The Osborne Brothers
The Osborne Brothers
During the mid- to late-1960s, at a time when bluegrass purists insisted on traditional instruments and vocal arrangements, the Osborne Brothers were bucking the trend. Considered one of the first “progressive” bluegrass bands, the Osbornes have tried to broaden the appeal of bluegrass by adding country instruments and electrifying their guitars and mandolins. The results caused a furor, but since that time the pioneering efforts of Bob and Sonny Osborne have been acknowledged by a new generation of more tolerant—and more experimental—bluegrass musicians.
“The emergence of the band called the Osborne Brothers was to have an effect on bluegrass music that was as profound as the one Elvis [Presley] had on Nashville. And to some, almost as devastating,” wrote Bob Artis in Bluegrass. The Kentucky-born brothers were simply trying to find an audience, trying to reach beyond the small folk market in order to tap the more lucrative vein of country fans. Some of their recordings feature drums, piano, and steel guitar—instruments that are more often used in country music—and for two decades they have been regulars on the Grand Ole Opry, a radio and television program showcasing country acts. Nevertheless, Bob Osborne’s tenor vocals and the use of banjo, fiddle, and mandolin have assured the Brothers’ status as bluegrass musicians. Two of their biggest hits, “Ruby” and “Rocky Top,” rank among the most popular bluegrass singles ever released.
Both of the Osborne brothers were born in the Kentucky mountains during the Great Depression—Bob in 1931 and Sonny in 1937. Life was difficult for the Osborne family during the 1930s, and shortly after World War II they joined the great number of Appalachian Americans migrating to Midwestern manufacturing centers. Artis noted, “Just as the English and Scotch-Irish brought their culture and music to the New World, people like the Osbornes brought the music and culture of the mountains to the industrial North. The Blue Ridge and the Great Smokies were the initial breeding grounds of bluegrass, but the rolling hills and smoky cities of the central Midwest became the primary places of its growth and development in the 1950s.”
In the case of the Osborne family, the point of destination was Dayton, Ohio. There Bob and Sonny grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on far-off WSM Radio in Nashville. Bob became an Ernest Tubb fan and taught himself to play the electric guitar his father had bought for him. Later in the 1940s, Bob became fascinated by a new form of music, also popularized by the Grand Ole
For the Record…
Members include Bob Osborne (mandolin, tenor vocals; born December 7, 1931, in Hyden, KY); and Sonny Osborne (banjo, guitar, baritone vocals; born October 29, 1937, in Hyden). Other members have included Red Allen, Benny Birchfield, Johnny Dacus, Jimmy Martin, Ronnie Reno, and Dale Sledd.
Leaders of country/bluegrass band, 1953—. Prior to working as the Osborne Brothers, Bob sang and picked with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and with Jimmy Martin; Sonny played banjo with Martin and recorded with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Made radio debut as the Osborne Brothers on station WROL in Knoxville, TN, 1953; signed with Gateway label, 1953; moved to MGM Records, c 1956; signed with CMH label; charted hits include “Ruby,” 1956, “Rocky Top,” 1969, and “Georgia Pinewoods.”
Addresses: Manager —Geoff Berne, American Arts Productions, Inc., No. B-6, Wynbrook W., Hightstown, NJ 08520. Agent —Joe Taylor, Joe Taylor Artists Agency, 48 Music Sq. E., Nashville, TN 37203. Record company —CMH Records Inc., P.O. Box 39439, Los Angeles, CA 90039-0439.
Opry—bluegrass, then in its early stages. Both Bob and Sonny gravitated to the sounds of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs, imitating the early blue-grass masters in both singing and picking.
Bob Osborne was only 16 when he began playing in groups. By 1949 he had his own band, which already showed the dual influences of country and bluegrass. He made his radio debut on WPFB in Middletown, Ohio. The following year he began working with banjoist Larry Richardson at WHIS in Bluefield, West Virginia. Osborne and Richardson both joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers in 1950 and recorded several singles with the group on the Cozy label. In those days Bob Osborne played guitar and sang tenor vocals.
