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.
Hello Mr. Sonny Osborne! Thanks for doing this column! You’ve always been a big inspiration to me and I have a couple of questions if you’d care to elaborate on a few things….
One is about the box that you at one time had that you could put the tube in your mouth and make “weird” noises with… think you said a fellow named Pete Drake built it in the master of five string book .. pedal steel player… always wanted to know more about that…
Two is about the padlocks I’ve heard of back in the “wired” days that you had on your banjo… sure they must be some good stories with that ordeal…
Three… just name me one lick and the source of the recording that Earl played that makes you just say… “Damn…” (they’re many for me just wanting to pick your brain… something that stood out really hard to you!)
Thanks a lot!
Really, none of the things Earl did were actually hard to do if you were really focused. It’s just that everything he did was the right way. He played every word of the song, clean, aggressive approach – simply good. My favorite was No Mother or Dad. You’ve probably heard this before, but if you have, here goes again… every time I picked up the banjo I played that song. No Mother or Dad. For the better part of 50 years every time I picked up the banjo. I don’t know why, No statement involved, it just happened. Go FIGGER.
The locks on my banjo… Back when we plugged into amps, the pickup apparatus in my banjo was put together by Bobby’s son Robby, a genius at such things. Part of it was attached to the resonator and part of it was attached to the co-rods under the head of the banjo. So, if you didn’t know how to take the resonator off you could easily ruin many hours of figuring, work, and dollars. I left my banjo backstage one night somewhere in Iowa, and returned to find some idiot trying to take the above mentioned resonator off so he could see what I had rigged in there. I used some unprintable descriptive terms which described this guy pretty well. I also told him to put my blankety banjo down. Surely you can figure that one out. He hadn’t gotten far enough to mess anything up.
The Pete Drake talking box. I heard Pete do this with his steel guitar and had the bright idea that it might work on Me And My Old Banjo. You plugged the box into the external speaker jack on the amp, plugged your instrument into the amp, the sound would go into the amp and out the tube which you put in the corner of your mouth and as you played a song you mouthed the words into a Mic and VOILA… your banjo was talking.
Well, I was in Nashville one day for a photo shoot and heard that Pete was just down the street, so I ventured down the street. There he was doing some overdubs and after hellos and such, I asked him if he thought his magic box would work on the banjo. He thought it would and proceeded to unhook his and told me to take it and see if it would work. He said if he needed it he had another one in his car. So, I did, it didn’t work as well as I thought, and I just forgot about it. Thinking the next time I saw Pete I would return it. Next time I saw him, I mentioned it to him and he told me to just keep it. I did, and I still have it. THE PETE DRAKE MAGIC TALKING BOX!
I love reading all these questions and your answers, and I didn’t have one until I was looking through some of my dad’s old vinyl records and saw the cover to Modern Sounds of Bluegrass Music. I noticed your Vega (I’ve got a Pro II and quite like it!) but I also noticed that Bobby’s mandolin has a big piece of black tape over it where the Gibson logo presumably is. Was there a dispute with Gibson going on at that time? (Also, my dad asks what was the rowdiest audience you ever played for!)
Matt, thanks for joining us. Interesting subject, that black tape. It was not there in the proof photo, Bobby denied knowledge of the thing, Decca Records knew nothin’ about it, which was a lie, we knew it, they knew it, but no one admitted knowing anything. Someone just didn’t like Gibson.
You asked about the rowdiest audience….Two places come to mind. A really nice bar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were booked there for two days and it just didn’t work out. They didn’t like us and we damn sure didn’t like them. After our first set on the first day, I went to the owner of the place and he knew what I wanted before I said a word. He paid me, admitted the mistake as his, and with that we sacked up our banjos and headed for Nashville. If you want to take this as our guys being picky or them as being just downright rude, I didn’t book the date, THEY DID. They thought they were getting one thing and we were not it.
The other was a US serviceman’s club in Juno, Alaska. They couldn’t take Bluegrass Music and let us know immediately. We did our allotted time and got out of Dodge. When we got to the club and were told it would be filled with servicemen, I kinda figured we were sunk. Service men were usually Conway Twitty, George Jones, Alan Jackson type music crowds. Where they could unwind and dance etc. Bluegrass music is rather hard to do that. Johnny’s Night Club on Wayne Ave in Dayton, Ohio. Carlos, Lonnie Brock, and I were on stage and this guy came up and said he wanted to hear Blue Moon of Kentucky. I told him we would do it in a few minutes. He said he wanted to hear it NOW, as he pulled this 44 Colt Single Action out of his coat pocket and pointed it at my face. So we played Blue Moon of Kentucky … right then!
Sonny, I’ve enjoyed your work throughout the years immensely. Your albums were some of the first I listened to when learning banjo. However, I realized bluegrass wasn’t for me, though I do enjoy it. As a minstrel player and frailer, I was wondering if you ever ever experimented with either of these older styles? Also, sometimes I lose my courage to record my playing and post for the public. How do you consistently maintain that courage and confidence, that mental edge? Thanks for all you’ve done for us fledgling banjo players and fans!!
Hey Rob. You don’t practice enough to build up confidence to know you are not going to miss a lick. You get that by playing a tune over and over until you are blue in the face, and even until your hands bleed. After playing it over so many times you just naturally have courage and confidence in yourself that you can play in front of anyone. You just MUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND YOUR ABILITY! My first real test came when I came to Nashville and played my first tune with Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry. The tune was Rawhide. With the LORD’S help I made it through without messing it up. I was young and scared beyond belief, but I had practiced for three years an average of about 10 hours per day. I was inexperienced for sure, but knew I could play it, and did. Just how good I played it, well..go find a 13 year old kid and ask him to play Rawhide in front of 2500 people. Confidence and courage, They’ll only go so far then fear and fright takes over!!! 😫😡👿
Sonny, My mother’s mother’s family are Wiseman’s, from Avery County, NC. They held festivals at Kent Wiseman Memorial Park that were in part inspirational to my folks starting a festival. I remember you guys headlining there several times, and coming up like Elvis arriving in a Cadillac limo. Can you reflect on those shows? I learned a lot for a 10 year old sitting on those concrete steps.
Yeah, we had this White with Navy Blue top, 1975 Cadillac Limo, and it was a good looking machine for sure. Not very comfortable for 5 guys, but it had this huge 500 horse engine and it would go yonder…quickly I might add. I do remember playing Spruce Pine and I believe Charlie Moore was the MC for most of their shows. He called himself the “M.A.” and I never knew what that meant. Bobby even titled an instrumental The M. A. Special. You’ll have to ask Bobby next time you see him what that means. Was Mac Wiseman a distant relative to that family?
Sonny, for those of us who missed your HOF induction of Bill Emerson, could you give us a few highlights about this great honor for Bill and your longtime friendship?
Thank you Sam. I appreciate you taking the time to join in. Bill Emerson has been one of my best friends since 1959, and for a very long time one the best banjo players in the world, and he asked me to induct him into the Hall. I’m beyond words trying to express to you how it made me feel to be involved somehow in such an honorable event. That’s the highest award IBMA can give to anyone. I couldn’t tell all there is to tell, so I skipped over the highlights…like he was one of the founders of The Country Gentlemen, to me that’s big! He recorded many songs and instrumentals whilst a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mtn. Boys. This includes Sweet Dixie, of course. The hit song, Tennessee, featured Bill on the banjo. See what I mean? Where do you start, where do you stop.
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.