Ask Sonny Anything… what made Merle Haggard laugh?

Hi Sonny:

I think the year was 1995 or ’96 and you were playing a carnival in Clear Springs, MD, and the rain interrupted your show for some time and you, Bobby, and the band went to your bus parked just off the stage area. I came over and stood against the bus to shield myself somewhat from the rain. You were standing in the door and we exchanged some conversation and you invited me to come on board out of the rain. We had a conversation about several things pertaining to bluegrass that night, and finally you were able to finish the performance. You were gracious as a host and to let me in out of the rain.

I think Terry Eldredge was in your band then. Terry and I have become friends down through the years, and I really love his singing and his down home personality. I’m just a bit younger than you, (just turned 81 in November) but still remember that night and the great music, one of the many times I caught an Osborne Brothers performance.

Dick Beckley

Hey Dick. Great to share a moment of your time. Let’s see what you have for us today. I remember doing a fire carnival in Clear Springs and yes, Terry El would have been with us at the time. Terry was definitely one of the most honest, loyal people who ever worked with us. Talent galore…you could not have picked a better friend. He was with us 12 years. Terry Smith, El, and a couple other guys formed a band…they called it The Grascals. Great band. 5 time banjo player of the year, Kristin Scott Benson, has been with that band for over 10 years now. She is one fine banjo player…I’m certainly glad to have had your company…as I remember it poured for over an hour and we did finish our shows that night. Pretty good crowd too.


Sonny, I will always remember the time you took to talk bluegrass with me (a then 20-ish country/bluegrass disc jockey) behind the stage at Sunset Park. It was in 1981 or so and we talked about several bluegrass-related topics, none of which I recall specifically. I do remember how kind you were to talk with me for, what I recall as, a pretty long time. The Sunset Park property is now partially occupied by a shopping center and an elder living community. I know that you and Bobby appeared there annually for 25 years or more and I wonder if you have any specific recollections about Sunset or its owners, Lawrence and Hazel Waltman?


Ron Baker, Wilmington, DE

Ron. Man have you stirred up some memories. Answer to that is yes. We held the record for number of times we worked there. Over 25, we did it sometimes twice in a season. I loved the place. Always good sound, good crowds, and the majority of the folks knew us and we knew them. Great place to play. Winnie Winston always showed up and gave me a Scruggs string sleeve. I won’t discuss at this time what it contained, but it will become obvious later. Winnie was a banjo player, then became a pretty good steel player. At some point he moved to New Zealand or Australia, can’t remember which.

Del and Jean McCoury and their family came to see us at Sunset Park. Just to the right of the stage was a huge trunk that was left when the monster tree was taken out. The stump would measure at least 4 or 5 feet thick. Del and Jean sat in their lawn chairs and Rhonda, Ronnie, and Robin Floyd sat on that big ole stump. I wonder if my memory coincides with theirs. I wonder if they had any thought or the vaguest idea of just what all lay ahead for that family of the finest folks you would ever want to know.

I remember this guy named Arthur who brought at least 15 books and pictures for each of us to sign. He also had specific pens for us to use. Yep, we signed them all. And Ron, I wonder if you went on to become a country DJ and if you played our records…huh? Too country for bluegrass and too grassy for country. But they sold, why? Can’t say, Thank you LORD!

…Naw Ron boy, you wouldn’t do that, would you. My first time to play at Sunset was in 1952 as a Blue Grass Boy. I also traveled on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That was my first time to experience a toll road. Did I have a rude awakening…New York City….


Sonny, the music business is tough and it takes a special degree of determination to survive and succeed. Based on your experience, what advice would you give another musician hoping to earn a living making music? We all can’t record a Rocky Top!

John G.

John, thank you for sharing your time with us. Come on in hyer and tell us what you got. Making a living as a musician. First you gotta be good at what you do. Real good. Confidence almost to the point of conceit, but check conceit at the front door. Conceit is a one way ticket to the cellar, and once you’re there it’s a million miles back… kick conceit in he ass and practice till you are blue in the face the keep right on practicing. You can not…CAN NOT PRACTICE ENOUGH. If your craft is that important to you and you are determined to do that for a living. you better get used to practice.


Hey Sonny, Were you able to get the feel for Earl’s boogie-woogie style licks like he played on Foggy Mountain Special, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, and even on Heavy Traffic Ahead with Monroe. Those seem really hard for a lot of banjo pickers.

Thank you for your time J, but I warn you when Larry backs this 45-foot monster you will have to dodge Terry Herd as he flees to the back. It’s not really that bad J, but I can imagine it any way I want and that’s the way it’ll be for now.

If you listen closely to what Earl did, the notes are exactly the same. It’s just a matter of timing, spacing notes, and phrasing. He used the same break on Blue Yodel #4, and Six White Horses, and a half dozen others that I won’t go into here. I hope this answers your question.


Now to make reference to a subject I delved into earlier. We, the Brothers, played the Memorial Hall in Dayton, Ohio with Merle Haggard and the Strangers. No sooner than I had the bus stopped, Roy Nichols came and knocked on the door and then just walked in. He sat down, or I should say jumped down, into the shotgun seat. He was so nervous his hands were shaking. He said, “Have you got anything to help us? because Merle and I really need some help.”

I went to the back and got string sleeve (the one Winnie Winston gave me, of which I had absolutely no use for). I never touched the stuff. I gave it to Roy and told him, “Be careful, I think this is potent stuff.” Roy looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, we will”.

Now fast-forward about 2 hours…..We had already been on, received the Keys to the City of Dayton from the Mayor, and Merle and the Strangers were on and about 10 minutes into their show. I had gotten my regular chair and sat it right behind Roy, and behind the curtain. Suddenly, Roy put his guitar down, leaned back in his chair, and lit a cigarette. I knew right then that Roy and Merle had not been careful.

About every 20 seconds, Roy would just burst out laughing. While Merle was at the mike singing, and it became Roy’s break time, and there was no Roy. And the great Merle Haggard turned his head and looked at Roy and Roy was sittin’ over there laughing….at nothing….and Merle looked over at Roy and saw him laughing and HE started laughing. And he said, “It’s funny, ain’t it Roy?” and just about doubled over laughing…………………….

That explains Winnie Winston’s Sunset Park Earl Scruggs string sleeve ingredients, of which I knew nothing of. heh heh heh heh


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.