My singing harmony just came naturally because I heard and understood harmony parts. I think it’s something that can’t be taught, or learned successfully although some might disagree, and that’s ok. I’ve seen and heard more than a few people struggle with it, I SAW and HEARD Larry Gatlin show one of the ALABAMA guys where his part was….It’s something you either have or you don’t, but I always tell you that this is MY opinion.


I grew up listening to Osborne Brothers music and love it to this day. I once emailed you about the fact that listening to your group vocals was a class unto itself in singing harmonies and learning the parts. The mix was always good and you could hear all three parts distinctly. In conjunction with the recent comments on Fair and Tender Ladies, I would say that is my favorite version of that song – loved the moving harmony parts.

A few weeks ago, somebody asked you about this year’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductions and you said there was one guy that you thought should be in there but didn’t want to mention his name for fear of jinxing it. I never saw a follow-up to that. Did he get selected?

Wayne L.

Wayne…. Traditionally they would mix the lead note in the middle and three clicks louder. Harmony would be on each side softer. We argued and finally had it mixed our way and it was successful. We wanted all three parts equal volume. Everyone needs to be heard.

I need to ask whether I should talk about who is going into the Hall of Fame this year. You know what, I’m going to tell you anyhow. Beings I am going to be the person who is to induct Bill Emerson into the Hall this year, why not talk about it. Banjo great BILL EMERSON is going into the IBMA HALL OF FAME. Incidentally, he is the person I was talking about who deserved to be in long before this.


Sonny, when a group that is vocal centric, and the banjo player is a key part both vocally and picking, how does one manage volume so artfully as you, and keep your fills from overwhelming a mic when you are gathered around a condenser?

Charles C.

Charles, I think you a talking about using one mic for vocal. That being the case I’ll try to explain. First, you all three should position yourselves about 18-24 inches from the mic. Being careful to all be the same distance. The banjo guy should be in the middle. That automatically gives him a clear shot at the mic for fills. His fills don’t need to be any louder than your vocals and he needs to be good enough that he can do his fills the same volume as the vocals. If he doesn’t want to do that, FIRE him and get someone who will!!!!!!!!!👀👿😊😃🍷📛📢



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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.