Bobby Osborne, Original, Unstoppable

Bobby-OBobby Osborne
Original, Unstoppable
By Larry Nager

Bobby Osborne sits at the microphone, smiling patiently as Bill Cody energetically lives up to his legendary status as morning drive-time disc jockey at even-more-legendary WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry for more than ninety years. Job one on morning drive-time is keep your audience awake and listening, and Cody’s good at it. Well-caffeinated, he and his guest trace Bobby’s life back to the family farm in Hyden, Ky., Bobby wistfully recalling having to leave his beloved horse Maggie when his dad, Robert Sr., moved the family out of Kentucky coal country up to industrial Dayton, Ohio. The senior Osborne was teaching school to miners’ kids, but the assembly line at National Cash Register paid a lot better and guaranteed his own kids wouldn’t wind up in the mines. That was over 75 years ago, but Bobby remembers it like yesterday.

Sitting and talking with Bobby Osborne, it’s impossible to believe he’ll turn 86 on December 7th. His memory is unflagging and there’s a light in his eyes that’s absolutely ageless. An Opry member for 53 years, he’s been doing radio since he was a teenager, but he’s fully engaged and completely entertaining with Cody, enjoying that interview as if it was a new experience.

It’s no act. Bobby Osborne couldn’t be happier to still be in the music business, promoting his brand-new album Original (Compass Records). His brother Sonny retired in 2005, but Bobby refused to join him, even though he knew launching a solo career in his seventies wouldn’t be easy. “I’ve been on my own now 12 years,” he says with a mix of pride and resignation.

For a while, it seemed he had no choice about retiring, from his recording career at least. After his third album with Rocky Top X-Press, 2015’s Bluegrass & Beyond, he and Rounder Records parted ways and Bobby had no offers. Soon after, he found himself at Compass studios in Nashville, guesting on Peter Rowan’s Old School. “The concept of that record was to get some of the old-timers, some of the young folks, and some people in the middle to collaborate on some tunes that Peter had written,” says Alison Brown, co-owner of Compass and producer of both Old School and Original. “Peter got Bobby to come play on a few tunes, and he was playing and singing great. So he and I were hanging out in the tracking room between takes and he just mentioned to me that he thought he would never have a chance to make another record, and that just struck me as something I needed to try and rectify.”

Since she and her husband Garry West own the label and the studio, that would seem easy. But bluegrass album sales are driven by live shows. “Bobby’s not a full-time touring artist at 85 years old, so we needed to get creative in terms of cash,” Alison explains. With Compass footing most of the bill, she was able to get a grant from the Fresh Fest Foundation, augmenting that with a crowdfunding drive on PledgeMusic.com.

Out of his Comfort Zone

   Bluegrass pays more homage to its founders than just about any other genre, but Alison was interested in more than lip service. She envisioned a very special project both for Bobby and his guests, many of whom had never played with him before. “I wanted it to be a star-studded record, and I wanted the people in the music community to have a chance to spend time with Bobby and play music with Bobby. Making those kind of records tends to be more expensive, but I felt that it was really important with this one.”

She assembled a remarkable cast, including singers Del McCoury, Vince Gill, Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, Josh Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Darrell Scott, and David Mayfield; fiddlers Buddy Spicher, Stuart Duncan, and Michael Cleveland; on banjo, Alison and Rob McCoury; guitarists Williams, Jim Hurst, Molly Tuttle, and Trey Hensley; resonator master Rob Ickes; bassists Missy Raines and Todd Phillips. And on mandolin, three generations of Bobby Osborne disciples: Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, and Sierra Hull. Add to that his Rocky Top X-Press guitarist Joe Williams, fiddler Buddy Griffin, and Bobby’s sons Bobby, Jr., (bass), Wynn (banjo), and Robby (drums). That alone would be a major event, but that was only the start.

“She asked me to get some songs together,” Bobby says. He didn’t want to simply re-cut Osborne Brothers classics, so he chose some country favorites. But Alison already had a list. “I’d like to have you do some things that nobody’s heard before,” he remembers her saying.

