Forgotten Artists: The Osborne Brothers

Paul W. Dennis | October 12th, 2010

fa_osborne-brothers

Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers), it has been many years since country and bluegrass music split off in different directions. Up until the end of the 1950s you could hear bluegrass played by country radio stations, and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore and Hylo Brown straddled the two genres. Artists such as 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.

Even 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 aren’t bluegrass either.

The last bluegrass act to regularly get 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 both 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. Around 1948, 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 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 1952.

About this time, Sonny took a job playing banjo for Bill Monroe, which lasted until Bobby’s two year tour with Uncle Sam was completed. During this time, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kitty, Kentucky and Gateway.

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 Jamoboree 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, which drifted away from the high nasal twang of Bill Monroe and most other bluegrass groups. 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 engaging in much experimentation. Previously the band had experimented with trio vocal harmonies, with Bobby taking an impossibly high, over-the-top tenor that few could imitate. With Decca, the instrumental mix became fair game. 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 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. 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 Ol Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

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. The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was in early 1980. 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.

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 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 78 years of age, Bobby has cut back on his touring.

Discography

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, almost none 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.

After 1975 the Osborne Brothers issued 10 albums for CMH (including two wonderful albums 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. These were all issued on CD.

CD

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’re overkill.

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 the five solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued since Sonny’s retirement. I have several of them. They are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Also, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys.

  1. Ollie
    October 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    I enjoyed this article very much and always look forward to reading pieces in this series.

    However, I disagree with the assertions that “it has been many years since country and bluegrass music split off in different directions” and that “[b]y the end of the 1960s… bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio.” I consider Alison Krauss’s work with Union Station to be “country music” (as well as bluegrass music) and “since the 1960s” I have often heard AKUS on country radio stations. Wihin the last year, I’ve also heard bluegrass songs by Dierks Bentley on the radio. Perhaps more significantly, I don’t consider country radio station programmers to be the sole arbiters of what is, or is not, “country music.” The soundtrack from “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” was certified eight times platinum as of October 2007 with sales of 7,421,000 copies in the United States up through November 2008. Bluegrass music is now, and IMHO, always will be, one branch of “country music.”

  2. Paul W Dennis
    October 12, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    And how often did you local country station play anything from the OH BROTHER soundtrack ? I heard “Man of Constant Sorrow” two or three times and nothing beyond that. The country stations here in Central Florida played the Alison Krauss/ Marty Raybon duet and her cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All” but other than that zippo

    I agree that bluegrass is country music, but so is Roy Acuff and you don’t hear his form of acouustic stringband music on the radio either

  3. Ollie
    October 12, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Paul– I must not have been clear. I agree that bluegrass music in general, and the OBWAT soundtrack in particular, have not frequently been played on top 40 country music radio stations. (Although Oh Brother was very widely played on AAA stations, including the public radio station I listen to in NYC– WFUV. NYC doesn’t have a commercial country music radio station.) My point is that I don’t believe that radio play is the sole arbiter of what music is or is not legitimately classified as “country music” and that I disagree with your view that “country” and “bluegrass” have “split off into different directions.”

    It wouldn’t make sense to say that documentary films and fictional films have “split off into different directions” even though documentary films are screened much less often at movie theatres than fictional films– they’re both just different types of movies that both fall under the broader catagory of “film.” Similarly, bluegrass and pop-country are different types of country music that both fall under the broader catagory of “country music.”

  4. Jon
    October 12, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Ollie’s quite right; if, as Paul admits, “bluegrass is country music,” then saying that bluegrass and country music “split off in different directions” is either illogical and self-contradictory or requires elaboration that’s never served up here. And it’s always ironic when people who complain about mainstream country radio nevertheless act as though its playlists define what country music is.

    Beyond that, it’s worth noting that this piece is riddled with inaccuracies, dubious judgments presented as if they were settled facts and outright errors. That the Osborne Brothers’ music is well worth exploring is the important take away, but everything else should be taken with a grain or three of salt.

    Most important: while the E.T. Record Shop may charge $100 apiece for the two Bear Family boxed sets, they can be had from County Sales (http://www.countysales.com) at $85 apiece, along with lots of other Osborne Brothers albums at competitive prices. I’ve got them both, and I’d say that the first one (1956-1968) is well worth consideration by anyone with a reasonably serious interest in country music of the 1950s and, especially, the 1960s. And though Paul has virtually nothing to say about the music, it is actually built on some of the most brilliant singing in the history of country, and a strong influence not only on bluegrass artists ranging from Doyle Lawson to the Grascals to Alison Krauss to Claire Lynch to Dailey & Vincent, but on country acts like VInce Gill and Diamond Rio (whose members include an Osborne Brothers nephew), too.

    By the way, of the three streaming cuts, though “Rocky Top” may be the best-known and most important career-wise, the other two – “Once More” and “Roll Muddy River” are considerably more representative of the Brothers’ music. Pay particular attention to “Once More”; it’s a monster.

  5. Paul W Dennis
    October 12, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    “… it’s worth noting that this piece is riddled with inaccuracies, dubious judgments presented as if they were settled facts and outright errors. That the Osborne Brothers’ music is well worth exploring is the important take away, but everything else should be taken with a grain or three of salt.”

    Jon – please enumerate, if indeed you can

  6. Jon
    October 13, 2010 at 8:56 am

    I don’t have the time to enumerate them all, Paul, but I’ll give a few for starters.

