Ask Sonny Anything… Were you scared of Bill Monroe?

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.

Hey…I get questions asked from all different sources. This is from Mark Krider, good banjo player from Texas. Good player..he plays an Osborne Chief banjo…number 10. Mark asked my experiences with Raymond Fairchild. This is one of the funniest things one can imagine. If you knew Raymond, well, that just makes it hilarious.

We’re playing a festival in Indiana, we…the Brothers have played and Raymond and the Crowe Brothers…Josh and Wayne are on stage. I wander out to the sound table where Jerry Williamson has the sound setup which is about 40 yards from the stage. The crowd is about 1500 – 2000 so Jerry and I are partially hidden. I sat down beside Jerry and asked if he could let me have a mic and make the sound come out ONLY of the monitor speaker which is directly in front of Raymond. He did, and I was on! They were playing their show and I started by saying just “Raymond!” He flinched but that was all. I said his name from that point on, I would guess every 3-4 minutes. I finally got his attention and when I would say RAYMOND he would look directly at the speaker. Geoff Stelling has a distinct way of speaking and I tried to imitate his voice. Understand this whole process lasted about 30 minutes.

The Crowe Brothers realized what I was doing and they were both laughing but they would turn away from Raymond. I proceeded with, “Raymond, this is Geoff Stelling and I see you’re not playing the banjo I gave you!” Raymond was by then looking straight at the monitor speaker like Geoff was in that speaker. I said; “Raymond, if you’re not going to play the banjo I want it back!” By this time Raymond is getting a little more than PO’d…fact is he’s getting right mad. I said; “Raymond, if you’ve got it with you, I want it back NOW!” He walked right on up to the monitor speaker and shouted, “Well you’re not getting the damn thing back…NEVER!”

The Crowe boys are doubled over and the crowd is laughing and Raymond is madder than a wet hen. He’s really hot. I stood up and screamed as loud as I could…”THANK YOU RAYMOND!” He caught on to the whole thing and his face turned blood red and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.


Sonny, I discovered bluegrass in my mid 20s at the Ken Mill Cafe in Cincinnati. It was run by Stu and Ann Salmons and the house band was Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys. Earl on mando, Jim McCall on guitar, Vernon (Boatwhistle) McIntyre on bass, Vernon (Junior) McIntyre Jr. on banjo, and Harley Gabbard on dobro. I’ve been a fan and picker ever since. Sunday night was a never miss time because you never knew who would stop in on their way home from gigs up north, which included you and Bobby. One night I watched a bodacious fight with you that Stu had moved out to the lot behind the bar as was his custom. However, by the time you put your banjo down and got off the stage it was pretty much over. What are your recollections of the Ken Mill?

Mike R.

Mike…come on in, the water is cold though! There was so much that went on at the Ken Mill. The place was packed on a regular basis and when you get a couple hundred hillbillies about half full (translated…half drunk) and there is sure to be a little trouble. And the back parking lot was the Madison Square Garden boxing ring. Some pretty good fights broke out there.

Harley Gabbard was a good friend to us…the best! Bobby, Harley, and I stopped in there one Saturday afternoon and there was not very many people. Harley was mad at someone that I don’t dare remember, and if you knew Harley you know he was a very strong individual. I’ve seen him mad and it’s not a pretty sight, but he was one of the most gentle people I ever knew. Good luck on trying to figure that one out. We sat there and a few glasses of..ahem..tea. Harley got quiet for about 10 minutes. Finally he picked up a steel ashtray and said, “KeeSwarp…if I had —–head in my hand right now, and folks he literally crushed that steel ashtray. A normal guy would need a hammer to do what Harley did to that piece of steel.

Good music came out of that place though. The idea for the first compensated banjo bridge came from there. Billy Hamilton and I were discussing the fact that a banjo second and third strings did not note right. I took a pencil and on a napkin I drew a bridge and asked if he could make something like that. He said he could, and by golly he did. I put it on my banjo and it worked. And, get this. I was so used to the sound being a little flat on the second string and sharp on the third that when it noted right it sounded out of tune. So, I couldn’t use it on a permanent basis.

Proof that I did it and he made it, I wrote an instruction book on the three finger style of playing…between 1958 and 1964 and there are pictures of my RB3 banjo with the crooked bridge. UGLY! There was a phone booth sitting right in the middle of the floor. I’ve seen more than one guy go in there to make a phone call and sit there in that phone booth and pass out..or to word it a shade better….fall asleep just sitting there. The Ken Mill.


