Ask Sonny Anything… what do you think about country singers doing bluegrass?
I always liked your baritone singing a whole lot. I know you started on banjo early on. When did you become interested in singing, and do you remember the first recording you sang on? Also, what were the banjos you used in the ’50s when you were a teenager?
PS: (I had played dobro with you and Mac Wiseman at a Festival in Delaware when your brother Bobby was having heart surgery)
Hey Matt, the dobro man. So you played the dobro with me and Mac Wiseman at a festival in Delaware? This was whilst my brother was having heart surgery. A trying time indeed. You commented on my baritone singing, and I will have you know right now that I was never interested in singing. It was just something that I had to do…it was my job.
My early banjos consisted of a Kay, an RB-100 Gibson, an RB-150 Gibson, a 1929 RB-3 raised head, and then I got my first flat head in 1956. It was an RB-3. The banjo, which I used on Rocky Top among many others, and the banjo Aaron McDaris owns and plays now.
Hi Sonny, hope all is well. I look forward to the column each week.
In 1971, Buck Owens & the Buckaroos released an album of their version of bluegrass, with Ruby as the title track. I’m wondering if you’ve listened to the album and, if so, what your thoughts on it are. Did you ever get to spend any time with Buck or his band?
On a related note, it’s become something of a trend for mainstream country artists to record a bluegrass album in recent decades. Among them, Merle Haggard did one before his passing, and Dolly Parton made a few. But the only classic artist besides Buck who made one during their commercial prime seems to be Tom T. Hall, unless I’m missing somebody. Did any of the other country legends you toured with or played the Opry with ever express an interest to you in trying to pursue bluegrass?
Thanks, Adam S.
Adam..welcome. Thank you for your time.
When I heard the 1971 Buck Owens recording of Ruby, which my brother sang the mortal daylights out of, I was almost embarrassed to listen to the rest of the album. If you didn’t grow up with bluegrass music, it’s hard to be a country singer and then sing bluegrass and make it sound halfway decent. I knew Buck Owens pretty well and his band. We worked with them several times. Nice people. But they should have left bluegrass where it belonged…with the people who grew up with it.
In 1971, it was trendy for country superstars to record a dirty ole bluegrass album. Merle Haggard did one song, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, in which probably one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived played the banjo. Hello…that would be Glen Campbell. And this is not to degrade Glen any at all…but he should play the guitar, on which he might have been the best ever.
Same with the Buck Owens record. I guess they thought it was just the sound of the banjo, and not the quality of the playing, that made it a bluegrass album.
You mentioned Dolly Parton and Tom T. Hall. They grew up listening to and learning bluegrass music…that was their roots. Several other major artists contacted me to play the banjo on their “bluegrass” albums, and almost to the number I don’t think any of them made the release date. And that is saying they were not good.
Luckily, none of the afore-mentioned were to pursue a bluegrass career.
Dear Sonny, I have attached a classic clip of the Osborne Brothers that is pure gold. Please share with us the thoughts on this festival and also what had you laughing like a school kid at the end of the video.
Ron Smith Doolittle MO
Ron Smith, Doolittle (more or less) MO.
I remember that festival in 1971 very well. And it seems to me as though it was raining that day in Camp Springs, NC. There was a guy sitting about 20 feet in front of us, and he had a hat on that had collected about a quart of water, which he promptly lowered his head and the water went all over him. That was what was so funny to begin with, and the fact that my brother was in the midst of one of the best renditions of Ruby, and I remember saying to Ronnie Reno that “he’s still got it.”
That band consisted of Ronnie Reno, Dennis Digby playing bass, and Robby Osborne playing a full set of drums. And if you look closely, you’ll see where we were all dressed for work. Our equipment consisted of two twin reverb amps and a big Fender bass amp. That was enjoyable music at that time.
Sonny, thank you so much for this wonderful column. I haven’t missed a single one since you started this some two years ago. You’ve said many wonderful things about your brother Bobby, how you two never fought, how much you respected his wonderful voice and more, so my question is simply, what did Bobby think of your singing and playing? What was the nicest compliment he ever gave you?
Please keep this going, you don’t know how much it means to bluegrass fans like me.
Randy T. in Oklahoma
Randy in Oklahoma. Thank you. I’m glad you could join us.
It has been about two years ago that we started doing this column, and I still enjoy it. At this time I want to thank my wife Judy for typing, although not being able to completely read my mind, I still answer the questions.
You know, some people have a very hard time saying, ‘excuse me,’ or, ‘I’m sorry,’ or just plain giving compliments. Although I always thought that my brother respected what I did with the banjo, I can’t remember Bobby ever saying to me, “‘that was a good show you played tonight’.’ I’ve always thought, and I’ve been open about it, that Bobby was the best ever at what he did, and in our prime, I still believe that.
The closest thing to a compliment was a tape recording from Clay City, KY in which he said, “Earl Scruggs took the banjo to one level and my brother came along and took it to another level.” Gary Reece, who played the banjo for Bobby and his band for several years, told me that when he first went to work with Bobby, he told him that he knew all of the Osborne Brothers material but he couldn’t play it like I did. Bobby’s answer was, “Nobody can.” I took that as probably the nicest compliment he ever gave me. Without sounding conceited or big-headed, I hope this answers your question.
I’m told that this column is the most-read column on Bluegrass Today. And do I take that as a compliment? Hell yeah. And I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart, each of you who read these lines of wit every week. I want you to know that it’s appreciated.
It really doesn’t matter how great a country or pop singer you are, you will never be able to compare yourself with Bobby, Bill, Lester, Larry Sparks, Doyle, Russell, Tony, and on and on and on….(There’s a song title in that, somewhere). Lord willing, and we don’t all burn up, and the creek’s don’t rise…..me and her will see you next week.
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.