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.
All you’ns guys and gals keep telling me, and Terry and John, that you look forward to this thing every week. Man, you don’t realize how much I love doing this little thing. It’s like waking up to another world for me to spend these days in, and you all are helping. Now, a word about The Real Deal Bluegrass Music. I have heard it the last several weeks. Lieutenant Professor Dan Boner, (ETSU) guitar, vocal, bass. Anysley Porchak, fiddle, beyond words, and Lincoln Hensley banjo and guitar. Playing Krako K1 and occasionally 1966 Gold Vega, (Roll Muddy River). They’re doing a thing every Tuesday. Sounds like the ’50s again. s
I look forward to your column every week. I have been a big fan of the ‘brothers’ since I was a kid, and remember seeing you at the first festival we went to which was in Berryville, VA. Watermelon Park in 1970. Such an experience for a family from Maine striking out to the ‘wilds’ of Virginia. Can it be 50 years ago already??
I have always been a huge fan of the Louvin Brothers, thanks to my parents constantly playing their albums. I would go to sleep by Alabama or Nobody’s Darling but Mine, among so many others. Oh those vocals!! Then dad would slap on your rendition of Kentucky. Wow!!
My question is about the recording Ira Louvin did with you. I believe the album was Yesterday, Today and The Osborne Brothers and the song was Give This Message To Your Heart. Will you talk about that recording? What it was like to have Ira in the studio with you? Anything you could share about that experience would be wonderful. Did you do any other recordings with Ira?
Thanks from a Yankee gal.
Hey there Yankee gal RB from Maine….Charlie and Ira were as good as it gets. We patterned our harmonies from their ideas. The way they switched and changed parts was something to hear and try to understand. Then we found a way to add that idea to our thing, and it worked wonders.
The Ira story is typical of Ira…we were rehearsing to record at a 6:00 p.m. session. We didn’t have a third guy…Red Allen would not sign a release so we couldn’t record for a year after he left. Nice guy, huh? We had Johnny Dacus playing the guitar and singing the third part, but when we left Dayton for Nashville to record for MGM, Johnny had left town, and we didn’t see him again for two years. He never mentioned a reason for his sudden departure and we didn’t either. So, we went to Nashville and the FAMOUS RED ALLEN ONE YEAR DELAY was a week or so from coming to the end of our experience with Red Allen. Bobby’s and mine were the only names to ever appear on another contract. The Red Allen era was officially over. Thankfully!
Back to the Ira story. He was in the office and heard us going over some duet songs the we had chosen to do. He came into the studio and mentioned that he had a great song for our harmony. We relayed the above predicament and he offered to sing it with us if we wanted to do the song. The song was Give This Message To Your Heart. They (THE LOUVINS) were supposed to leave at 5:00 p.m. for South Dakota. He asked if we would do his song first on the session, of course we said YES. (In harmony I bet).
Anyhow, I asked Ira what part he wanted. His reply was, “Just do your normal part and I’ll do the other one.” I’ll bet no one can tell where his part is. One half line he would be under my part and the other half would be over Bobby. Absolute genius…He got to the session and we started on time. 6:00 p.m.. Our positioning was the same. Bobby and I facing one another and Ira to my right seeing both of us. If my memory serves me right, we went through it twice and he said he had to run, and we had a masterpiece…why do I place it that high? How often would we ever get the opportunity to sing with one of our HERO people. Never happened again…that’s how often! That was 1959.
Sonny, Could you comment on Allen Shelton’s style of picking? Did you know him personally? Any other tidbits about him would be welcome! Thanks.
Sam. Thank you for joining us today. Good question about a friend. Allen Shelton was truly an original, I first met him when I was 14 or 15. He had two things against him. Strictly my opinion of course. NUMBER One was his choice of banjo. A Gibson RB-250 was not good enough to produce what Allen put into it, wanted, and needed to hear back. I don’t know the answer, nor do I know his thoughts. I didn’t ask and he never offered. Obviously he heard something that I didn’t. He should have gotten far more recognition than he did. He deserved far more than he received.