Sonny, Who would be on your Mt. Rushmore for banjo pickers?

Mine would have to be

1.Earl Scruggs
2.Don Reno
3.Sonny Osborne
4.JD Crowe

Looking forward to your response,
Greg J.
Mt. Airy, NC

Man, Greg I appreciate the fact that you gave us a bit of your time. That is a tough question. I’m gonna bypass that one for a while.

1. Earl

I mention those two because they were first, and that’s questionable to some. Jens Kruger, Bill Keith, Kristin, Sammy, Bobby Thompson, Aaron, Tony, you should notice I have 4 melodic players, but should they be considered for Rushmore? You mentioned me and I appreciate the credit you give me. Do I deserve it, Does Crowe deserve it…how bout Kenny Ingram, or Jimmy Mills. Hey, James Gar Bowers, Jim Smoak, Don McFee, Rudy Lyle before service and Rudy after service….two different players.

Rushmore means the best ever…above all else….the very best, most knowledgeable banjo players of all time. That’s a pretty big charge right there. That you mentioned me…totally elated yet humbled….who wouldn’t be. I mean like, HOLY McWOW!!!!!



HI Sonny, some years ago I read an article about when you started playing with Bill Monroe at 14 and were a little scared of him. I can understand that, Bill being who he was, and your young age. I related the story to my wife’s uncle who used to jam with Lester and Earl when they were on the radio in Raleigh, NC. He told me there were grown men scared of Bill.

I managed to talk with Bill several times over the years at Myrtle Beach and he seemed very outgoing, very willing to talk. He even showed me one of the mandolins that Gibson repaired for him. My question is this; was Bill really tough and as strong as they say or was it just a front. I know time seemed to mellow him some. Thanks for all you do, still think the harmony of the Osborne Brothers was the best.

Roger A.

I appreciate you for jumping right on in here. Thank you. When I was a Blue Grass Boy I was just that. A boy who had never spend a night out away from my parents and sister so I was pretty green. I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t know much at all, but I could play the banjo and knew how to sing the baritone part in the quartet songs. (I use the phrase: “could play the banjo” quite loosely.)

I couldn’t play very good but I was cheap. I was supposed to get $60 per week but I don’t remember 1 time ever getting that much. I had to ask for food money. But I was 14 working as a Bluegrass Boy with Lord Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry back when those things were big time important.

Being scared of Bill sort of came with the territory. He never spoke to me until the second week I was there. So, yeah…I think you could say I was scared of him. Charlie Cline and Jimmy Martin? Were they a little edgy around him…I would have to say yes. Later in life, as you said, he mellowed and became less harsh, although if he didn’t like you he just didn’t talk to you, period.

Art Stamper, good fiddle player, came to me in Clay City, Kentucky and we talked about Bill and his personality. Art had been with Bill some time and as Art put it…”He just acted like I didn’t exist.” Art said that he couldn’t take it and I think he turned in his notice that day. Art isn’t the only one he did that way. Strange dude was Bill Monroe.


In an interview in the New York Times, Bob Dylan says “Bluegrass music is mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. Just because you are a great singer, or a great this or that doesn’t mean you can be in a bluegrass band. It’s almost like classical music. It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood. If you ever heard the Osborne Brothers, then you know what I mean.”

I think he’s right.

Ol’ Doc….I met Bob Dylan once. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Friend of mine named Johnny Cash introduced me to him… I didn’t know Bob Dylan from Adam’s house cat so I just thought he was another strange person. We were standing backstage prepared to go on and I didn’t have my mind on anything except the 18,000 people sitting out there waiting to tear us apart. Which they did. We were not the most popular act at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964….a little nervous? Maybe a little. Maybe a lot, but I’ll never admit that.

While I do appreciate being mentioned, and a also appreciate the fact that I’ve been told of this interview no less than 50 times. Bill Evans said this was his first interview in 7 years…so I guess it’s a big deal to be mentioned. Although, I must admit to this thing he said…”It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood. If you ever heard the Osborne Brothers, then you know what I mean.” I guess I’m a dumbass, but I don’t know what that means. I hope it’s good. I’m elated to be mentioned by “the great one!”

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.