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.
Sonny, Why does Bobby always wear sun glasses?
– K Ca.
He wears them to keep the X rated sun out of his left eye. And, he also wears a white hat that he had made in Texas at The Big Texan truck Stop, especially for him because, like Bill Monroe, he has a funny shaped head and it takes a special size to fit him. All people with an unusually high voice have the same problem, with the exception of our Grandmother, who had a small red tricycle.
The Lawings were good to me. My dad did the best he could with the sound but didn’t have much to work with. They would never spend the money for upgrades. Once my dad had a minor tiff with them and didn’t work there for a short time. We went to see Jimmy Martin and about three songs in Jimmy shouted “ Get Mr. Lawrence up here to fix this mess!”
Roy Martin collaborated with the Lawings on a few shows and, I think, a Bluegrass Festival in ‘69.
After stints with The New Deal Stringband and the Bluegrass Alliance I worked with Al Wood and the Smokey Ridge Boys, that’s when you gave me your card. Yes, I spent 27 years touring and recording with Doc. These days I do solo and duo shows and select dates with Peter Rowan.
I worked with C. E. Ward when I was in high school and did some finish work on your 6 string neck. I remember the heel was uncut. Did you and Dale Sledd fit the neck to the pot?
Also any remembrances from a Carlton Haney Festival in Lakeland, FL Thanksgiving weekend ‘71 at George and Tammy’s park? I was there with the Stringband. Thanks, Sonny!
– Jack Lawrence,journeyman guitarist
Jack Lawrence, pretty darn good guitar player. 27 years with Doc Watson ain’t to be sneezed at. I thought C.E. Ward did that neck all alone… had no idea that you worked on it too. I got the neck on a Saturday night, Dale and I installed it on Sunday, and I recorded Listening to the Rain on Wednesday.
True, your Dad had a rough job doing sound in that building and The Lawings didn’t help much because they had cheap equipment. I remember working the Lakeland park but we were in and out of there so quickly we didn’t have much time to see it. Nice to hear from you Jack, and to know that you are doing well. I’ve wondered where you were… now I know!
What inspired you to build your own Chief model banjos?
– John L.
Well John… really wanted to be associated with Gibson. Their Repro Granada was a copy of my banjo, so naturally I thought that was a possibility. But it wasn’t to happen. I discovered that they were using maple for their rims from Georgia, and I insisted on cold weather, hard maple. I was told it was too expensive. Greg Rich and Mark Taylor had started the Rich & Taylor company. Having checked them out, I found they were building a good banjo, and they would put my name on a model. I got a banjo, and man, I was pleased with the sound but after playing it for a while found the neck to be too wide. I asked them to make the neck more narrow on my model. They refused. The Rich – Taylor banjo is one of the best sounding I have ever played, but that neck… I couldn’t live with it.
Bobby’s son Wynn and I were having lunch and, having heard my banjo woes, he mentioned to me that I should build my own. I called Frank Neat and asked him to round up the best materials available in the world. He did, and on June 16, 1998 the first Chief banjo came to life. It’s never been a full time thing with me… I made my living picking and singing. Call it a hobby, call it anything you like, The Chief banjo is pretty darn good. And happily I add, I have never spent one penny on advertisement. They sold themselves. I have about 300-400 out there and for the most part, I’ve had few complaints. Case Closed!
Eons ago when I set out to learn to play the 5-string banjo, the only thing I could find was Pete Seeger’s book. Then by some miracle, I discovered your Mel Bay Instruction book. It was revelatory. I’m assuming this was the first time you wrote an instruction book. Can you tell me a little about that experience?
– Will H.
I started working on it in 1958. At that time it was based on a complete number system. Fingers on both hands, strings, and frets were all numbered. I knew NOTHING about tabs. I tested my method on 7 Ohio State college students – I was living in Dayton at the time. I taught my wife Judy to play Cripple Creek, and those 7 boys learned to play by using my number method. I took my product to St. Louis and Mr. Mel Bay. He liked what I had, but told me it had to be done using the tab method. He told me how, so I went home and rewrote it in tab. Took it back and he told me it would also have to have music notes written. Back to Dayton I went with no knowledge of lines nor spaces. I asked and was told, so I re-wrtote it yet again… then he told me about timing bars. Still dumber than a stick, I went back, added the timing bars, and drew the picture of a right hand for the cover. This trip to St. Louis worked and he agreed to publish the Sonny Osborne instruction book. I felt a bit uncomfortable about it because I thought Earl should be the first. So I went to his house, told him what I had, offered it to him so he could be first. He and Louise refused.
I called Mel and gave him the go ahead. Earl told me to go ahead with it but he wanted the first copy…and I made sure he got it.
If you could go back and relive one single evening on stage, which performance would it be?
– Ben W.
Ben…I have several:
At 14 I was a member of The Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. I recorded 9 tunes with him.
First time to play the Grand Ole Opry at age 14. Being made official members of The Opry in 1964. Age 27.
First time to play The Opry as the newest members. July 31, 1964.
November 16, 1967 we recorded Rocky Top and it was released on Decca December 25, 1967. Rocky Top became a hit. Holy McWow!
1971 we won the CMA Vocal Group of The Year.
March 18, 1973 we played inside our White House for the Nixon clan. First time bluegrass had been there. We were also voted “Bluegrass Band of The Year” 9 or 10 years in succession. There have been so many it’s really hard to focus on just one.
I apologize for the length of these answers…sounds like bragging, maybe, conceit, maybe. Honest, damn right. We were lucky to some extent. If you wanted to point a finger it would be the fact that we had something that could not be duplicated. My Brother Bobby. The best ever. EVER.