    ” Around 1948, [Bobby] and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers.”

    That happened in the fall of 1949.

    “In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers.”

    Incorrect.

    “Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined the Stanley Brothers…”

    Literally true but inaccurate, as it fails to mention that following their departure from the LPF, Bobby and Jimmy formed their own band (the first to use the name Sunny Mountain Boys, btw) and recorded for King; *then*, after that broke up, Bobby joined the Stanleys – for three weeks.

    “Bobby was drafted into the military in 1952.”

    Bobby entered the Marines in November, 1951.

    “About this time, Sonny took a job playing banjo for Bill Monroe, which lasted until Bobby’s two year tour with Uncle Sam was completed.”

    Incorrect. Sonny played two separate stints with BIll, in the summers of 1952 and 1953.

    “During this time, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kitty, Kentucky and Gateway.”

    Kitty doesn’t belong on that list; Bobby and Sonny made a couple of recordings released on Kitty back in the late 40s.

    And so on, right down to the end:

    “ET also has available the five solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued since Sonny’s retirement.”

    Bobby’s released three albums, all on Rounder, since Sonny retired. The two previous solo albums were issued on Hugh Moore’s OMS label were both released well before that.

    “They are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired.”

    That would qualify as a dubious judgment presented as if it were an established fact.

    “Also, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years…”

    See above.

    “… and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys.”

    Sometimes true, often not. For instance, when he re-recorded “Bluegrass Melodies” as the title track to a 2007 Rounder release, he cut it in the same key as the original.

    Oh, and only two of the albums the Brothers cut for Sugar Hill (Once More, volumes 1 and 2) are available on CD; Some Things I Want To Sing About and the gospel album have yet to be reissued.

    I could go back and fill in – there’s lots more, believe me – but I think I’ve made my point. The real pity is that most of these errors arise in passages which were unnecessary in the first place and serve only to take up space that could have been better used in explaining what it was that made the Brothers’ music so important.

  7. Lewis
    October 13, 2010 at 10:49 am

    The Osborne Brothers were pioneers as they were the first bluegrass group to include not only drums but electric instruments like guitar, bass and banjo into bluegrass music. Matter of fact, I believe that Sonny played an electric banjo for a time.

    I have some of their albums and liked how they used bluegrass instruments to liven up current hits by other artists which they covered on their albums especially those from the mid 1960′s to mid 1970′s. The CMH albums are very excellent albums where the Osborne Brothers went back to traditional bluegrass with occasionally mixing it up like they did when they were with Decca/MCA.

  8. Paul W Dennis
    October 15, 2010 at 9:12 am

    It should be noted that obtaining accurate historical data can be difficult, particularly for older artists. The information about Bobby being drafted came from Bobby’s own website ! Also I can cite references for each fact (or factoid) cited, some of which came from the Osborne websites. There is considerable conflicting information on many artists, including the Osborne Brothers

    For chart information I rely on two main sources -Joel Whitburn’s Top Country Songs 1944-1997 (I have newer versions but I’ve annoted this particular volume with some Cashbox and Record World information as far as #1 records is concerned) and The Cash Box Country Singles Charts, 1958-1982 by George Albert and Frank Hoffman

    In Jon’s comment above, he notes that he has the two Bear Family boxed sets. The booklets that come with them are very accurate, perhaps even definitive, as far as biographical data and dates are concerned – the late Otto Kitsinger and his successors have done a fine job of compiling data. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to that particular source.

    I will stand behind my comment that “… and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys.”

    Apparently Jon overlooked the word “some”

    Anyway,listen to the streaming audio and decide for yourself. “Once More” was the biggest hit and one of their finest efforts, but “Rocky Top” is their best remembered song. They deserve to be remembered outside of the bluegrass circles where they are legends

  9. Paul W Dennis
    October 15, 2010 at 9:28 am

    In putting together the dscography I overlook one very interesting item, a live album issued on RCA in 1982. 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 and Leon RHodes (electric lead) and Hal Rugg (steel) augment the band.

    AS far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called BLUEGRASS BANJO PICKERS which I think has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

  10. Jon
    October 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

    t should be noted that obtaining accurate historical data can be difficult, particularly for older artists.

    Oh, well, if it’s difficult, I suppose that’s a good excuse for not bothering to do it. As I pointed out, what’s so unfortunate about these many errors and misstatements is that they come in passages that were unnecessary in the first place; for instance, knowing when Bobby Osborne went into the Marines isn’t of any particular value to understanding their music, so wouldn’t it have been better to leave the year out rather than give the wrong one? Wouldn’t it have been better to just say that Sonny had played with Bill Monroe as a teenager rather than misstate how long he did so? Etc., etc., etc.

    Of course it can be difficult to dig up accurate information; if it were easy, anyone could do it. But the best ways of dealing with the difficulty are either to do the hard work or find ways to write around the information that’s too difficult for you to dig up. Presenting wrong stuff as though it were right comes in a distant third, especially when it’s used to fill up space that could be devoted to explaining what it was that made the Osborne Brothers’ music so powerful and so influential in the first place.

  11. Jackson
    December 18, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I’m actually really impressed with the amount of knowledge that Jon knows on the subject!

    In Bobby’s defense, he is 79! If he wants to do songs in lower keys, I’d say let him! He’s certainly earned it!

    I looked at Bobby’s website, and while it mention’s being in Korea on active duty, it doesn’t specify an exact date.

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