Ask Sonny Anything… three versions of Earl

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 read your column weekly, and one thing is obvious; you are the great banjo stylist we all know and appreciate – but also a strong business man and solid band leader. My question is a simple one: Is it the key for a professional band to meet popular acclaim?

– Charlie S.

Well Charlie, Popularity is definitely needed if you are a starting, young band. If you have very strong negative publicity it can be like a death knell. But then on the other hand, if you are extremely good at what you do, STRANGELY ENOUGH it tends to reverse itself. Two such cases come to mind. George Jones was a drunk for the most part, and had no regard for a contract… these are true, not heresay. Old George. People got used to him missing dates. NO SHOW JONES was his revered nickname. I witnessed both. But he was such a great singer that people reacted in a positive manner, FOR THE MOST PART. Speaking out of school….THE BEATLES were said to be drugged most of the time and weird the rest, but they were so good, people loved them anyhow. And then we come to one of the most talented people I ever knew whose reputation, attitude, and public actions were his destruction…IRA LOUVIN. Once again I saw it personally.


Sonny, I get really nervous before we go onstage. I’m 17 and have played at least 50 shows and it never gets easier. Any advice?

– Wendy

PREPARATION and Confidence in your ability. LEARN IT RIGHT, AND THEN PRACTICE IT TILL YOU CAN DO IT IN YOUR SLEEP, THEN PRACTICE IT SOME MORE. Wendy, you must have confidence almost to the point of mild conceit, to beat the nervous thing. And then sometimes it won’t go away completely. I’m probably the most confident person in my ability you would ever run across. Confidence in my PAST ability. But a lifelong nervous condition when we played at the Ryman Auditorium never went away. It lasted 43 years.


Sonny, I suspect you have several in mind, but would you name just one person at the top of your list that should be in the Hall of Fame?

– Alex B.

In the country hall, I don’t know enough who are not in already. A few years ago they had a mass induction in which they inducted several that didn’t belong. Which watered down the importance of the honor.

The Bluegrass Hall…I know one guy who should go in this year, who deserves to be there. I had better not mention actual names for fear of jinxing him. If he makes it, I’ll let you know by way of Bluegrass Today.


Sonny, it’s no secret how much you revered Earl Scruggs. Just how much of an impact did his style have on you and how hard was it for you to learn the things he was doing?

Ronnie W.

Ronnie, there were three versions of Earl in my opinion. 1947 to 1955 was my favorite time. He was better then, and even now during that time period no one has mastered the banjo as he did. And I studied his playing, especially his right hand, so that I can honestly say it has influenced my playing. I liked his mannerisms, and the way he carried himself, as well as the banjo. For a period during the early to mid ’60s Earl and I became pretty good friends. I just liked him as a person first, then THE banjo guy. Boy could shoot some pool!!!


Sonny, those wildflowers behind you in the photo are beautiful. Did you plant those and are they near your home?

Mindy B.

Those are at the photographer’s home, where the photos were shot. George Page, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Great photographer and even better person.


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.