Three words come to mind when I think of Bobby Osborne: preparation, innovation, and determination.
As a youth, Bobby Osborne prepared for his illustrious career in bluegrass and country music by carefully studying the nuances of the masters who came before him. Like many other musicians of his generation, Bobby had his musical passions ignited by the classic version of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts. (Seeing that classic band in person made such a vivid impression on Bobby, that he still can recall what each band member was wearing that night.) As anyone who has ever worked in his band can attest, Bobby can play on his mandolin any fiddle solo from any Flatt & Scruggs record or any Chubby Wise solo from Monroe’s Columbia recordings. He can also demonstrate the precise phrasings of Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe’s singing of that era.
Early on, Bobby realized that this knowledge could serve as a basic toolbox for his aspirations; he would still need to develop a singing style, a mandolin style, and a band sound of his own. He succeeded admirably. Bobby Osborne was the first mandolin player/tenor singer to create his own identity, separate from the Bill Monroe model of bluegrass and country music. Whereas Monroe’s mandolin playing was based on the fiddle stylings of 1920s and 1930s era figures such as his maternal uncle, Pen Vandiver, and Clayton McMichen, and on the blues musicians around his native Rosine, Kentucky, Bobby proceeded to invent a style influenced more by the fiddlers of the 1950s and 1960s.
By the 1950s, Bobby Osborne had evolved into a thoroughly modern mandolin player. He was the first mandolin player to master Howdy Forrester’s difficult fiddle tune arrangements. To this day, he can still play note-for-note every tune recorded on Forrester’s important first two fiddle albums.
Whenever you hear a bluegrass mandolin player today, you are likely listening to someone influenced by Bobby Osborne’s groundbreaking work. Flowing fiddle tunes, cascades of fiddle-oriented notes, chicken-picking guitar-influenced licks, a right-hand technique based on fiddle bowings no one else has even gotten close to, and above all, Bobby’s own ingenious innovations all melded into a style that fans the world over can now recognize as pure Bobby Osborne.
Flatt & Scruggs had just left Monroe’s band to embark on their historic partnership when Bobby Osborne was starting a career which would forever change the face of bluegrass and country music. At the time, bluegrass – still considered a part of country music – was still so brand new that it hadn’t even been named yet. The top country acts at the time each had a unique band sound: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys, and, of course, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.
In the late 1940s, Bobby Osborne and banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Their influence transformed the band from a Delmore Brothers sound into that of a pioneer bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of their own composition, Pain In My Heart. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby played mandolin with yet another seminal bluegrass band – the Stanley Brothers – singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. They worked up some arrangements of this vibrant sound, but before they were able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military. Sadly, no recordings of this trio are known to exist. We can only imagine how extraordinary that sound must have been!
Following his return from active duty on the Korean front, Bobby and younger brother Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin. Together, they created a sound that every successive version of Jimmy Martin’s band – and a host of other bands influenced by him – has done its best to emulate.
The Osborne Brothers’ most important innovations came in the mid 1950s. Until Bobby came along, everyone stuck fairly closely to the Monroe vocal model. In contrast, Bobby forged a distinctive approach for a tenor-ranged singer by singing lead throughout the song. When the chorus came around, Bobby would stay on his part, while brother Sonny sang baritone, and Red Allen – their guitar player at the time – would sing his line an octave below the part traditionally employed by a bluegrass tenor singer. In bluegrass parlance, these respective parts in the trio stack became referred to as the “high lead,” “baritone” (now the middle part), and “low tenor.” Utterly revolutionary at the time, this development remains one of the greatest vocal innovations in the history of bluegrass music.
The success of this new arrangement centered on the incredible range, power, and clarity of Bobby Osborne’s voice. He sang in remarkably high keys that suited the natural range of his voice. For the sake of the overall band sound, this writer has seen Bobby lower the key on a song down to where the others singing harmony under him could more comfortably reach their own parts.
