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.
We wonder, sometimes, who our actual friends are, and which ones that say, “You ever need anything, I’ll help you,” and you never actually know until you need one.
Recently, my wife of over 62 years had some minor surgery, and because of my recent problems and being confined to the house and obviously can’t drive, we had to call on friends. Larry Stephenson gave me a flat-out NO (come to find out Larry was drying out…..no, the truth is it just so happened that Larry was playing his first show this year, hahahaha) I AIN’T GONNA LET UP ON YOU, LAWRENCE…. OK in all honesty, Larry was out of town and he IS one of my best friends. Mike Bubb, another of my close friends, has offered help when and if I needed it… and I did…. and he did. So I want to thank both of those gentlemen. Larry for being able to play a date and Bubb for driving Judy to the other side of Nashville. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU
Hey Sonny, glad you’re back on the mend from the tumble you took. We’ll keep sending prayers your way. I have a question about the Stoneman family. did you know them and/or did you ever play shows with them?
Thank you Dave for your time and interest.
Your question has to do with whether I knew or we had worked with the Stoneman family. The answer to both of those is yes. While we were about music, the Stoneman family was about show, and they were very good at what they did. Between Ronnie, Donna, Patsy, Jack, and especially Scotty when he was with them… they put on quite a show. And if you were on the show with them, you might as well forget it because they were going to steal the show.
They dressed well, and folks… they put on a show! We found this out the hard way at Sunset Park, West Grove, PA. When they hit the stage it was like major thunder. Were they my favorite band? No. But they were awfully good at what they did, including Pop Stoneman who fathered 23 children.
A lot of people classify Scotty Stoneman as a great fiddle player. I don’t agree. Fiddle player, he was. Consumer of alcohol, he was. A path several well-known fiddle players, among others, have taken and that path took their talent with it when it left. Scotty died in 1973 of alcohol poisoning and we were robbed of a damn good musical mind, and it is common knowledge that I was headed down that same road until September 2, 1968. And from that day to this, I’ve probably had 3 drinks. I woke up on September 2nd and realized I owed a whole lot to my wife and children, and to Bobby and the good things that had happened for us, and what would lie ahead.
Which is a lesson…stay away from alkyholl. (That from my grandmother who was 95 years old).
In the 1950s Tom Riggs (founder of Pinecastle Records) and I worked at the local Boy Scout Summer Camp near Louisville, KY. Tom worked in the kitchen and I worked at the swimming pool. We quickly learned of our mutual love of country and bluegrass music. In fact, we played our guitars around the visitor’s campfire each week. I know you also worked with Tom. Please share some of your memories of working with him. Any special memories of the CD/DVD package, Live in Germany?
Thank you Bob, I appreciate it.
My association with Tom Riggs began in New York at a bluegrass festival. I sat beside him while some act was on and we just talked, and the subject came up about his founding of Pinecastle Records, and he had done some research and he asked if we were free at the moment, and I said yes we were. He asked if I would be interested in recording for Pinecastle. I told him that, yes we would be, if we did things our way, because we were used to this method of making records. He said, “Well, wait a minute you are spending my money, making records for my company, and you want complete control while you’re spending my money?” And I said, “I promise you that I won’t spend a penny of your money that you won’t get value. I also promise you that you won’t get junk, and if you are familiar with who we are, which you seem to be, then I want you to tell me one piece of junk we had.” And he said, “Well, beings you put it that way, I think we can work together.” Thus began a very successful period of time in the career of The Osborne Brothers, and Tom Riggs proved to be an absolute joy to work with.
I don’t know the exact number of albums we did for Pinecastle, but there were many. And one in particular needs to be talked about… Live in Germany. To start with, this recording was done in Streekermore illegally. There wasn’t supposed to be any recordings made. So now, fast forward a few months, and Tom called me one day and he said, “What do you know about Streekermore, Germany?” I said that we had played a festival there a couple months ago. Tom said, “Did you know that it was recorded, and did you know that that ‘gentleman’ has contacted me and wants to sell me the tape?” The price staggered me, and Tom was informed that if he didn’t want to buy it, it was going to be sold to somebody else as is.
I told Tom, that we’d better think about buying that because it’s not worth being released in its present form. He bought it. When we got the tape, it wouldn’t play on our system. So then, Tom had to spend another considerable amount for a machine that would play it. He found one in New York and had it shipped to Tennessee. I didn’t count the hours, but I spent the better part of 2 years fixing that Live in Germany CD to where it was pleasant to listen to. And with the help of my brother Bobby, Glen Duncan, Steve Chandler, John Eberle, Terry Eldredge, and Terry Smith … we fixed it. And to tell you that it took some mighty fixin’ would be an understatement.
When IBMA was held in Louisville, I attended a panel discussion related to “Health and the musician.” You were on the panel. At one point the focus of the session related to alcohol, cigarettes, and drug abuse. You delivered a powerful message about the devastating effects for musicians. I recall your story about being with Ernest Tubb during his final days. Perhaps, this forum is a good place for you to repeat your message. If you agree, what is your advice for the current generation of musicians?
When IBMA was held in Louisville, there was a panel discussion related to health and musicians. I was on that panel. At one point alcohol, cigarettes, and drug abuse was the main topic we were focused on. Having been a victim to these 3 boogers, I considered myself qualified to answer. And you would think that I would have a long dissertation concerning these addictions, but I don’t. I can just tell you that I have seen some of the best musicians in the world, banjo players, steel guitar players, electric guitar players, and fiddle players almost literally crawl to get to this junk.
We talked earlier about Scotty Stonemen… but folks, he was just one. And I’m talking about great, great musicians. So the most powerful words I can think of are, “stay the hell away from that junk.” Two of the greatest fiddle players I ever saw… one was begging for beer on a Sunday morning in Cherokee, NC and the temperature at least 100 degrees and he finally found a beer that was also that hot, and literally sucked it out of the can. The other fiddle player, the last time I saw him was at the Grand Ole Opry with another star, and they were both so drunk they could barely walk and had to be led out the side door of the Opry house for fear somebody would see and recognize them.
I saw emphysema literally take the life of one of the biggest stars in country music history, a member of the Hall of Fame.
See what we’ve got here? This junk has no boundaries.
I can’t begin to tell you how many hundred, maybe thousand times I’ve been asked for advice on how to succeed playing music. Stay away from drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
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