That material included the Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You” and, from the musical Paint Your Wagon, “They Call The Wind Maria,” along with some old and new songs and the closing number, the Osborne classic “Pathway Of Teardrops.” She was surprised at how willing he was to get out of his comfort zone, but then realized that’s an Osborne trademark.

“As I thought about Bobby and his legacy and his place in music, and his place in the Osborne Brothers, there’s one thing that kept hitting me over and over, and that was that spirit of innovation that the Osborne Brothers had. Bobby still has that,” Alison explains. “You would expect somebody at 85 to be like that and say, ‘You spend the first 40 years figuring out how you think about things and the next 40 years thinking everybody else should think the same as you do.’ That’s human nature. And what was so amazing was that was not at all his mind set. I asked, ‘How about this Bee Gees tune? I always thought it would sound great done bluegrass.’ And he said, ‘Bring it on.’”

Given Bobby Osborne’s place in bluegrass, Original would be important no matter what, but beyond all that historic baggage, it’s just a really good album. His singing is strong and assured, the players sounding more like a real band than just a flock of all-star pickers. It includes a few great country songs, notably Eddie Arnold’s lush “Make The World Go Away” featuring Vince Gill’s harmony vocals and a Buddy Spicher/Matt Combs string arrangement. There’s even an Elvis cover, “Don’t Be Cruel,” which Bobby’s been doing since it was a hit in the ’50s when he and Sonny were teamed with their Dayton neighbor Red Allen. “We got down to the last two songs for the record and we were trying to decide what to do,” Alison remembers. “So then Bobby said, ‘You might think this is crazy, but “Don’t Be Cruel.” Which I though was great. And immediately I could hear this Doc Watson kind of vibe on it. And what’s great about Bobby, it’s a tune that’s been in his repertoire for such a long time, but it wasn’t like, ‘Sonny and I used to do it this way, so let’s do it that way.’ He just had this wide openness about trying things.”

Bobby has equally high praise for his producer. “She knew exactly what she was after. I was amazed. I always thought Owen Bradley (legendary Nashville producer) was the best there ever was, until I heard her producing.” For proof, look no further than the first single “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” Sierra Hull on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Alison on banjo, Rob Ickes on resonator guitar, Trey Hensley on lead guitar, Todd Phillips on bass, and Kenny Malone’s tasteful percussion puts it firmly in 2017, but Bobby’s timelessly soulful vocals and the song’s theme—a condemned man trying to contact his love—is classic bluegrass.

Passing It On

   For Hull, recording with one of her earliest mandolin idols was a lifelong dream. “I remember seeing the Osborne Brothers play near where I grew up (Byrdstown, Tenn.) when I was nine or ten,” she recalls. “I was already playing, and I remember getting to go up to Bobby and talk to him a little bit. So all these years later, to be able to play on this record with him was really special. He’s one of my heroes. We did a little mandolin duet (‘Country Boy’), and he let me play his mandolin. He’s got a 1925 Gibson Fern, one of the greatest mandolins I’ve ever played. Bobby’s such a star. He’s a great mandolin player, he’s got this great mandolin and this awesome voice. He’s a star!”

Ronnie McCoury first recorded with Bobby on 1999’s Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza CD, which Ronnie co-produced with David Grisman. Working with him again, he remained starstruck, staying long after the sessions asking about classic licks and kickoffs. He remembers seeing the Osbornes when he was a kid going to festivals with his dad, long before he started playing mandolin. “I always remember just sitting out front, watching and listening. Before I even understood music, I knew they were the hot act, just hearing everyone talk about them. That was some of the first mandolin playing that I can remember hearing,” he says.

Bobby’s been a big part of Ronnie’s life ever since. “I’ve always said the three major stylists in bluegrass are Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, and Bobby Osborne. Jesse had the hardest technique and very few have ever copied him. In my opinion, Bobby’s the most copied. And the majority of people who play these days, they don’t even know, ’cause they learned from somebody from a later generation. But the first guy who played the single-note, melodic-type mandolin in bluegrass was Bobby. And from that was born all these other styles.”