Bobby could have pitched any of his songs in a key even higher than he chose for his performances and studio sessions. One famous incident comes to mind. One night on the Ralph Emery TV show, Bobby did a particularly rousing version of his classic “Ruby,” in his usual key of D. The studio audience went wild with applause! Emery, always a huge Osborne fan, said; “Bobby, you sound like you could sing ‘Ruby’ even higher. How high can you sing it?” Bobby replied: “I don’t really know. We did it for a long time in Eb.” Feeling his oats, Bobby turned to the band and said, “Let’s try F!” And there, they proceeded to do it, with Bobby squarely hitting the high C with no falsetto. If you don’t know that’s high, just try it at home! In most bluegrass bands, asking a tenor singer to sing as high as Bobby Osborne is like asking a basketball player to be as tall as Wilt Chamberlain. You’re either born with it, or you’re not. With such clarity of range and emotional presence, it is easy to overlook other essential elements in Bobby’s craft as a singer. His phrasing is typically sophisticated, yet emotionally direct, equaling that of a George Jones or a Merle Haggard. He intuitively knows how to time his delivery. He doesn’t flirt around the margins of the beat as a jazz singer might. He just hits you dead center – right in the gut – with a full stretched vowel and a bent note capped off with a turned up tag at the end of the line.
As a youngster, Bobby’s family migrated north from Hyden, Kentucky, to Dayton, Ohio, so that his father could work at the burgeoning National Cash Register factory. Like Bill Monroe — who also left Kentucky, to find work at the Sinclair Oil refineries in Northern Indiana — Bobby Osborne experienced both the traditional mountain way of life in Kentucky and the new industrial life of the urban North. This perspective gave Bobby insights into the mindset of a generation of displaced Southerners who had left their homes in the hills for the economic opportunities of life in the big city.
The Osborne Brothers ushered in the 1960s as the first modern-day bluegrass band. With Bobby soaring over top, the Osborne Brothers’ vocal trios and polished instrumental arrangements became the gold standard for all future country harmony acts. They were soon booked on all of 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.
After performing on various radio shows around the country for 25 years, Bobby’s determination paid off when his lifelong dream of becoming an official member of the Grand Ole Opry came true in 1964. By 1971, the Osbornes became the first bluegrass act to win the highly coveted Country Music Association award for Vocal Group of the Year. Many more awards and nominations would follow.
When bluegrass festivals came into vogue in the mid-1960s, the Osbornes became the “go-to” act for outdoor festival promoters. Anyone who came of age as a bluegrass musician from the 1960s onward no doubt vividly recalls the sound of Bobby Osborne’s voice ringing through the trees and up and down the hillsides all over the Midwest, the Northeast, and the South. Along with Ralph Stanley and the Country Gentlemen, the Osborne Brothers ruled the bluegrass festival scene in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Osborne Brothers and Lewis Family package tour set attendance records for bluegrass festivals and winter theater shows that stand to this day!
Bobby named his current band, The Rocky Top Express, in honor of the hit that launched him into the big time. One of the five biggest bluegrass hits of all time, and designated an official state song for Tennessee, “Rocky Top” remains required material in the repertoire of any amateur country and bluegrass band. Forty years after its initial chart success, “Rocky Top” remains a bluegrass classic and a true country standard.
For this project, we decided to record a collection of songs covering a musical timeline of the artist from his humble beginnings up to his present status as a bluegrass and country music legend. It reflects Bobby Osborne as a continuing major force in his field. Each note shows a depth of understanding that comes from a diligent study of his craft and a lifetime of performing on stages from one-room schoolhouses to the Grand Ole Opry, topped off by a command performance at The White House.
With countless awards lined up on his mantel, and financial security settling in after six decades of performing at the top of his game, Bobby Osborne is still out there playing for his loyal fans and making new ones wherever he goes.
Bobby Osborne is an American Legend still at the top of his game. He is an International Bluegrass Music Association Hall Of Fame member still producing some of the greatest music of his long-storied career. His is a voice that changed the course of bluegrass and country music. He is, above all, an artist who still lives by his creed of preparation, innovation, and determination.
Nashville, 2008 See more on Grammys.com