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.
Hi Sonny! While searching thru a pile of CDs at a Goodwill Thrift Store in North Port, FL this winter, I came across a CD titled The Osborne Brothers Radio Media Sampler, #3 of a 4 part series. The pic on the CD shows a very young Sonny and Bobby Osborne. Best 99¢ I ever spent! Wish all four in the series were there. This CD appears to have been released in 2003 by Pinecastle Records in Orlando. Care to comment on how they were distributed and how they helped promote your career?
Bill in Nova Scotia
Well Bill in Nova Scotia….We played Halifax in 1958 with Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. Which means nothing, and I want you to know that I know it means nothing….. The CD you are referring to was probably a sample sent to radio stations for publicity. We had a 4 part album series depicting the four phases of our career which led us to Nashville and The Grand Ole Opry. We tried to record songs and tunes from the time period of that particular album and our career.
Distribution of recordings on a small independent record label is not an easy thing to accomplish. To do it right takes quite a sum of money, and the smaller labels just don’t have it to spend. That’s not a knock on small record companies, at least it’s not intended to be. They obviously get the job done as well as possible for their artists.
Hey Mr. Sonny,
First, thank you for taking your time to write these columns: by far my favorite bluegrass writings in our modern times!
I have long admired players such as yourself, Raymond Fairchild, Little Roy Lewis, Mr. Crowe etc. Would you care to share some of your, dare I say, favorite, or most memorable moments with Little Roy’s antics? There are so many photographs I’ve seen where the two of you are obviously in the thick of it on stage and I’ve always wanted to know the story behind.
I also learned recently of a bluegrass cruise where I believe you, Roy, and Raymond were all on the same ship for about 5-7 days…I can’t imagine how that was!
Thanks so much Sonny O.
Matthew…actually there were no planned actions between Roy and I. We just knew that at some point Roy would appear on stage dressed in the most awful garb imaginable. That in itself was something to behold, then he would do things which we knew nothing about until he did them.
I will tell you about a few of those but I assure you there was no story behind any of his antics, all just ad lib. Once in KERRVILLE, TEXAS while we were on he got himself with banjo attached, above us in the rafters and as we finished a song he dropped right beside me and looked up at me and said; “HELLO SONNY!” Not as funny when it’s written.
DESTIN, FLORIDA… Dr. Roy and Sarah Martin festival… We were on stage and Roy Lewis Jr. found a bicycle, and came riding it across the stage just like we weren’t there. When he went off the other side the sprocket caught the edge of the makeshift stage and Roy on the bicycle went head first onto a concrete floor. I saw his head hit the concrete and thought he was REALLY hurt… I mean seriously hurt. I remember jumping off the stage and going to him and he reassured me he was OK. Scared me…I thought he was hurt bad, but he wasn’t.
COUSHATTA, LOUISIANA…. Roy had a pair of these elevated shoes… I can’t remember what they are called…. and when he jumped off the stage he turned his ankle and I guess this 11 or 12 year old boy took that as his cue to come at Roy with one of these hard rubber tomahawks and proceeded to start seriously beating on Roy. Somehow Roy escaped further damage.
Ok, now…the show is over and behind the stage Roy and I are standing in this road talking, and this same boy came running up and started beating on Roy again….Roy was guarding his face and the kid was doing a number on Roy’s arms. Without thinking I grabbed this boy by the shirt and said some very rude things and ended it by saying….”KID, GET OUTA HERE BEFORE I KICK YOUR …!” The kid’s eyes got really big, he dropped the tomahawk and there was dust coming from him…he was in a hurry getting out of Dodge!” What is that old saying…”He turned that corner so fast his pockets was a’ dippin’ sand!” Yep. That’s it. Roy and I had some good times together.
Sonny, you’ve mentioned several times the importance of practice, practice, practice. But I’m curious, when you went into the studio, did you rehearse/practice ahead of time what you were about to record, or did you draw on your years of skill and play what you were feeling in the moment? This question pertains more to new material that wasn’t a regular feature of your live shows.
Thanks for all the joy you’ve given us fans over the years, and for opening this window into your career!
Bob, welcome. Thank you for you time. I appreciate it, a bunch. I love doing this thing. I emphasize practice strongly for someone who is trying to learn to play the banjo, or any instrument for that matter. You can’t practice enough, never.
We, The Brothers band ran over the tunes a few times to get familiar with the melody and how the words fit together, and to get our phrasing correct. So far as he banjo, I actually did more thinking about each song than actual practice. My house was about 25-35 minutes from Bradley’s Barn, where we did most of our recording. I used that time to get an idea of what I wanted to play and when we got right down to recording. I mostly played what I heard in my heads at that moment.
Now, I know there are those out there reading this who are saying that I’m lying. That would be wrong. Ask Bobby, Digger, Crowe, Wynn, Mosely, Tim Graves, El, Smitty. Bobby was the same way, as were the other guys in our band. They were good, reliable, we knew them and knew they would have their parts. And they did.
I’ll tell you about harmony singers and phrasing. If you position yourselves in the studio where you can see each other…especially the mouth…you will invariably say your words like the lead guy. Easy to do, hard to get used to doing, but it works…I guess I should say, It worked for us..like a charm.
Hey Sonny. My questions concern bluegrass and murder/death ballads. How did murder/death ballads and bluegrass become intertwined? What were your favorites? Were any of them true? Any stories behind the ones The Osborne Brothers recorded?
Though not a murder ballad, Bringing Mary Home has always been one of my favorite “death” songs in bluegrass. Brings a tear to my eye even now. Thanks for spending a few moments with us!
Tim L. here from Dayton, OH, Chief #5
Tim from Dayton. Used to live and work in Dayton. Our first little house was on Pittsburg Ave. off Salem. Judy (wife and two kids were born in Dayton).
So, you want to know about murder songs. We did The Knoxville Girl, Little Rosewood Casket, Samuel Wilder’s Will, and Down In The Willow Garden. Tragic Romance and The Wreck of Old 97 might be considered in that category. I played Jesse James, which is song with lyrics but I played it as a banjo solo.
I don’t know the answer to your question. They’re good, well written songs, and the ones we did just seemed to fit our way of singing. Larry Stephenson liked the way we did Knoxville Girl so, he did it too. Had a great record on it too.😁 Seriously, only one that I know was a true story.
The Death of Little Kathy Fiscus was a song written about a 3 year old girl in California who fell into an abandoned well. Jimmy Osborne…no relation….that I know of…wrote and recorded a song by the same title. I’m sure we all know of more songs but those are the only ones that are close to home.
You mentioned that you have Chief Number 5. Built Sept 9, 1998….Dana Cupp, and Dale Perry had that banjo before you…and there might have been more but those two are the only ones I know.
YOU ALL STAY SAFE, PLAY BY THE RULES, WEAR THOSE DUMB LOOKING BUT LIFE SAVING MASKS. PLEASE REMEMBER, IT’S YOUR LIFE YOU’RE PUTTING At RISK WHEN YOU MIX AND MINGLE TOO CLOSE.
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.