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.
This is not a question it’s a statement on my part. Please don’t take this as some dumbass uneducated ex banjo player that the powers that be have allowed to do a little unimportant column every week. What I am is a retired banjo player who respects the craft that provided a living for him…ME! And others connected. These few words are about respect. Respect for the people who drove miles and PAID GOOD MONEY… to my way of thinking, they deserve respect shown by the folks who they paid their money to see. I saw a picture recently of a well known band on stage, performing for an audience…. and they looked as though they had slept in their clothes, maybe under a bridge…. and understand, this is NOT a putdown for those who sleep on the street, or under a bridge because they can’t afford anything else… or maybe because life has put them there for one reason or another. These folks I’m talking about CAN afford clothes and a lot more. They choose to look as though they can’t for some reason. Looks disrespectful to me. If this offends anyone, in any way, I’m dreadfully sorry. Please accept my apology. I truly meant no harm, just hoping to maybe wake some folks up. When one makes a living which depends on people who pay to see them use their GOD given talent, it seems to me as though they owe more than just an ability to play an instrument and sing.
In about 1986 my band was on a show with the Osborne Brothers at George Rogers Clark Park in Springfield, OH. I was a young banjo player, been playing about six months. I remember asking you if you’d listen and give me a pointer. We were warming up back stage playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown. You came over and listened. I was scared to death… You asked me how long I’d been playing. I stuttered out about six months, Mr. Osborne. You looked at me and said “Learn to keep that ring finger down and you’ll have it.” I’ve tried my whole life but still can’t do it..lol… I don’t know if you’ll remember but that same festival a guy in the front row had a pet monkey. He had no shirt on and the monkey was sitting on his shoulders. While you all were on he stood up faced the crowd and let out a big holler. When he did the monkey stained his back brown… lol. Funny the things we remember. Thanks again for all you have done for bluegrass. You are truly one if the greats!
Duane from London, Kentucky. Man, that’s 54 miles from Hyden…. Hometown for Bobby and I. I bet you know where it is, maybe been over there a time or two. Getting back to the subject, I remember playing That Park. The only time in our career that we played Springfield, Ohio. A little history… Did you know that George Rogers Clark was a brother to William Clark, who was the CLARK of the Lewis and Clark expedition? Now, when I was a kid I kept hearing the name Sacajawea… in reality she was the Indian guide who was with the expedition. As a kid, I had no idea that she was a person and I always wondered why they would carry a “sack of jaweeas” across the country and back…AND…what was a JAWEEA anyhow. Something for them to plant???? Throw in the ocean???? I was a kid who just had to play the banjo…. good thing, huh?
Back to the subject….! I told you right about the ring finger. It stabilizes your hand and creates a more consistent tone, which is what you want. So, you never quite mastered that move huh? Well, peace be upon your mind, it didn’t seem to bother Alan Shelton, Roy Lewis, or Doug Dillard… amongst probably several million more who didn’t care one way or the other. I did though!
Hey, what you thought was a monkey was that guy’s wife. They had both been dipping into Raymond’s sheep dip a bit too much. The brown stuff on his back? I won’t go into that because you see…. I made the monkey part up. I don’t remember that part at all. I do remember playing there and giving you that GREAT advice however!!!!
Thanks for putting my letter on your space.
We live near Schenectady, New York. We have the pleasure to know Eric and Leigh Gibson as well as Mike Barber, their bassist for many years. Everyone knows how talented they are, and I can attest to the fact that they are really good people. We knew Dan Tyminski when he was a a young teen. We knew back then that he would not be in West Rutland, Vermont forever.
When you talk about WWVA, I can tell you that my father listened to Lee Moore during the overnights. When Dad took his lunch break at American Locomotive in Schenectady, he would tune in the Coffee Drinkin’ Nite-Hawk. Lee moved up here in the ’70s. Smokey Greene would book him on his festival every year. My Dad took up the bass when he retired from the Electricians Union when he was 62. He and I played with Lee until he passed away. Lee was very popular around here. Gotta love those 50,000 watt clear channel blow torch radio stations.
One more note about where the Gibson’s are from. It is almost in Canada. There is a town up near their hometown called Churubusco, NY. There is a store where you can fill your gas tank, get a loaf of bread, a 5-string banjo and a shotgun. Dick’s County Store, Gun City and Music Oasis.
