It’s been something of a shock to lose three of the most prominent and respected banjo players of all time, in a matter of a few months: Sonny Osborne, Bill Emerson, and J.D. Crowe. Every 5-string 3-finger player alive has to have been influenced by these enduring and legendary pickers.
These three had a lot in common:
- Great dependable timing and clear tone
- Music careers lasting 50+ years, from their teens to 70s and 80s
- A deep reverence for Earl Scruggs, and with a foundation in his style and repertoire
- Elite bandleaders with a practiced eye for great material and side musicians, and band cohesion
- They all worked closely with Jimmy Martin, are heard on most of Martin’s major records.
- They all expanded the banjo’s technical vocabulary with stylistic touches involving new techniques.
- They all excelled at backing up a singer.
- They were all first-rate harmony singers, part of indelible harmony trios.
- They all “knew the business” well enough to survive difficult times that caused them to take non-music work, and to become respected mentors in the business of music as well as in music.
- They were born within 5 months of each other (August 1937 – January 1938) and died within 5 months of each other (August-December, 2021). Numerologists take note: All their dates of birth and passing fell between the 21st and 29th of the month.
I was fortunate enough to interact with each one. Some stories that stand out:
In 1971, at 25, I had a highly memorable experience seeing and hearing J.D. and the Kentucky Mountain Boys (shortly before their name change to The New South) at a concert in Ithaca, NY on a frigid January night. The event’s producers, Ken Irwin and his new Rounder Records cohorts Marian and Bill) had arranged a small dinner with the band and a few of us local musicians. Word came they’d be late due to icy roads. Dinner time came and went, and concert time was approaching. The only word was, “We’ll get there.”
Minutes before showtime, with the crowd already seated, a huge black Cadillac pulled in. The band (Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Larry Rice, Bobby Slone) opened the huge trunk and pulled out clothes bags, the *bass* (!) and the other instruments, and hustled to the dressing room. Just a few minutes later I checked in with the band — now decked out in matching pastel green vests and pants, and… spraying the last touches on their right-in-place hair. No western hats for these guys!
Out they came and delivered a superb show with great harmonies, clear and exciting picking, and a good dose of informal humor. By this time in my life, I had seen some great bluegrass bands, but this show stood out. Traveling upstate roads in winter, unloading everything from the trunk, duding up and spraying their hair, and then picking it solid for 2 hours… Impressive! In only their early 30s and 20s, they were complete pros and it showed.
That was my first time meeting J.D., and in years to come, we had many good interactions. For the Masters of the Five-String Banjo book, I interviewed him for two hours, a rare privilege. What stuck out any time we talked banjo was his dedication to good timing and “note separation”, a principle he first heard as a young fan from Earl Scruggs: “I try to make every note count.”
And he surely did!
Here is a great and rare video of J.D. in 1989 (the dawn of home video) picking informally with Tom McKinney on guitar and vocal — relaxed and at the height of his powers. Renowned banjo luthier Frank Neat kept his camera on J.D.’s hands for almost a full hour. Definitely worth a look!
Sonny Osborne was … a great artist, eccentric, charismatic, witty, irascible and engaging by turns, generous, and a man of passion. An astrologer friend of mine noted he was “a triple Scorpio” — apparently quite rare and somehow significant. He created some of the sweetest and soulful banjo tones and vocal harmonies, and could also deliver stinging banjo sounds — and words.
The last time I saw him, some years back, I was on my way to see Art Stamper, a fiddling former bandmate of Sonny’s who was having health problems. Sonny handed me an envelope of cash to bring to Art. I had also seen him hold out stubbornly for payment before agreeing to a filmed interview for a bluegrass documentary. I know he didn’t need the money, but was insisting on principle: I get paid for what I do.
Everyone at IBMA’s Awards Show in late September 2001 will remember Sonny opening the show alone on stage playing America the Beautiful simply and somberly with an American flag waving in the background. He was absolutely the right man to make that profound musical statement, representing and touching so many that night.
Sonny was an important force in the founding of the IBMA. His driving concern was for a trust fund for pro musicians who fall on hard times. But in time, with the fund established, I heard he was displeased with the organization. As IBMA president, I had the responsibility to recruit the Nominating Committee, which picks people to run for the IBMA Board. When Sonny complained to me about IBMA’s leadership I asked him if he’d serve on that committee, and he readily agreed. Long story short, he nominated David Crow (a lawyer and former fiddler with the Osborne Brothers), who not only ran and won but later became Board Chair, one of the best we ever had. Thank you, sir!
No doubt Sonny would speak his mind. Once in conversation about the early days of bluegrass, I asked him about all the rivalries between the top acts. They were on bad terms and would avoid each other. I mentioned that today’s bands weren’t like that. Hot Rize and Quicksilver and Newgrass were friends and would hang out with each other at festivals. Sonny responded, “Well you guys have something that we never had.” I said, “What?” and he said, “Intelligence!”
See this recent Osborne Brothers documentary.
Bill Emerson was a class act, it was generally agreed. His impeccable tone and timing and clear, focused playing declared “quality” at all times. Someone said if he made a mistake on stage, you could hear him after the show putting his banjo back in its case. But he conducted himself with the dignity you’d expect from a US Navy officer, which he was for 20 years after putting aside his bluegrass life in mid-career to make steady money for his young family, as head of the Navy’s country band. That position must have felt different from the earlier days of mixing it up with the likes of Red Allen, Buzz Busby, Scotty Stoneman, and Jimmy Martin. Eccentric as those personalities were, they set the standards for both precision and passion in their music, and Bill’s sound always satisfies on the many exemplary recordings they made.
When I practice banjo, to focus on my delivery I often think, “How would Bill Emerson make this sound?” I can hear that smooth, pure, and driving roll in my brain, and I try to match that with the sound I’m making. I always come away with respect for Emerson… it’s not easy to play like that! But anytime I hear Red Allen’s “Hello City Limits” or Jimmy Martin’s “Prayer Bells of Heaven”, there it is, that great sound.
Bill was justifiably proud of his work with the Country Gentlemen, both as a founder in 1957 and a mainstay for most of the 1970s, helping solidify the band’s popularity and leadership in the field.
When the IBMA’s Hall of Fame induction of the Gentlemen singled out just the “classic” group of four who launched the band into popularity in the 60s, it meant Bill was not part of the induction. I knew Bill was not happy about that. The Gentlemen had cut new ground in the 70s with Bill and Doyle Lawson adding new material that led bluegrass into “modern times”. They won best band in various bluegrass polls, and Bill would win the banjo poll. We discussed this regrettable slight at length but nothing could be done. It was heartening to me when the IBMA inducted Bill himself into the Hall of Fame a few years ago. Well deserved!
Photo Credits: Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Bluegrass Unlimited, Rural Life