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, I have always admired your playing very much and I know that you have played many different banjos down through the years. With that in mind, I have wondered for quite a while now, what is the history of the “KRAKO” banjo?
KRAKO… Eli, thank you for joining us.. He came to life one night in Summersville, WV at Edgar and Eunice Kitchen’s festival. My banjo would not stay in tune for some reason and I just stepped to the mic and went through this story which of course was a complete lie. I told everyone there was this little man who lived in the resonator of my banjo, and every so often I would hear this voice that said, “Not tonight. You will not be able to tune he banjo tonight!” I liked the way the crowd accepted that explanation, so I used it more. Everytime I couldn’t tune, I blamed it on KRAKO. Pretty soon, when my banjo was hopelessly and obviously out of tune, someone in the audience would yell…”IT’S KRAKO!” So then, people would do the same if other instruments were out of tune. KRAKO was at fault for everything. So, when this banjo came to life, out of parts I had accumulated over 40 years, some gold, some nickel. It’s a strange looking thing but it has surprised us with how good it sounds. I thought it fitting to honor the little oddball monster, and what better way than to name it KRAKO. The banjo is an oddball too. My second version is in the works as we speak. There you have it….THE LEGEND OF KRAKO!
I was wondering what your best memory of Dale Vanderpool was? I have several but one of the funniest was at Olive Hill, Kentucky in 1996, he had your Granada on your bus. When you went to the back to change clothes, he pulls out a little screwdriver and removed the truss rod cover. I think it was gold. As a 15 year old I was freaking out but he thought it was hilarious!
I love your spot here!
Hey Wes. I’m glad you like this thing they’re allowing me do. I like it
I knew Dale got the truss rod cover. If you remember he kept it, and I think for a while put it on his banjo. If it was important to him, it was just as important to me. I had one long ago, with my name on it. Wynn, Bobby’s son took it and I returned the favor to him. I stole his. It had his name on it. I still have it.
My favorite memory of Dale came at a show we played somewhere in Kentucky. I asked him to join us on stage and play. He loved my break on Tennessee Hound Dog so that was the tune I asked him to play with us. Well, he got really nervous and it didn’t come out too good. I was so sorry for putting him in that spot. Dale came to every show we did within his range. His brother Kenny would come sometimes, and they would sit on our bus from the time we arrived until we had to leave. Man, we talked and laughed. Dale was a very close friend. He left us way too soon. I drove up to see him when he was sick, near the end, and I was so very sorry to see him in that condition. Dale Vanderpool was one of my very best friends and a very good, understanding banjo player. I miss him.
Thank you for taking part. s
I attended several bluegrass festivals at Renfro Valley back in the ’80s and ’90s, and always enjoyed seeing you and Bobby there! The great Mac Wiseman started that festival around 1972 or so? Question, when was the first time you ever played there? Also what is the story behind recording with Mac Wiseman on I Always Wanted to Sing in Renfro Valley?
Clay, welcome in Clay.
Looks like the first time we played there was June 11, 1971. Mac didn’t start the festival. I believe Terry Clark had something to do with it. I could be wrong…I bought a Nash Rambler in 1963. I was WRONG then, so it’s possible! Big mistake. At 17,000 miles the oil light came on. I didn’t keep it long after that… maybe an hour. Buying it was a wrong move. That festival was stopped for a while wasn’t it? Something about a security guy shot someone trying to climb the fence to get in. Remember that? Ralph Gabbard wrote that song and we liked it, so when we were doing the album with Mac, we sang it for him and he liked it, so we recorded it.
Lots of fond memories come to mind concerning Renfro Valley. The history of that place goes back to the ’30s when John Lair, The Coon Creek Girls, Old Joe Clark, and a lot more old time country/bluegrass people went through there. It was broadcast every Saturday night on WHAS, 50,000 watts AM radio, Louisville. They have a really great barn now, as a matter of fact we did a video from that barn. Memories again. We sang to a full house, including my cousin Glenna, and when we started the vocal part KENTUCKY’.. the full house came to their feet. Very special moment. Kentucky people are like that. Loyal to their state and their Kentucky Wildcats… So is Sam Bush, and so is The Osborne Brothers!
Sonny, I believe you and Bobby played the University of Chicago Folk Festival in January 1968. Your show was great. The local pickers (including a contingent of us from UW in Madison) were thrilled we saw you and Bobby join the rest of us at a picking party after the show. Of course you didn’t join in at first, but then something remarkable happened. There was a good guitar player/singer from Michigan named Joe F. who sang a fairly high lead. The question was raised as to whether Bobby could ‘keep up’ with his tenor part. If you remember this incident, I wish you would fill the folks in on how it all appeared from your perspective. Thanks,
Jerry, you test my memory.
I remember it pretty well. First of all, know this, my brother Bobby, an old Marine from the Korean era, was not one to be challenged especially if it concerned his vocal abilities. Mike Seeger and I were having a sort of heated political argument with someone across the room when we heard the commotion from the area where this Joe guy and Bobby were sitting. You must know this, Bobby’s voice didn’t have a limit when it came to just how high it would go. When Mike and I heard the challenge being issued, I told Mike that this was not going to end well for the Joe guy. They started singing and each chorus moved it up a step. Lets say they started in E. Then F, then G, then A, and when they got to B, I remember Bobby saying something like “why don’t we push it on up to C?” They started into the song and Mike and I heard the pop from 20 feet away. That ended the contest. I didn’t know the outcome but I saw Mike about 2 years later in Philadelphia. He reminded me of this incident then told me that Joe guy never sang again. He broke something… maybe a vocal chord.
How much of this is accurate? I don’t have any idea. Knowing my brother though, I wouldn’t doubt that it’s rather close. Speaking of his days as a Marine, when he went into the corps he was the most gentle, laid back guy you would ever know. I had an uncle, McKinley Dixon, a paratrooper in the second world war, like Bobby, both little guys, maybe 5’7″…. both, when they returned became the two toughest humans I ever knew. Not mean, just TOUGH!
Thanks for contributing.
Hi Sonny, we love going to the Smoky Mountains and when we are pulling down the main drive I always play Don’t Let The Smoky Mountain Smoke Get In Your Eyes. The wife and kids love it as much as I do. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about the recording and some information behind this song? Also I just finished listening to the instrumental,
Bluegrass Concerto. Wow! Outstanding bluegrass banjo picking and tune, love it, love it, love it! Thank you so much for the awesome music.
Ed H In the words of the mighty BILL, Howdy Howdy Ed.
Don’t Let Smoky Mtn. Smoke Get In Your Eyes. Written by Cecil Allen Null. At that time we worked with/for the Wilburn Brothers Agency (Wilhelm, started by Doyle,Teddy, Leslie and Lester Wilburn, and Don Helms) and their publishing company (Sure-Fire Music). Cecil wrote the song for us and gave it to the Brothers to get to us. Which they did and it became one of our best records, not only sound wise but sales as well… Incidentally, Don Helms, mentioned above, was Hank Williams senior’s steel guitar player. What a sound he had on Cold Cold Heart. Later he worked with the Wilburn Brothers on the road and their TV show. He was replaced on the TV show by Hal Rugg, who played steel on 99% of our records.
Thanks Ed. Look forward to hearing from you again.
AND THANKS TO BLUEGRASS TODAY FOR ALLOWING ME TO DO THIS. I CAN SAY ANYTHING I WANT! And color half of it Purple if I want to….! Or Blue…whatever!
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