Thanks again, Sonny.
Thomas from up state New York. So you know Eric, Leigh, and Mike. By the time they got their thing really going, I had retired but, I would loved to have known them. Their harmony is just about as good as it can get…. and, lets face it, they have a pretty good name. When I first started hearing about them, I thought their name was definitely one that would be easy to remember. So, they are from up near Canada, EH? (;-o) WWVA days stand out in my mind, as does Lee Moore, The Coffee Drinkin’ Night Hawk. Knew him well. Had many good conversations with Lee…. good guy for sure. You know, I knew he moved to New York, or Connecticut. I lost track after that. I think he and Juanita had a son, I never heard anything else about him either. The day of the 50,000 watt domination is almost over. You may not believe it, but you have a hard time getting WWVA 50 miles from Wheeling, OH, maybe it goes your way…. Churubusco, New York… I had not heard of that one. Dick’s County Store, Gun City, and Music Oasis. Gas, Bread, I bet a can of Vienna Sausage, (Hillbilly Steak to go) 5 string (no tenor) banjo, and a shotgun. How bout a half gallon of white lightenin’? Used to be some places like that in and around Hyden, Bull Creek, Thousand Sticks, Short Creek, Billy Couch Place, Cut Chin, or Hell Fer Certain!
Hi Sonny, I read your column every week. I have your banjo book and your Homespun instructional video, thank you for passing on your playing skills! What 5 (or 10!) Songs or instrumentals did you just flat out love to play, regardless of their popularity?
Greg in Lancaster
Greg, thanks for sharing a few minutes of your time with us. This is fun, ain’t it? Thank you Terry and John!
You asked what tunes I love to play. I don’t remember ever picking up the banjo without the first thing I played was the Lester and Earl song, No Mother or Dad. And you may as well not ask because I can’t tell you why. America The Beautiful and Danny Boy would be right up there too. Siempre, Dandy Lion, April Fool, Shady Lane (4 tunes I wrote), El Paso and Spanish Flea, and the theme from Jeopardy are a couple more that I liked to play. So if I had to pick one over the rest I guess it would be America The Beautiful and Danny Boy.
So now, “Let me say this” if I may borrow that line from Frog (Jimmy) Martin, I know this is not your run of the mill playlist for banjo players, but one must remember that I was never a “Run Of The Mill” kinda person. My wires, although never crossed, ran in all different directions, seeking new ways to connect. I’m glad they weren’t crossed! Just Flat out Banjo tunes?… Cripple Creek, Lonesome Road Blues, Sally Ann, Cumberland Gap. I did a medley in Stockholm Sweden with all these tunes on it. It’s on YouTube.
Thank you for this column! I first saw you play in 1970-something at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival. At the time I made my living playing banjo and fancied myself pretty good too. Of course I’d heard your records but when I saw you play live, and saw, heard, and felt that incredible touch, it literally brought me to tears. So fluid – like you were playing a different instrument from the rest of us. I moved straight to the front row and watched you play the rest of that set (and every other) with my mouth hanging open. Suddenly I knew the difference between “musician” and “artist.” You, sir, are truly an artist.
Now my question: in between songs you often played fun little ditties and at one point I thought I heard the jazz rendition of Oh Danny Boy, reminiscent of the old Danny Thomas show – am I remembering correctly? In any case, did you work those licks out ahead of time or were they spontaneous?
In humble appreciation,
Kent. Thank you for the kind words. Man, you will never know how much they are appreciated. Words, on my part are not available to convey to you just how much. To me playing the banjo was so easy, and fun for me to have it do the things I heard in my head. I did all these little songs like Danny Boy, America, Home on The Range, Jeopardy, Wabash Blues, etc. spontaneously. I didn’t work on these tunes, they just happened. The beauty of it was the ability of Terry Eldredge, Terry Smith, Gene Wooten, and David Crow to just jump right in there and play rhythm with me. It was hard, tiring work for sure… getting from one place to another on time, but we had Raymond Huffmaster to thank…that was his job, get us there safely, and we were never late…being on the stage before a big crowd made it all fun. We were like little kids, children playing, having a good time.
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.