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.
Hi Sonny. To quote Mark Twain, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I am still doing my Bluegrass Special radio show on KSON in San Diego. It will be 44 years in March. I still get to play the Osborne Brothers on San Diego’s top-rated country music station!
Speaking of the Osborne Brothers, here’s a question for you: How do you like “new country” group The Brothers Osborne? Have you ever met them?
Wayne Rice. The KSON radio man. San Diego. Wayne is an old friend and owner of the banjo I played my Sweden Medley on. A Stelling, Son Flower model. Great banjo impeccable workmanship. Wayne has been doing his show for 44 years. That’s a long time to be doing anything.
I have not met The Brothers Osborne. I have heard a part of one song they did and to be honest…I just don’t buy into “New Country,” so I rather doubt I’ll be listening very closely to them again. They might be talented and very good at what they do, but I guess I let the boat leave me on that kind of music. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting them down, nor do I put down rock or opera music. I’m just from way too far back in the hills of Southeast Kentucky, too much Bull Creek, Dryhill, Hell fer certain, Red Bird, Grand “OLE” Opry for that stuff to ever sink in very far. I’m just too much OSBORNE BROTHERS I guess.
I saw the Osbornes perform at Sunset Park, in the ’60s and Harley Gabbard was the guitar player. Aside from his Johnny Cash imitation, I thought his singing with you and your brother was outstanding. Unless my memory is playing tricks, it was the fullest and most robust trio of all the guitar players I ever heard you with through the years. I wondered if you could comment on how long he played with you and how you felt about his musicianship. By the way, my brother, Bob Yellin (Greenbriar Boys) was an admirer of your playing, and gave me my first Osborne Brothers record, Voices in Bluegrass. It cemented my love of bluegrass singing, a passion that remains to this day.
Gene, thank you for your kind words. Long time has passed for my memory to be accurate. However, I believe I saw Bob last in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival. Forgive me if I have that wrong. I think there is a picture floating around of our guys on stage and Bob is standing beside the stage. The Greenbriar Boys were in the midst of the folk music era. Harley Gabbard worked with us for several months and his vocal was right on, but his guitar struggled and Dale Sledd called and wanted to come back with us. I explained this to Harley and he said; “Whew, that is a load lifted off me. I’m just not doing it right.” Dale was better than competent vocal and a great guitar player for our way of doing it. Good for both. Harley went on to a great career with The Boys From Indiana and some of our better records were made with Dale.
Harley was the most fun guy you would ever want to be around. And, in a fight you would want Harley on your side. He wasn’t mean, but he was not one to take a lot before wanting to settle it the way he knew how… and he definitely knew how it was done. Harley Gabbard was the perfect example of a “Good Ol Boy.”
With all of your knowledge and experience with the beginning artists/musicians and their instruments, what is the best way to sell an historical instrument of an historical musician?
Thank you for your response.
Scott. First and foremost, you will need to furnish proof as to the historical value, because the instrument was previously owned by this historical musician, and here is proof of that statement. Then you need to determine how much you want to get for the instrument. How much you have in it and what you will settle for. Then contact people who have knowledge of such instruments and their owners, tell them what you have, and your proof. Rick Wasson, played guitar with JD Crowe in Lexington, KY, or George Gruhn in Nashville, TN is where I would start. Both are honest and will tell you straight. I know them both, can and will vouch for them.
Sonny, would you please share with us the biggest difference between your travel and accommodations, from the beginning of your career until the end of your traveling the road. Maybe share a humorous story about where you spent the night in your early years. Could you share with us the largest crowd you ever played to, where and size, and the smallest, where and size?
Thanks for all you share with us.
Clay, thank you for participating in our game. GAME? As in all business ventures, if you have some level of success your accommodations are dictated by that success and the level to which it takes you. Short answer, the more you have to spend the better your surroundings.
We always stayed in Holiday Inns, 98% of the time. Our families knew where to find us if they needed. Travel will improve a great deal too. Yeah…will it ever. (Listen to this; 53 Buick, 54 Oldsmobile, 6 Cadillacs, 4 Ford Station Wagons, 4 Motor Homes, 2 buses. The last one being a Silver Eagle bus which we used for 23 years). In 1953, when Bobby mustered (his words) out of the Marine Corps, he bought a 1954 Plymouth which we promptly wrecked, so we then drove my 35 Ford. We were working at WROL radio in Knoxville, for Cas Walker. We had 4 guys… Bobby, Enos Johnson, L.E. White and I. Cas paid us $100 per week. For all 4. We did all his radio shows and played one room schools throughout that area.
Enos had a 1940 Chrysler which we used. Small crowds were the norm. Anywhere from 5 which is the smallest I can remember, to 80. That was a pretty good night. The smallest ever in which we played.
Cas did a downtown thing in which all the entertainers participated. It was in the winter of ’54, on a flatbed truck, 20 degrees, snowing, mid day with no one in front of the flatbed, and no one walking the street. Cas Walker owned 27 Cas Walker grocery stores, and this was a promotion for his stores. We worked for Cas, he said play, we played. To no one, but we played. So, 0 would be the smallest crowd. The largest would be the same city, Knoxville, a Neyland stadium for the Tennessee/Alabama homecoming game. 110,000 people, 50 yard line, playing Rocky Top with the Tennessee band (187 strong) and most of those people singing it with us.
You want humorous…. not much humor in those early days, however…. we played a place in Columbus, Ohio. Hot weather, 1958. Our fortunes had not improved. Bobby and Johnny Dacus chose to sleep in the car, across the seats with the doors open. I borrowed a guy’s car and drove home to Dayton. When Bobby and John woke up the next day, they discovered they had no shoes. Some kids who were out roaming the streets just decided they would steal Bobby and John’s shoes…. right off their feet. Oh, I forgot. The Silver Eagle bus was nicknamed the “Refrigerator” affectionately by other entertainers…it was painted White.
Hi Sonny, I’m president of the INLAND NORTHWEST BLUEGRASS ASSOCIATION, Spokane, WA, and Idaho panhandle. I want to start a kid’s circle jam, ages 5 to 15. We have jams before and after our Showcase, 1st Saturday of each month. My thoughts are the youth are Bluegrass Musics’ future. Any pointers or ideas as to make the kids jam successful, and how I should set it up. I felt while the more advanced kids played, the younger kids would learn and have models to look up to. Etc. Thanks.
Wyonia, thank you for jumping right on in here.
I think in this situation I had rather refer you to someone who has done this organization of jam sessions for a living, and I’m sure will be more qualified to answer this with more accurate information than I can give. Please contact Bill Evans through his web site and explain to him just what you want to do. I will also send a copy of your letter to him today. I’m sorry I can’t give a more intelligent answer but I believe Bill will be able to put you on the right track.
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.