Ask Sonny Anything… you are missing the boat on Billy Strings

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.


ATTENTION!!! Every answer I give is the TRUTH so far as I know it. Last week I ruffled some feathers when I talked about POOR OLD FOLLOW THE LEADER CROWE. JD is one of my best friends, he says anything about me, I don’t care, I talk about him, he knows I love him as a Brother. One “friend” said I sounded jealous….of JD? FOR WHAT pray tell. You guys are just looking for something to bitch about. Crowe is still 2 months and 2 days older than I. {;-)>


Hello Brother Sonny!!! I spend some time on you tube and watch old footage of “The Brothers,” and lament the fact that I never got to see you all live. Well Thanks for your contribution to the greatest music in the greatest Era.

I was wondering your thoughts about the soul of bluegrass music. The music is an outpouring of a musicians life and upbringing and beliefs and struggles etc. Can a man (or woman) brought up in today’s world have the same “purity of stuff” in the soul to produce genuine bluegrass. I guess it might never be the same as it was because the world has changed so much????

Also, do you think Don Reno was a better guitar player than a banjo player (not putting down his banjo playing of course) He was just a darn good guitar man. Also did you ever jam any or run across Doc Watson on the road ?? Thanks.

John E.

Hey my Brother John, I welcome you in. Glad you’re participating in our little To Do! I knew Doc Watson and we worked several places with Doc, but we never played a note with him, sorry to say. I respected his playing and Raymond E Huffmaster loved Doc’s playing. The soul of Bluegrass Music. I am grateful to my God to have let me live during the greatest era of real Bluegrass Music. We were there when it started, thankfully able to participate, and I’m afraid we saw that era pass.

You’re right it comes from folks who were brought up during a time when life was much different than now. The ’30s, ’40s and even into the ’50s, didn’t have the technical advantages as young folks have now. Only a few being cell phones, internet, being able to call anywhere free, and the ability to find the answer to darn near anything in seconds… and then musically, the ability to slow down an original banjo break or idea that came right out of someone’s head, why… they can slow that down to one note at a time and be able to do it in record time… I mean like minutes instead of days or months. So that takes originality right on out of playing an instrument.

People never heard of Rudy Lyle, one of the great innovators ever… when it comes to doing completely different things on a five string banjo…. and I simply must say that banjo tone and/or setup escaped him, but up until 1954, before going into military, his ability to innovate was mighty good. I would be inclined to agree with you that it will never be the same because our world has changed.

Was Don Reno a better guitar player than banjo? I will not answer that the way you asked or maybe expect, but I will say this… can I say this…. He recorded Home Sweet Home and played every instrument and sang all the parts. And, the banjo didn’t have D tuners. I hope that answers your question. Don Reno was one hell of a musician, singer, songwriter, and one of the best, closest friends this old man ever had…and I miss him! s


Hi Sonny, glad you’re doing OK again.

Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s you were booked on a new bluegrass festival in the eastern Pennsylvania country. Wilma Lee Cooper and Ricky Skaggs were also booked. We New Englanders and New Yorkers were eager to support a new bluegrass festival so we hauled our campers out to this brand newly prepared festival site in a big pasture. I wish I could remember the name of the town.

Anyway, a very small crowd showed up; I guess advertising was neglected. We were stunned to see a HUGE brand new wooden stage as big as a respectable barn, or maybe Shakespeare’s old Globe Theater. The buzz was, it had been a requirement of Skaggs’ contract or some such thing. Well the show went on to a SMALL crowd. I remember the lady promoter was in tears to have Wilma Lee on her stage. By the time you and Bobby took the stage the word had gone ’round the promoter had gone bust and only Wilma Lee was getting paid, or something like that. You all took the stage looking mad as wet hens and announced you would play both of your scheduled sets, but back-to-back, for your fans, and then would be leaving.

As far as the crowd knew, you had been stiffed. But you hung in there for your fans and did a 90 minute full show that was great. We in the crowd had a lot of respect for your good attitude toward the fans.

If you can remember that event, any comments on it, or similar experiences of satisfying your fans in a bad situation?

Thanks, Dick in New York

Come right on in Dick. We have plenty room. Now, I don’t remember the town in Pennsylvania but I do remember the place, the massive stage, and time.

