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, wanted to tell you I agree completely with your view on country and bluegrass music as it is today. Nothing like the old days. But the real reason I’m sending this is my bluegrass band has always enjoyed the Osborne Brothers, and one of our favorites is Once More. We can’t sound like you guys but anyway, we do it acapella in the key of F#. It always gets good response. If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t that the first song on which Bobby sang high lead? Have a good day, hope you’re enjoying your retirement.
Roger, thanks for your time. Once More was written by Dusty Owens, who was working at WWVA during our time there. His band consisted of Buddy Spicher. Good band, huh? Anyhow, we liked Once More as a song we could do, and quite possibly would be good for our career. As it turned out, it did that and more. First of all it went to number 11 nationally, and best of all, it was the first song recorded using the three part harmony with the lead on top. Now days that is called “High Lead.” Man, how creative is that? That was not the first time we had used that harmony however. The ending of Ruby, Are You Mad featured Bobby’s high lead voice. We didn’t know it at the time, but that little deal right there would carry us throughout our career, and I might add, that style of harmony would extend the career of countless bluegrass and country vocal arrangements. Does that make me happy, YEAH.
I’m thoroughly enjoying this column. Long ago, probably back in the ‘80s, you mentioned in a magazine interview that at the time you were listening a lot to the Beatles. I can’t say I was surprised to read this but I did find it interesting, and as I recall, you didn’t say much more about it. I’d love to hear more about how/when you connected to the music of the Fab Four and what it was you liked about them. More broadly, do you have other musical go-tos that are a little or a lot outside of the bluegrass/country orbit?
Thanks for the music!
Paul…gitchi a chair. What can I do for you? You wanta talk about me and the BEATLES. I’m driving the bus one night and our bass player, Jimmy Dewayne Brock, came up and asked me to listen to some music. On his little cassette player he played some of the Abbey Road album and I was struck because the electric guitars were played so well, and the bass lines were really good. Most of all, their harmony was a lot like ours…a million miles apart, but I could see some resemblance. Odd? You got that right. Yep, I do have others and really did all along. Buddy Emmons, Hank Garland, Ray Edenton, Waukeen Murphy, Grady Martin, and several many times over more.
I’m thoroughly enjoying this myself, and thank Terry Herd for allowing me to do this.
Sonny, what is the best banjo, in your opinion, for a beginner to start with? Thank you.
Tony, thank you for your time. Several years ago, Greg Rich and I designed a banjo for Recording King. It was called The Scout. And if you had a Chief banjo, this is about 2 clicks down from that Chief, although it is built very well and several people, including Herb Pederson, fine banjo player and even better harmony singer, uses The Scout for his main banjo. And in all fairness, I should mention Deering makes a banjo called The Goodtime. I would imagine for a beginner, this would be the way to go, I mean one of these two. I’m not sure if The Scout is in production, but if you want one of those I have two brand new for sale.
I just want to tell you that Rocky Top was one the songs that acted like a gateway drug pulling me into bluegrass in the 1970s, and every time since then that we got a request to do it I always sang and played it my very best, because it was such a well written and hard-to-play song, and (it took a while, but I learned!) you should never blow off a request unless you just can’t play it at all or it’s a Barry Manilow song. Rocky Top is a great showpiece, and deserves to be played just right, in my opinion. Just like Uncle Pen, it’s part of the fabric of the music.
The first time I saw the Osborne Brothers was at the Shriners Bluegrass Festival in Wise, Virginia, and I think you had just “gone acoustic,” and you were obviously happy to be there because the show was nothing short of fantastic.
The last time I saw you was at Wintergrass in Tacoma, and I was struck all over again by your mastery of chord melody playing. I think someone told me that you developed this style to simulate the sound of the pedal steel.
Thanks to you and Bobby for your music-
Rob, thank you for participating. Barry Manilow….who is that? I wonder how many times he’s been asked to play Rocky Top. You mention Rocky Top acting as a gateway drug pulling you into bluegrass in the 1970s. That song was indeed phenomenal …. And still is. In my mind, and not to sound bigheaded, Rocky Top, Uncle Pen, Foggy Mountain Breakdown have all done worlds of good for bluegrass music. Don’t get me wrong and misread this, definitely there are others, but these three come to mind and it’s my opinion. Playing a song using only chords is actually quite simple. You simply must follow the lead with one note and have two harmony notes around it. Just like vocals. That is my favorite way of playing because it also is a style taken from the pedal steel. I spent a year hanging around with Buddy Emmons in the early ’50s and I learned so much.
If you were to put music onto an iPod or other listening device, what would it be?
Jason, aye golly, I jist betchi you’re related them air Bridges men. All of ‘em play actors.
It would be Ray Price singing Danny Boy with full orchestra, or Tommy Jackson’s fiddle intro to Bobby Helms record of Fraulein, 1956.
See y’uns next week,
My dog Pepper who is a mixture of chihuahua and rat terrorist, has white eyebrows.
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.