SHELTON STORY….of which there are many. One night at the Opry he asked if he could use my banjo. I said absolutely, and he did. He explained that he had been working on his banjo and when he left for the Opry he picked up the wrong case, which contained banjo parts, etc. Jim and Jesse were leaving right after the show and I told him to stay there 30 minutes and I would bring a banjo for him to play next day, and I could be back by the time they were ready to leave and he wouldn’t have to drive to Gallatin, which I sensed he didn’t want to do anyhow. He did, and I did. Brought double 00 or a new Chief. I can’t tell you more about the missing banjo.
The second reason Allen is not held in higher esteem is because the material Jim and Jesse played was not conducive to the style banjo Allen played. More so, the mandolin style Jesse played. Jesse wrote a lot of their material. They kinda fought with one another. (Not Allen and Jesse, the mandolin and banjo) Allen was always far back in the mix on their records.
ALLEN SHELTON was one of the nicer gentlemen I have ever known. You want to know who loved Allen’s playing… Marty Robins. Marty notoriously did not like the banjo. But he and I were great friends. He told me one night, “That ole red headed boy that plays for Jim and Jesse can flat play!” I wish Marty had hired him.
You’ve had some of the best singers in your band over the years such as Paul Brewster, Terry Eldridge, Ronnie Reno, and so many others.
Can you tell us how you and Bobby found them or did they seek you all out? They were all an important part of the incredible harmonies you all had.
Thanks for your time!
Sean M. Man you have hit on one of my favorite subjects. Benny Birchfield, Dale Sledd, Ronnie Reno, Paul Brewster, Terry Eldredge, Terry Smith, and Daryl Mosely. You couldn’t ask for any better than that group of harmony singers and guitar pickers. They were the best for and what we were trying to accomplish. In the end, we did everything we set out to do. These guys helped push us and they made us sound as good as we could sound.
To be quite honest with you, for the most part they found us. Each time we needed someone, one showed up and wanted the job. With one exception it happened this way. And, get this, each of them needed no rehearsing. They knew the lyrics to every song and they knew the harmony part they were required to do. Absolutely amazing. That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, but it did.
I left one guy out, Robby Osborne, Bobby’s oldest son. Rob, at one time or another played electric bass, guitar, sang the third part, then we wanted him to play snare drum…that’s right “just” snare.
By adding the drum, we knew we would catch hell and we wanted to tread lightly in the beginning. Well, as time moved right along, we worked several country package shows with George Jones. Drummer for George’s band…The Jones Boys…was a great little guy named Freddie…forgive me, I don’t remember his last name. Rob is left handed and so was Freddie so naturally they became good friends. Clinton, South Carolina. Rob came to me and asked if he could play the full set on the show. I asked if he had cleared it with his Dad. He said Bobby was all in, so I told him to go ahead but DO NOT MESS UP. (I cleaned that up a little bit right there) He promised he would not, and that day he became the best Bluegrass Drummer EVER. He might have been the only one at the time.
Robby Osborne convinced me, over time, that he could do just about anything. He could too. Owned and piloted his airplane, layed brick, built a recording studio, built our on-stage sound system, Built an EMT Echo Plate..I tell you, he can do anything. Anything he sets his mind to do, Boy can do it.
Hello Sonny, Zach From Edmonton Alberta CA, hope you’re doing well! I know back in the day the Osborne Brothers were played on radio stations known for country music and not bluegrass, by disc jockeys who didn’t know better. They played you boys because of the steel guitar (and perhaps drums) heard, but I wanted to ask you if given the chance would you and Bobby have switched to country music solely instead of the bluegrass/country mix you both were known for?
Thanks Sonny, take care!
Hey there Zack W…Welcome in h’yer. Hello to you in Edmonton. My first Chinese food was with Blaine Sprouse and JD Brock. In Edmonton. Back yonder in the ’80s. My favorite TV show is Heartland which is filmed in High River Alberta. Beautiful Alberta Canada. I love it.
Zack, I thought about the country thing quite a bit. But to do it successfully we would have to abandon the banjo completely. Then rely on Bobby’s vocal and the strength of our harmony. I wasn’t sure that we could have been as successful doing all country as we were a bluegrass band ‘gone country.’ That would have been fun to try, but by doing so our bluegrass fans would have abandoned us completely, and we were afraid of that very thing happening. And, we were selling records, drawing large enough crowds, so we did ok. I bet Bobby would agree with our decision….just keep on keeping on.
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.