Good morning Chief and welcome to Time Machine Day! Enjoy the trip and don’t forget to come back…we need your answers to these questions!
Red Allen story… When we worked at The Wheeling Jamboree in 1957, The Louvin Brothers had voluntarily quit the Opry and come to WWVA for a spell. We most always did a Midnight spot on WWVA, and then hurry to a restaurant called Clyde’s Fine Day. It was about 20 miles from Wheeling. Red, always looking for something, went in and told us to pay careful attention. An older lady was waitress at this time. Red called her Mom. We went in and he asked for MOM.…. “Guess what Mom, today is my birthday.” She proceeded to send out a great looking steak for Red, and they sang Happy Birthday to Red. Was it his birthday, no of course not but he got a free steak. Ira and Charlie, not used to such, just smiled and shook their heads. When the steak arrived, it had a sprig of parsley on the plate. Red said “What in the hell is this damn grass?” So he took his fork and hooked the parsley just right, proceeded to flip the parsley three tables over. It landed squarely in this older gentleman’s plate. He just stared at it…like where did this parsley come from. You had to be there I reckon!
Hey Sonny! Quick question…with the back-and-forth discussion as to who is the “father” of bluegrass, what do you say? Did bluegrass really “start” when Earl joined the Blue Grass Boys?
Michael….thank you for being here. Frankly, I can’t see what difference it makes one way or the other. But, obviously it does matter to a great many. So, here are my thoughts on the matter. Bill Monroe had been to the Opry 6 years before Earl came into the band. Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. The music he played was surely Bluegrass Music, although it was not known as bluegrass music until much later. The first person I heard use that term was Frank Wakefield in Dayton, Ohio…about 1949. He was talking to Dorcey Harvey. As best I can remember his words, he was asking Dorcey to “Come on over and let’s play some grass.” It just kinda mushroomed after that. And in not too distant time it was called bluegrass. So that makes Bill the originator of that style music.
I know Flatt nor Scruggs wanted the music they played to be called bluegrass. Bill knew what he wanted also. He offered the job to Don Reno first, before he knew of Earl. Don couldn’t take the job because the military had called him to service. (They made Don an offer he could not refuse). Jim Shumate was playing fiddle with Bill at the time and he mentioned Earl to Bill. They got Earl an audition with Bill and Earl got the job. This definitely tells me Bill knew what he wanted his style of Hillbilly Music to sound like. Three finger banjo.
Hey Sonny, There seems to be an interesting story behind the theft of your Greg Rich built Guitjo, and how you came to reacquire said instrument. I wonder if you could fill us all in on the details. Thanks, Dan Kintner, National Banjo Association founder.
Howdy Dan’l…welcome. The Guitjo was left on our bus. On our old silver eagle, beside the driver was a small window. Big enough for a small child (Lincoln Hensley) could go through and open the door. I was first to the bus and saw that we had been invaded. I called the police and the detective immediately said because I had entered the bus, the scene had been compromised and there was not much they could do. True? Maybe. Not true? Maybe.
Several days later a lady from CMH records called and asked me if I had anything stolen in the past few days. I said yes. She asked for a description of the item stolen. I described Bobby’s rings, and the Guitjo. She stopped me and told me that that instrument had been found in Columbus, Georgia. I was going after it one way or the other. I didn’t know what to expect…whether it was a scam, a hold up, or what.
Larry Perkins heard of the incident and offered to go with me, saying something like “I’ve had experience on handling situations like this!” I couldn’t jeopardize Larry, so I thanked him, loaded every “friend” I had and took off for Columbus, Georgia. I got there about midnight, found a closed Sears store in a shopping center and backed my car right up to the front entrance. (So no one could get behind me.) Called the guy and told him where I was.
Now to backtrack a bit. How did the dude that had the Guitjo, get it? A friend of his brought it to his house and he saw my name on it, at which time he ran a search on me and found that I recorded for the CMH label. He then placed a call to them and asked if they could find out if I had had an instrument stolen recently. Now back to the Sears store. He brought the Guitjo to the store, I identified it, and I was ready to get the hell out of Dodge. He came back from his car and I thought, ‘Uh Oh, here it comes.’ Was I scared a little bit? Yep. When he got to my car He said, “Hey, I write some songs, would you take this tape and listen to them. Maybe record one!!!!”
