Ask Sonny Anything… the future of bluegrass?

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.

But first a personal note from Sonny…

I had a letter from one of my best friends on this planet, Bill Emerson. He told me that he reads “Ask Sonny Anything” every week, which impressed me and caused my hat not to fit me and Judy to slap the XXXX out of me 3 times and she said “How do you like that, you big-headed )#(*$*@)?” So anyway, it impressed me that Bill Emerson would read my little jack leg column. I guess I don’t realize that Bluegrass Today is a pretty big deal. Folks, I am one of the more fortunate people on this earth, and the position I’m in to do this is like a lifesaver…..I love it.

Bill confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for 50 years. Bill are a good feller.




I can remember the era when country music sort of changed from a rural based music to one that was trying to cross over to a more urban sound. Someone decided that symphony orchestras should replace fiddles and pedal steel guitars. My take on it is the same thing happened to bluegrass music. I heard that the Stanley Brothers quit carrying a fiddle player because their record label thought it was too “hillbilly,” but I wasn’t there so I don’t know if it’s true. I have also heard that people in powerful positions, such as Chet Atkins with RCA, had a lot to do with the change in direction of country music. Could you comment on this from your perspective, and does it still exist today in the industry?

It seems as if some organizations and record labels are trying to suppress the rural roots of the music.

Mike E

Hey Mike…welcome and thank you for your time. I couldn’t agree with you more. I fear that bluegrass music is about to go the same route that country has taken, and if they’re not careful they’ll wind up in the same junk yard that I moved my interest in country/pop/rock/filthy dressed/needs a shower/country singers… that is if we can still call them country.

You know, why don’t we start a new thing and call it “Hillbilly Music” just for the sake of being different and more identifiable…huh? So, wait… that leaves us with the final remnants of what we now know and loved as Bluegrass Music. OH, What shall we call it? Lets see…how about BLUEGRASS. Reckon anyone would know what we’re talking about?

I wonder if anyone other than me remembers what the progression was in the beginning. At least as I remember. The ’40s it was Hillbilly Music… then they started calling banjos and fiddles “Shit Kickin'” music…that would be in the mid to late ’40s. Then about 1950 I overheard Frank Wakefield tell Little David Harvey to “Come over and let’s play some GRASS.” I’m sure he heard it somewhere, but that was the first time I had heard that word used as a reference to our music.

From there the word bluegrass caught on like wildfire. It separated us from country/hillbilly and then just country. I don’t believe the story about the Stanley Brothers being told by a record company to drop the fiddle. If anyone would have been told to drop anything it would have been Lester and Earl or Bill. They were hot sellers in the late ’40s and into the mid ’50s.



Sonny, do you possibly remember playing a little town in South Georgia called Blackshear in 1967? It was in the Fall in the old school auditorium. There were only about 15 people in attendance, including my friend and myself. The only thing I had ever seen of the Osborne Brothers at that time was an album cover. When I walked in I spied Sonny sitting in a wooden school desk taking up the money. I wonder how you got out of that desk. Few in attendance but the best performance I ever saw from the Osborne Brothers, and will never be forgotten.

Lanier L

Lanier… Thank you for participating in our fiasco. I believe that’s the first Lanier we have had. Pretty good name. Welcome.

I do, in fact remember the name Blackshear but I don’t find it listed in 1967. That date was booked for us by The Louvin Brothers X manager. I purposefully do not remember his name… much the same as he did not see to it that we were advertised as going to be there, not that it would have mattered. We had a few and at least 2… you and a friend….. who enjoyed our performance. Thank you for publicly admitting it!!!!

Incidentally, that little school desk was not designed to fit 6’2″, 240 lb grown men. (67? maybe 200) Matter of fact, I didn’t get out of that little desk until 1971. It stuck with me till it rotted away. {;-)>



Sonny, what do you want to do in your next life?

Sam A.

Well Sam, I just read today that Billy Strings is THE FUTURE of bluegrass music. So, not to put Mr. Apostol… or Strings… down at all, but after hearing a sample of the Future, I won’t be listening to much bluegrass if I’m permitted a “next life.” Mr. Strings is a great guitar player, granted… but I heard Clarence White, Tony Rice, Josh Williams, and several more at their best. Vocally, I heard Mr. String do that. I’m reminded that I heard Ronnie Bowman, Bobby Osborne, Lester Flatt and scores of others who were responsible for building bluegrass music where it was before the Chinese Breakdown, or Mr. Billy.



Sonny, what’s the closest you ever came to walking off stage and clobbering a rude, unruly audience member?

Billy T.

Billy, jump right on in here. Thank you for coming. Sit right over there by the fire and tell me what’s on your mind.

HAVE I EVER WANTED TO, YES! Have I ever done the deed? No.

Once in Kentucky. The stage was at one end of a large concrete slab which served as a dance floor. Most people respect the fact that we were never to be booked to play for a dance. It happened though, many times more than I care to remember. On this particular night a man was intent on showing his *ss to everyone and he really irritated me. I asked him to meet me at the edge of the stage when we were done. I gave my banjo to Dale Sledd and asked him to take care of it. While I was looking for him a guy came up behind me and said, “We’ll take care of this.”

My friend Dale Vanderpool was there that night so I went to the bus a had a pleasant visit with Dale.


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.