Ask Sonny Anything… The King 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.

Sonny, what are your thoughts about artists who share their personal opinions about religion and/or politics from the stage?

Brandy S.

Thank you Brandy. My reply to that is simple. If the fans who paid to get into your show wanted to hear you, or anyone preach, they would have gone to Church last Sunday, or they would have found a revival and gone to that. Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, SMILEY Osteen…TV has a slew of them. ME? I like Graham…but then I thought Truman was our best President. What was it Tom T. said?? “Faster Horses, Younger Women, Older Whiskey, and MORE Money!” Case Closed.

Politics! They’re all as crooked as a barrel of fishhooks…so, I believe an entertainer just makes themselves look bad when they declare to be one way or another. It doesn’t matter who, or what party you support, it’s going to cost you some popularity votes by supporting a specific candidate. I probably slipped up at one time or another, but I always tried to tell everyone that in this country we have been given the right to vote, so go vote.


Sonny, it’s no secret you had a love/hate relationship with Jimmy Martin. Can you share some insight into that relationship, and do you think it’s right for him to be referred to as the “King of Bluegrass.”

Will H.

Thank you for your participation. You are correct in your “Love/Hate” description of the relationship Jimmy and I had. It was actually in two phases of our lives. I don’t want to sound negative toward Jimmy…he had his good side. When Bobby went into the Marine Corps. Jimmy moved to Ohio where we lived. I don’t know why. Jimmy was a 24 year old kid adult, I was a 14 year old kid. Jimmy had been to “The Show,” and I had dreams of going there. Jimmy and I went to see Bill Monroe at Beanblossom, IN. Jimmy played Bill’s shows that day and consequently asked for and received his job back with Bill and got me the banjo job, and I realized it was as a “tagalong” thing because Bill didn’t have a banjo player – and in me, he didn’t have much of one, BUT… I was going to “The Show” at 14 and Jimmy gave that chance to me. It was good for me, and I appreciated it then, and I appreciate it now.

Moving forward to the point when Bobby was released from The Corps, it was assumed that we would play together, which we did. Moving forward again, Bobby, Jimmy, and I got together. Playing in Detroit, recording on RCA under the name of Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. Selling records, making $, everything was great until Jimmy informed us that our name would not be on the next RCA recordings. So, Jimmy and I had been arguing for the better part of a year about my banjo playing…which was progressing rapidly, and going in the direction I wanted it to go. It was not the direction he had in mind. So after 6 RCA sides, and 1 year in Detroit. If our name was not going to be on the next RCA records, as far as we were concerned, there wouldn’t be any more RCA records, and there wasn’t. We left. About a year later we were regulars on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, we had an MGM recording contract and we had a song on the national charts.

“THE KING OF BLUEGRASS is and was a joke….because he gave the title to himself. His statement was that Bill was the “Father of Bluegrass” and Roy Acuff is “The Father of Country Music,” so I’m going to be “The King of Bluegrass!” My opinion is that if your fans give you a handle, that’s OK. If you give it to yourself that’s pure, unadulterated conceit in it’s worst, or finest form. Does/did it bother us? NO. We thought it was a joke. We were selling records at a phenomenal pace, Lester and Earl were the hottest thing in bluegrass, they were drawing large crowds, we were drawing big crowds, Jimmy was playing clubs in Detroit, and he was the self titled “King of Bluegrass.”

I know this is a much too long answer, but the question you asked, though short, didn’t have a short answer. SORRY.


Hey, Sonny. I sang with Charlie Louvin in 1985-86. As far as I’m concerned, you are one for the most innovative banjo players, considering what you had to come up with to fit Osborne Bros. music. I heard a recording of Osborne Bros. probably late ’50s. Sounds like Ira. Would you shed some light on that recording – Give this message to your heart? Thanks.

– Stephen H.

We were recording without the third voice. It was during the time when Red Allen had refused to sign a clearance so we could record. We were rehearsing in The Acuff Rose studio on Franklin Road. We wanted to do the song Give This Message, which Ira wrote. He was in the studio, just hanging out. After he heard our predicament about the third voice he said he would do it with us. The Louvins were to leave at 3 o’clock for North Dakota but he said they would delay until we got through that song. He said he had to go home and pack but would meet us at the studio…The Quonset Hut. He got there and without rehearsing, we recorded it. I asked him which part he would sing…and I realized right then what a pro Ira Louvin was. He said for us to sing our normal parts and he would do the other one, which is nearly impossible…but he did it. I wanted to be able to recognize parts that quickly, and I did for the most part…not nearly as quickly as Ira, but quick! Man, I hear that record right now, and get chills. You just can’t realize how good he was. Damn…what a loss. He was as good as it gets.


Sonny, given that you (like me) are such a diehard Kentucky Wildcats fan, how do you deal with the fact that your most iconic song is associated with a detestable bunch of orange-clad hooligans? And not only that, but also that they have ruined a great song by inserting a WHOOO! into the middle of the chorus?

– Jeff W.

Jeff… I don’t have much to say about it but I’m not sure I would gripe too loudly if I could. DR. JAY JULIAN WAS THE HEAD OF ALL THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE BANDS AT THE TIME AND I BELIEVE HE WAS PARTIALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR ROCKY TOP BEING VOTED A STATE SONG. That’s big, for a bluegrass song to become an official state song. So, now I’ll tell you why it doesn’t bother me too much. Our song, Kentucky is an official Kentucky state song. If it’s big for a bluegrass band to have a state song, how bout for a bluegrass band…”US” to have two official state songs. Thanks to two people, which I don’t have access to their names right now but will tell you later, because of their diligence it was done. A Bluegrass Band having two of their songs voted State songs!


Sonny I’m working on an old classic by Jim and Jesse, I Wished You Knew. the first part I get but the part where it go back and forth between “G” and “D” presents a problem, how to fill so much “G” and “D” without becoming redundant?? Help!

– Richard P.

Richard. Thank you for participating in this “redundancy” created by Bluegrass Today. But I’m having an absolute ball doing it.

To answer your question will probably ruffle some folks’ feathers the wrong way, but when has that ever affected me? Melodic banjo playing, IN MY OPINION is not the banjo playing I learned to do. So, I’m not and do not claim to be an authority on that subject. Bill Keith, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Jens Kruger are the masters. Alison Brown might be included also. Out there somewhere there might be others who are better, but I haven’t heard them. My point is, most melodic players are redundant, in that they play notes that are not necessary and they mean nothing to the song, or tune being played. Notes that are played by someone who is not trying to enhance what the guy at the mic is doing. If you are a melodic player then choose your notes and make them mean something. In my opinion the Jim and Jesse song you are referring to is played to perfection by Allen Shelton. If you listen closely you will hear that he plays backup while they are singing, or the mandolin/fiddle breaks, and one could call what he does repetitive, which in this case is a good thing. He was doing exactly what a great banjo player is supposed to do when playing background, and doing what is necessary to make the guy at the mic sound better. Allen was a genius at NOT over playing. But when it was his turn, man…could he play. One of the best. AND, HE HAD THE BEST SMILE, EVER.


Thank you all for your participation. I appreciate it beyond mere words. This is like a second life!

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.