Sonny Osborne’s Stelling Sonflower to be sold at auction to benefit IBMA Trust Fund

We have all been missing Sonny Osborne since he passed away in October of 2021. Sonny’s wonderful music with brother Bobby, plus his outsized personality and wit, left a legacy that will never be forgotten in bluegrass music.

Now comes word of a unique opportunity for banjo players and/or collectors to own an historic instrument closely associated with the Chief – his prototype Stelling Sonflower he accepted as a Stelling endorser in 1979.

Those who remember back that far know that this was a beautiful curly maple banjo, with gold plated and extensively engraved hardware. Sonny used it for three years (’79-’81), and then had Geoff Stelling make him another with a few small changes, which became the standard for this Sonflower model.

Those unaware of this endorsement might be thinking, “But wait… Sonny was a prewar Mastertone guy!”

He was, indeed. And it was the acquisition of his 1934 Gibson Granada on New Years Day in 1978 that brought him to Stelling. Sonny was dead set against seeing his prized Granada going into the cargo hold of an airliner, so he wanted a replaceable, professional grade instrument he could take when flying, as the band did more and more at that time.

Discussions with Geoff led to this Sonflower model, which was visually quite similar to the prewar Gibson.

It has been credibly suggested that this banjo may be among the most viewed online, as Sonny played it during a tour by The Osborne Brothers in Sweden back in 1980. A video from that tour where Sonny ran through a medley of Earl Scruggs tunes during a show has become a hit, being viewed many millions of times on YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms.

Since it blew up online, Sonny had said that he just started on these other tunes after they kicked off with Cripple Creek, and the band followed along. No medley had been planned or rehearsed.

Sonny’s 1979 Sonflower prototype is being auctioned over the next week by Lincoln Hensley, banjo player with The Tennessee Bluegrass Band, and a good friend of Sonny’s during his later years. Starting this coming Saturday, December 3, Lincoln will accept bids through his Facebook page, either by comments on his auction post Saturday morning, or by messaging him directly.

Lincoln plans to keep the auction open through December 10, at which time the highest bidder will have the option to purchase the banjo at that price. By keeping an eye on Hensley’s page you can see what the current high bid is at any time, as he will update accordingly as new bids are proffered.

This banjo actually belongs to Wayne Rice, longtime San Diego bluegrass radio host and banjo player, and another good friend of Sonny’s. Wayne has arranged for all the proceeds from this auction to be donated to the IBMA Trust Fund, which offers financial assistance to members of the bluegrass community experiencing difficulties.

Rice says that the Trust Fund was something very close to Sonny’s heart, in fact the primary reason he had pushed for the formation of the IBMA in the mid 1980s. For many years Osborne was a member of the Board of the Trust Fund, the only group who knew who had received assistance from the Fund, who have distributed more than $800,000 to date.

“When he was ready to retire, Sonny asked me to take his spot on the Trust Fund Board, telling me it’s the best job in bluegrass. It meant a great deal to him, and I know it would tickle him if the banjo was sold for this purpose.

Wayne also explained how this unique banjo came to him in the first place, after Sonny turned it back to Stelling when he got the new Sonflower in 1981.

“Geoff used to have his factory near San Diego, in Spring Valley, and I knew him pretty well back in the day. We had him over one day and he was playing his own Stelling, and it was so loud! We were afraid he might aim it at our china cabinet.

I said something to my wife about wanting to get one of those one day. So she called Geoff in 1981 and asked him about getting me one, and he told her, ‘I have just the one! Let me fix it up.’ Sonny even signed and personalized inside the rim before I got it.

She can’t remember how much she paid for it, and I don’t really care, but I don’t think it was very much. I think Geoff wanted me to have it because he knew I would love it. He even made up an engraved arm rest with my name so I could put Sonny’s original away.

I haven’t played it much since maybe ’86, and it’s in mint condition.”

Lincoln has shared a number of photos of the banjo, along with this video of him playing it last week.

To participate in the auction for Sonny’s Stelling prototype, or simply follow along, just visit Lincoln’s Facebook page between December 3 at 4:00 p.m. (EST) and December 10 at 4:00.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.