The woman who booked the date just ran out of money and didn’t advertise…. I mean at all. I will have to rely on your memory about who played and seems like one, Wilma or Skaggs refused to go on… may be wrong. I know I discussed it with Bobby and we decided to do our shows for the 20 folks who were there.

The lady was in tears… but she just ran out of money. We all do sometimes. I felt sorry for her, she was so disappointed. That wasn’t the only time that was to happen, so be it… it is what it is.

Once we played In Georgia and the guy just said, “boys, I don’t have all of it. I think he gave me $300 and told us to take all the hot dogs, buns, and everything else we wanted from the concession stand. We did… we left there with quite a load. I think I remember the guy’s name because I went to school in Ohio with a kid… 5th and 6th grades… with the same name. John Cable. Never forget it!

Once in a place outside San Diego we had a pretty good crowd and the guy left between shows… with the money. Folks, it ain’t all peaches and cream, but when everything is right and hitting on all cylinders, man, it takes you to another world. To be on the stage with Gene Wooten, Terry Smith, Terry Eldredge, David Crow, every night for about 13 years, and the likes of Benny Birchfield, Ronnie Blackwell, Dale Sledd, Ronnie Reno, Jimmy D Brock, Paul Brewster, Blaine Sprouse, Raymond E Huffmaster, and my Brother Bobby. So good it hurts…..


Great memories, as usual, Sonny. I like your comment about Bill Emerson’s praise swelling your head. My head hasn’t come down since I picked some with Bill at NashCamp Banjo Camp many years ago back when Bill Evans used to lead it, and when Bill (Emerson) learned that I lived at that time about a half hour from him in Northern Virginia commented, “you’re really good on that banjo. How come I haven’t heard of you?” Well, that was it! I had arrived and had nowhere else to go! And my hat still doesn’t fit. Good memories.

Re: Chinese Breakdown, my Dad used to play that tune on the mandolin – do you know where it originated? Keep at it, Sonny. You are the best, and I HAVE heard of you!

Mark B.

Hello Mark. Thank you for sharing a few moments with us. You mentioned a bestest friend. Man, Don, Bill, JD, Dana, Lincoln, Derek, Tony, Earl, few of my best friends. But for now the spotlight is on Bill Emerson. One of the nicest Gentlemen ever.

I think the banjo camp with Bill E was the camp Bill Evans and I had several years ago. We had Mr. Emerson with us twice I think. His banjo playing speaks for itself. His character is something else. Always squared away, most of the time he has a smile for you. For him to compliment you is the real deal. I’ve known Bill and Lola for a very long time. I’m talking about a lot of years… perhaps 40+. He’s always the same. Every time you see him. I’ve heard the Chinese Breakdown for a long time too. Trouble is, I couldn’t hum a note of it if my life depended on it, which it might.


Regarding Billy Strings:

Well, Sonny, you will be missing out if you don’t listen to Mr. Apostol. He knows and loves the roots of our music, and like Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers, is taking it new places. The old fuddy-duddies of your youth didn’t necessarily like the drums and steel guitar in your music 50 years ago.

Mitchell R.

Mitchell. Glad you could join us. Come in. Billy Strings… Apostol, if you will. That’s his name and that’s what I’ll call him. I just might be missing the greatest that’s ever graced the face of the earth, but I’ve heard Josh Williams, Tony Rice, Clarence White, Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Leon Rhodes… and throw Buddy Emmons in there for good measure. Charlie Byrd, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, I think I’ve made my point, which is… I’ve heard and played with the best in the world and I’m not easily impressed. And so far Mr. Apostol is a good guitar player. Maybe in time my mind will change. Maybe Billy Boy will be the greatest bluegrass picker of all time, and if I’m still here and not assumed room temperature, I’ll be the first in line to sing his praises.

50 years ago…nahh, they didn’t like it that we “sold out,” but they bought the records. Whether it was to make fun of, or enjoy what we did, they bought the records, and for the most part they bought tickets and filled the seats at most places we played. I’m not bragging but I’m just telling you fact and truth. Matter of FACT, this whole thing that I write is based on FACT and TRUTH!

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.