Ask Sonny Anything… tell us about Tater Tate

Good morning Chief! I hope all finds you well and staying safe in these perilous times. In going through the many questions your fans sent this week, I’m continually reminded of the friendships, love, and respect you’ve built in your travels. It should warm your heart knowing the admiration we all hold for your contribution, will continue for decades to come – even by those who never saw you perform and/or weren’t even alive during the time you were performing. I think that speaks volumes, not only to the value of your work but your commitment to excellence. Enjoy these questions Sonny, as much as our readers have clearly enjoyed the music you’ve given all of us.

Terry Herd


Hello Sonny. In my opinion, one of the most underrated fiddle players in the history of bluegrass music was Tater Tate. I’ve heard that he was a great singer, as well. What can you say about Tater’s playing and singing? Also, what were some of your experiences with him?

Eli P.

Eli…Thank you for joining in. You wanted to talk about Clarence Tater Tate. First off, I don’t know how he got that “Tater” nickname, but started hearing about him in the ’50s. He was working with The Bailey Brothers in Knoxville. BAILEY…CHARLIE AND DAN. I first met him in Nashville in the ’70s. After the Flatt/Scruggs split, he was playing bass with Lester….You can’t mark this down as fact…I don’t actually remember the first time I actually met him, personally. That seems about right though. Later he played fiddle or bass with Bill…actually he did whatever Bill needed and/or wanted.

Tate story, told to me by Tater on a trip to Germany and Switzerland. Approximately 1987. This happened one night in Nashville. Three o’clock in the morning. Tate is home in bed asleep when the telephone rings. He stumbles awake…Hello! Ah…Tater…(It was Mr. Bill.) what’s wrong Bill? He thought Bill had fallen. “Ah…Do you know where my razor is?” Tate, says..”I reckon it’s in the bathroom.” Bill..”Could you come over here and see if you can find it for me?” Tate…”Right now?” Bill…”Yeah, I need it.” Tate…”well, I’ll be there in about 45 minutes.” Tate lived in Hendersonville, Monroe on a farm between Goodlettsville and Gallatin. Tater got up and went to Bill’s house…went in and went straight to the bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet, and there in plain sight was????? You guessed it, Bill’s razor. Tater took the razor, handed it to Bill. Bill…”Ah..where was it? Boy I looked all over this house for it! Where’d you say it the bathroom medicine cabinet? Boy I’m glad you found it, I thought sure I’d lost it!” I asked Tate what he did then. He said he went home and got back in the bed.

Tater was a very good fiddle player. Played clear, clean, true notes. He played louder than most. He told me he had lost some hearing. True? I reckon. Why else would he volunteer that information. Clarence Tate was one of the finest gentlemen you would ever want to meet! S


Hey Sonny,

I was listening to a transcribed radio program, with advertisements from 1974. A few minutes into it, the first of the advertisements came on and it was by a favorite “country music group,” the Osborne Brothers. It was for Red Man chewing tobacco. Definitely good banjo, good music, good harmonies, and a good pitch by Bobby for Red Man chew. I know Bill Monroe and Grandpa Jones did Dr. Peppers commercials, but I just wondered how the Red Man chew gig came about.

Jim R.

Jim…thank you for taking the time to join in. We had an agent in New York, Geoff Berne, who got those commercial accounts for us, and also booked our orchestra dates. We did the Big Red chewing tobacco and one for the Chevrolet Nova automobile. They were done in New York, and that of course meant first class air…the companies paid our flight tickets..first class. I took the RB 3 banjo with me and it had a ticket for the seat beside me…yep, you heard right. It had its seat belts securely fastened.

Presently a lady came and wanted me to remove the instrument so she could sit there and converse with her friend who had the seat in front of me. She insisted and asked the flight attendant to remove the banjo. I asked for the captain. He came and after I showed the boarding pass for our two seats. The lady got real hot when he told her to move…or he would have her moved…….!



Dear Sonny,

First, God bless you and Merry Christmas!

I was listening to you and Bobby from the day I was born (and probably even before). I have since listened to your albums multiple times and watched as many videos as I could online. I am a newbie to playing banjo and enjoy the heck out of it.

My question is, how can anyone not like banjo? It makes me happy, it makes me smile. You have said that you played a few other instruments, as do I, but nothing brings me as much joy. How can anyone NOT like banjo?



Jerry…. Thanks for spending some of your time with us.

Your question about ‘”how can anyone not like the banjo?”…. I’ve got a little story to tell you. We, the Brother and I, were playing a state fair in NC, I believe it was Raleigh (Dale Sledd called it ‘Rowly’). We were on the stage doing a sound check in the afternoon, in preparation for the show that night. It’s a huge auditorium and people are milling around in the back of the auditorium, and I’m at the microphone and it is turned on. At the same instant, a group of young people, white and black, are strolling across the back of the auditorium and at the same time I hit the 1st, 3rd, and 5th strings on the banjo into this hot mike. That group of about 8 kids, teenagers, stopped dead in their tracks and looked toward the stage and as fast as I could say, “they got out of Dodge”…they were out of Dodge! They ran at the sound of the banjo. So to say that some people are irritated by the sound of the banjo, that would be correct.

The banjo was my living for over 50 years and it did me quite well. However, the instrument that makes me most happy is one that I can’t play. That is the piano. I have a piano and my wife bought me an electric keyboard, and I’ve tried…I had Derek Deekins, a well-known fiddle player, come to the house and he being a very good piano player also…he tried to teach me. As I remember, he left in the middle of the first lesson…swiftly shaking his head in disgust.

So, back to the original answer…I love the banjo, always have, and it makes me happiest when Judy goes to the bank every Monday. But I would have loved it a great deal, if I could have learned how to play the piano. But, like the clawhammer banjo that Grandpa Jones tried so hard to teach me, and could not, I would imagine that Derek Deekins felt the same way as Grandpa — who didn’t speak to me for over a year. So my calling was the banjo, and it treated me nicely. Even gave me one of its best….a 1934 Granada.




To say you are a great banjo player is an understatement to the level of talent and professionalism you attained in your day, but I’m wondering at what point in your journey you crossed over from being merely good — to being great? And moreover, what is the difference between a good musician and a great musician?

Thank you for the years of enjoyment and…well, for being “great.”

Bill W.


I appreciate your kind words a lot more than you will ever know. Things like that make old 83-yr old retired people feel good.

To say I am a great banjo player is an understatement to the level of talent and professionalism I attained in my day. Now…Bill, you said that…I didn’t. But you are wondering at what point in my journey I crossed over from being merely good to being great. Again, that’s your words not mine, because I don’t look at it the same as you.

There was a point in 1957 when Earl recorded Randy Lynn Rag and made a noticeable mistake and they let it go on record like that. At that time, I was really wrapped up in Earl Scruggs and Rudy Lyle. So much that when I heard that record I realized that I needed to do something else if I was going to make this a life’s work. And so I started listening to every other kind of music and instrumentations that I could find, and then try to transpose what I heard to the banjo. In a couple of years of doing this, I had created a little thing of my own. And whether that was the decisive point, I can’t say yay or nay. I just know that it changed my way of looking at the banjo.

And you ask what is the difference between a good musician and a great musician. So if you can visualize a line of music….a good musician learns to play the crust of what he hears. A great one is one who digs down under that crust and hears all the little nuances, and complete notes and slides, etc. To me, that’s a great musician and the difference between great and good. Nothing wrong with good, but it’s a great deal like 1st place and 2nd place.


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.

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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.