For Original, Bobby and Alison decided to spotlight Bobby’s voice. With the exception of the Rocky Top X-Press tracks, his playing is limited to twin mando parts on “Country Boy,” “Goodbye Wheeling,” and “Just In Case.” And despite more than 70 years in music, he still picks for fun. “I’ve got my mandolin and my fiddle where I can get to them when I’m at home, and I’ll get up at five o’clock and play.”

He was singing and playing guitar long before mandolin, but fiddle was always his favorite, inspiring that bouncy, melodic mandolin style. “I’ve tried to play the fiddle, but I was just too busy trying to sing and play the mandolin. I just couldn’t figure out how to play the fiddle and sing at the same time.”

Six years older than Sonny, Bobby started as a solo act, singing and playing electric guitar on the radio in Middletown, home of the WPFB barndance, when barely a teenager. His dad wanted him to become a doctor, but Bobby already knew what he wanted even before a conflict with a high-school biology teacher quickened his departure from higher education. “He called me ‘Robert’ all the time,” Bobby says, still angry at the memory. “And I told him a number of times, ‘My name is Bobby, not Robert. That’s my dad’s name.’ I wanted to be called by my name, and he went on and on, calling me Robert. And the last day, I was in class in study hall, I had a hundred questions to answer, and I was looking out the window and thinking, ‘I ain’t ever coming back to this place again.’ So I just filled out that test, just guessed at it, never even looked at it, just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ all the way through. And he gave me a D. I passed it. I just lucked out. And he said to me, ‘Robert…’ And I said, ‘You ain’t gonna call me that long, ’cause I ain’t gonna be here.’”

Band of Brothers

   He became a traveling musician, teaming up with Jimmy Martin, who had recently departed the Blue Grass Boys and continued the Bill Monroe tradition by insisting Bobby learn mandolin if he was going to sing tenor. They played briefly in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, taking Charlie and Curly Ray Cline with them when they left, forming a touring troupe with an entertainer named Little Robert Van Winkle. “He was just 39 inches tall—a good showman,” Bobby remembers. “He could dance and sing and everything.” That didn’t last, and Bobby soon was performing with Carter Stanley, then working alone while Ralph recuperated from a car wreck. Bobby enjoyed playing and singing Pee Wee Lambert’s parts, until he joined The Marines during the Korean War, doing a two-year stint. When he came out in 1953, Sonny, who’d played and recorded with Bill Monroe at 14, was ready to be a professional musician. Jimmy Martin enlisted them for his band, recording six sides for RCA. But Bobby wasn’t happy working for somebody else. “Jimmy got to where he wanted to be the boss, so that worked good for about a year, but then we left. It was The Osborne Brothers from then on.”

They worked in Knoxville with legendary promoter Cas Walker, but within a year, they were back in Dayton with Bobby working at National Cash Register. They started playing bars with Red Allen, who knew Tommy Sutton (a DJ at Dayton’s WONE) who knew Wesley Rose, an A&R man with MGM Records.

The Osbornes and Red worked up a unique arrangement of Cousin Emmy’s clawhammer tune “Ruby.” A showcase for Bobby’s stunningly high tenor, they added two bluegrass banjos in harmony. Noah Crase, later credited with playing the first chromatic banjo lick on his “Noah’s Breakdown,” was a friend of Sonny’s, and the two men worked up “Ruby” (re-titled “Ruby, Are You Mad?”) in harmony. They played it for Sutton, who quickly set up an audition with MGM in Nashville. Not long after, Crase (reliably undependable) disappeared. “Sonny and Noah were about the only banjo players in Dayton back then,” Bobby says. “But Sonny had another banjo, and I had watched him so much and I knew what went on down there. Sonny got me a set of picks and a banjo and he said, ‘You’ve got about a month to learn how to play “Ruby.”

