Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.
Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?
The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.
Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”
In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.
During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.
In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.
Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.
The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.
The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.
The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.
Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .
The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.
The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.
Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.
Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.
Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.
There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .
The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.
ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.
ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.
Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.