Since you’ve been playing professionally since you were 14 years old, you’ve probably seen it all during different time periods in your life. From my perspective most first generation players were revered their entire lives, gray hair or not. I’m not sure that is still true anymore for musicians as they age. Did you and Bobby ever run into a situation where you felt you were passed by because you were getting a little older? I always thought the Osborne Brothers were superb your entire careers.
L. J. Cunningham
L J…good to hear from you. The only time in my professional career that I had that feeling was at The Grand Ole Opry after Hal Durham (1996) retired. He treated Opry people like they were special, and they were. Each act had something which was completely different from anyone else. Dissect 90% of every act at the Opry, you’ll find them special – until the mid to late ’90s when Hal was replaced by Bob Whitaker. With that move all the perks, and prestige for that matter, of being an Opry member disappeared. Especially for the people who had been there for a long time. Up until that change if you were in town, you automatically were on. After the change I felt the Opry played favorites. At times Mr. Whitaker would have guests no one had ever heard or knew… taking a spot from an artist who helped build the Opry. This might not have been all Whitaker’s fault…but, with the power of leadership goes win or lose…accolade or blame.
Also, about that time, they hired Pete Fisher…he finished it off. Whether planned or not, the artists who were members stopped drawing crowds. The name…Grand Ole Opry became the draw. The legendary name replaced the artists. Now, they can have anyone on the show, (and they do, with regularity) and the seats are filled, I reckon. I haven’t been there since I retired. The Opry I knew is gone, but my goodness, what a great time it was. To walk down the hall and see Marty Robbins, Carl Smith, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Bobby Osborne or his Brother. Then you might see Robert Duvall, Andy Griffith, Ann Margaret, or Elvis Presley, Pat and Richard Nixon……
You receive countless questions about technique, but I’m hoping you could talk a little about style. Starting with you, there are only a handful of players I can instantly recognize, Sammy Shelor, Bela Fleck, Jens Kruger, Ron Block, J.D. Crowe and of course Earl (among others) for example. To my ear, it’s their style that makes them such standouts. Is style something that is intentionally created, or eventually emerges on its own as a player matures?
Ben….Man, I’m glad you loaned us some of your time. Thank you. In my case, I was so deep into Earl you wouldn’t believe. Earl and Rudy Lyle (before 1954). I’m not sure I know what style, in this case, really means. I actually think style and attitude might be the same thing, in my way of thinking.
I could listen to Earl on the radio and almost tell you what he had for lunch. (I said almost) Fact is, I could hear him play and tell what mood he was in. That’s attitude, isn’t it? Interest in what the instrument can do, your attitude or creativity is what you can make it do. Never tested, but I certainly believe this…(Not the smartest chicken in the coop might explain my belief) Until, 1957 when he recorded Randy Lynn Rag, and missed a part in the chorus. They didn’t have to let that go, it could have been fixed or recorded again. Sorta told me he had lost interest, and right then I thought I had better do something else. Which I did and that evolved into what I played the rest of my career.
I trained myself to play anything I could hear. If I could hear it, I could play it!!! Now, the names you mentioned…I couldn’t tell you one from the other but they are, and were great, wonderful, banjo players. Cream of the crop, but see, I kinda had my own thing going and I truly didn’t want to hear anyone else, or know what they were doing. Big headed? Conceited? You’re free to think that if you choose, but I will tell you neither of those attitudes exist within me. They just don’t.
Right now…I think I can tell Derek Vaden from anyone when he plays what he hears in his head….Lincoln Hensley, likewise! Robin Floyd McCoury. He is probably the most originally oriented banjo player out there right now. What he plays is his. But, those other two are closing the gap on you, Rob. You better get a move on son, look over your shoulder, they might be closing the gap quicker than….never mind. You’re still the best in my opinion.
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