Bobby learned the part in G-tuning capoed to D, while Sonny played in D-tuning. The first bluegrass record featuring twin banjos topped by Bobby’s stratospheric vocals, “Ruby, Are You Mad?” was a high-lonesome tsunami. They aced their audition, Osborne innovation and determination at its best. Released in 1956, “Ruby” was their first hit, a certified bluegrass classic. But, while that gained entry to MGM (famed as the label of Hank Williams, Sr.), another innovation almost lost them their record deal.

The Osborne Brothers & Red Allen were members of WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree, where Dusty Owens had written a song called “Once More.” Featuring Owens and a female singer, it sounded like a Kitty Wells knockoff. But it caught Bobby’s ear, and one night on the Jamboree, he asked Owens’ permission to record it for MGM. “So we got through at Wheeling,” Bobby recalls. “And I’d got the okay from him to sing it, and it’s 50 miles from Wheeling to Cambridge, Ohio, so we got to singing it in the car, me and Sonny and Red Allen. And we were getting near Cambridge, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. We tried regular three-part harmony; tenor on top, lead in the middle, and baritone underneath. But it was a ballad, and that just wasn’t sounding good. And we stopped the car in Cambridge to get the guitar out of the trunk or something, and I just all of a sudden started singing the lead to it.” [Red Allen told this writer his version of the story when I was playing bass with him in the 1980s. He said that when Bobby starting singing the high lead, “I was layin’ in the backseat drunk, and I wasn’t going to sing that high tenor, so I just lifted my head and came in with the low part.” Bobby doesn’t dispute that, adding with a laugh, “Course, he was drunk all the time.”]

Accident or not, when Bobby’s lead soared over Sonny’s baritone and Red’s low tenor, they realized they’d split the bluegrass harmony atom. “We just sat there and stared at each other,” Bobby says. “We ain’t never heard anything like that. So we just sung that all the way to Dayton; just sat in the car and sung it over and over again, so we wouldn’t forget it. There wasn’t anybody singing like that. They were still doing the old Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe-type harmony.”

Back in Dayton, they kept their discovery a secret. “We didn’t sing that in front of anybody. We wanted to put that on record before anybody else.” Once they polished “Once More” to where they wanted it, the excited young musicians met with Wesley Rose in Nashville. “And we said, ‘Wesley, we got a new song. See if you like it.’ And we did ‘Once More’ with that high lead. He said, ‘Where’d you come up with that? You can’t do that. MGM will just not allow you to do that.’”

Rose argued that they shouldn’t change their successful formula. But like Bobby’s high-school teacher, Rose learned a determined Osborne is an immovable object. “So we went ’round and ’round, and he said, ‘If I let you do that, you’ll probably lose your recording contract. MGM’s got you signed to do bluegrass, and that ain’t bluegrass. It’s too slow. Can you speed it up?’” They refused, and then began the argument over putting snare drum and resonator guitar on the record. They won again. Bobby remembers Rose had a final warning: “‘You may not have a contract after this.’ So we said, ‘We’re just gonna take a chance.’ And back then, they had the Top 40 stations. And when ‘Once More’ came out, it went to #16. And we never heard nothing more from Wesley after that.”

The Osborne Sound

   “Once More” became one of 1958’s biggest country songs. More importantly for the Osborne Brothers, they’d found their signature sound, one that freed them from having a singer-guitarist fronting the band and becoming the de facto star. In many ways, Red Allen was the perfect frontman—prodigiously talented, charismatic, and very funny onstage. He was also an alcoholic plagued by wild mood swings, an erratic performer who could be incredible on the night’s first show and barely able to perform the second. When they parted ways soon after the success of “Once More,” Bobby took over as primary lead singer and, from then on, all they needed was a solid rhythm guitarist who could sing low tenor. They never gave co-billing to a singer-guitarist again. They had some great ones, notably Benny Birchfield, but from the day Red Allen left until the duo split in 2005, there was never any question that Bobby and Sonny were the stars.