In 1951 Bob Osborne and another member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jimmy Martin, formed their own duo. They recorded a few numbers on the King label and travelled through the South performing live concerts in small venues. What might have been one of the best bluegrass duos in history was broken up by the Korean War. Bob Osborne was drafted and sent to serve in the war zone. He was wounded at Panmunjom when mortar fragments penetrated his helmet.
In the meantime Sonny Osborne had taken up the banjo and learned to pick in the Earl Scruggs style. In 1952, at the tender age of 14, he left Ohio for a stint with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, one of the biggest acts on the Grand Ole Opry. Sonny spent only a few months with Monroe, but the experience helped him to establish a more professional approach to the music business. By the time Bob returned from the service, his younger brother was ready to work full-time in music.
The Osborne Brothers were signed by Gateway Records in 1953. Their debut as a duo—with Bob now playing the mandolin and Sonny on banjo—came on radio station WROL in Knoxville, Tennessee, the same year. By 1954 they could be heard on WJR in Detroit. Jimmy Martin joined them there briefly, and the trio cut some singles for RCA. The future seemed secure for the fledgling group, but after a period of performing for the Jamboree on station WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, offers of work were scarce. The Osborne brothers returned to Dayton, where they worked as cab drivers and played music on weekends in southern Ohio bars and honky tonks.
The late 1950s were a difficult time for many country and bluegrass acts, as rock and roll moved into center stage. Only sheer determination and the willingness to experiment saved the Osbornes from a lifetime of cab driving in Dayton. In 1956 they tried again at WWVA, this time with sideman Red Allen. A freewheeling vocal tour de force called “Ruby” won them a contract with MGM Records. Subsequent songs incorporated drums and steel guitars, but they also provided bluegrass with a lasting innovation—the tenor lead. As Artis put it in Bluegrass, “The high voice sang the melody instead of the harmony, and the arrangement spotlighted the beautiful, incredibly high voice of Bob Osborne. The result was a… polished sound that literally rewrote the book on bluegrass singing.”
Bluegrass has the Osbornes to thank for yet another innovation. In 1959 the band played a live concert at Antioch College in Ohio. After a slow start with rock-and country-oriented songs, the brothers launched into an avalanche of more traditional bluegrass. The young crowd went wild, and a phenomenon was born. The Osbornes are acknowledged as the first bluegrass band to bring that musical form to a college audience. Festivals devoted solely to bluegrass music were only a small step away.
As the 1960s progressed, the Osborne Brothers found a mainstream country audience and toured widely. They became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry and even became the first bluegrass act to perform at Harrah’s club in Lake Tahoe. Throughout the period, the two brothers were trying for a major country hit, so they made free use of country instruments and stylings. This alienated the growing cadre of bluegrass fans— and even some former Osborne Brothers sidemen— but it did allow them to place such songs as “Rocky Top” and “Georgia Pinewoods” on the country charts.
Many of the best-known bluegrass songs are instrumentais. If the genre has an anthem, however, it is “Rocky Top,” the Osbornes’ rowdy hymn to an independent, clean, and wild life in the mountains. Few bluegrass bands have overlooked “Rocky Top” since the Osbornes first recorded it in 1969, and many of the more recent versions of the song sound far more traditional than its debut.
When the duo decided to electrify their bluegrass instruments in the late 1960s, many purists completely renounced them. But the enhanced sound actually allowed the brothers to move back toward more traditional bluegrass, which they have played ever since. Their experiments with electrification—done simply to compete with louder country bands—encouraged younger performers who wanted to fuse bluegrass with jazz and rock.
In Bluegrass, Artis concluded that the Osborne Brothers “have been providing bluegrass with a much-needed thrust for… years, bringing about changes that even the most fanatic loyalist must see as necessary in the evolution of a music style that was founded on change…. If bluegrass music is alive and well… it is due in no small part to the two courageous young men from Hyden, Kentucky.”
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“Walking Cane,” Gateway.
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Bobby and His Mandolin, CMH.
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(With Mac Wiseman) The Essential Bluegrass, CMH.
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From Rocky Top to Muddy Bottom, CMH.
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Pickin’ Grass and Singin’ Country, MCA.
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Up This Hill and Down, Decca.
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—Anne Janette Johnson
"The Osborne Brothers." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/osborne-brothers
"The Osborne Brothers." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/osborne-brothers
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