As the ’60s dawned, the Osborne Brothers continued piling up new milestones, finding audiences both in mainstream country, as well as the booming folk music revival. In 1960, the Osbornes became the first bluegrass band to perform a college concert, playing Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 1963, they signed with Decca and, on Christmas Day 1967, they released “Rocky Top.” It only reached #33 on the charts, but it later became the Tennessee Volunteers fight song and an official Tennessee State Song. When “Rocky Top” was new, the Osbornes were the top band in bluegrass, touring with big country shows and directly competing with those stars, plugging in their instruments, using drums and electric bass (Ronnie Reno was bluegrass music’s first full-time electric bass player). Purists balked, but as their radical reimagining of bluegrass harmony had shown a decade earlier, the Osbornes liked changing the game.

In a way, their sophisticated harmonies and smooth arrangements worked against them as the ’60s ended. Their countrypolitan bluegrass lost favor among young revivalists who considered the rougher-edged Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Ralph Stanley to be more “authentic.” But the Osbornes remained mainstays of country package shows, bluegrass festivals, and concert nightclubs, venues worlds away from the shot-and-a-beer factory bars where they’d begun. Even hardcore traditionalists found no fault with their stunning harmonies and intricate arrangements. They were particular favorites among musicians. The more you knew about the inner workings of bluegrass music, the more you loved the Osborne Brothers.

Larry Stephenson, one of contemporary bluegrass music’s finest tenor singers, fell under their spell at an early age. “I was listening to bluegrass music before I discovered the Osborne Brothers, but there was a newness, a freshness to their music when I was just a kid back in the late ’60s, early ’70s. There was just something about those vocals that knocked me upside the head—that trio, figuring out all those chords, all those songs that they played, all those endings. It was just something so different. I was hooked.”

You can still hear their influence in Stephenson’s music as well as in The Grascals, a band that features former Osborne sidemen Terry Eldridge and Terry Smith. The Osbornes even influenced Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famers The Eagles, who covered their “Midnight Flyer.”

They briefly reunited in 2016, when Sonny made a surprise appearance at the Ryman Auditorium, guesting with Rhonda Vincent & The Rage and doing a couple songs, including one with Bobby, who was there as the Masters Of Bluegrass with Mac Wiseman and Jesse McReynolds. It was the Osbornes’ first performance in 11 years. But that was just a one-off and, nowadays, more young fans know the country music duo the Brothers Osborne than they do the Osborne Brothers.

Still, a revival of interest in Osborne Brothers music is heating up. Alison Krauss covered their “Windy City,” the title song of her 2017 roots country album, and bluegrass has been in a ’60s frame-of-mind with bands like Jerry Douglas’ Earls of Leicester. In the digital age, every Osborne-related recording is available—from their earliest work with Jimmy Martin, Sonny’s records with Bill Monroe and Bobby’s with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, their MGM and Decca sides, right up to their final Pinecastle Records recordings, a return to acoustic bluegrass, just before Sonny’s retirement. In June, “Rocky Top” received national attention, heard on NBC-TV as the Nashville Predators tied the Stanley Cup Series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yet, the strongest argument for an Osborne revival may be Bobby himself. He’s still out there, still playing the Opry, still doing festivals and concerts and, as he proves on Original, still making great records. Maybe that’s Bobby Osborne’s secret. He’s lived the entire history of bluegrass and made more than his share of that history, but however much he enjoys stories about the old days, he really comes alive talking about future plans and current projects (such as teaching mandolin at The Kentucky School of Bluegrass & Traditional Music at Hazard Community and Technical College).

That youthful optimism is one lesson we can all take from Bobby, even if we don’t play mandolin or sing high tenor. “I just keep going down the road, and everything I ever got into led me to something else better than what I was doing,” he says. “Pete Rowan asking me to record, that led me straight to Alison. And that’s happened to me all of my life.”

He’ll keep traveling that bluegrass road as long as he can, ready to see what’s next. For Bobby, music isn’t a job, it’s life itself. “Sonny wanted me to quit with him,” he remembers. “And I just told him, ‘I was put here to do what I’m doing. I’m here to sing, and I’m just not going to quit.’ I’m not going to ever quit singing. The man that’s gonna make me quit, I ain’t met him yet.”

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