The Osborne Brothers - Biography
By J Poet
The Osborne Brothers were one of the first progressive bluegrass bands and caused a lot of controversy when they started using electric guitars and mandolins in the 60s. They weathered the storm, however, and brought a new generation of fans to the music, kids who grew up on rock and commercial country music. Their risks led to the Newgrass movement of the 70s, and helped keep bluegrass vital. During their long years on the road, several generations of great players passed through their ranks including singer and guitarist Red Allen, fiddlers Shawn Camp and Buddy Spicher, super guitar picker Jimmy Martin, and brothers Robby Osborne who played guitar, bass and drums and banjo picker Wynn Osborne. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor in 1994. Sonny retired in 2005 after surgery on his shoulder but builds and sells banjos with his Sonny Osborne Banjo Company. Bobby continued on with Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-press and records for Rounder Records.
The Osborne Brothers were born in the Kentucky during Depression, Bobby in 1931, Sonny in 1937. The family moved to Dayton, Ohio where the weekly broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry impressed them. They decided to become country music musicians.
Bobby picked up electric guitar and played honky tonk music, Sonny learned banjo and guitar and started playing licks off the records of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. Bobby joined a country band when he was 16, playing country and bluegrass covers, but by 1950 both brothers were in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, an early urban bluegrass band. After a year, Bobby and Sonny left the band taking along Jimmy Martin. As Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers they cut a few singles for King records before Bobby got drafted for the Korean War.
In 1952 Sonny, just 15, got a gig with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. He quit Monroe when Bobby came home from Korea; they started playing as The Osborne Brothers. With Bobby on mandolin and Sonny on banjo, they made a few singles as a duo for Gateway Records and got a radio show on WROL in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1954, they were back playing with Jimmy Martin and made some singles as Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, but they were not successful.
For the next few years, the brothers worked day jobs, playing in cover bands on the weekends. In 1956, they put together the first Osborne Brothers band with Red Allen on guitar and vocals. The Osborne Brothers & Red Allen (1980 Rounder) collects some of the obscure singles from the band’s early days. With Allen’s high tenor providing lead vocals, and the wailing harmonies of the Osbornes providing support, they sounded like no other bluegrass band. Their first single for MGM, “Ruby,” was a hit and led to a long-term record deal. In 1959 they started playing college concerts which brought in a younger crowd interested in folk and traditional music. Their albums included Country Pickin' and Hillside Singin’ (1959 MGM), which included their first hit “Ruby,” Bluegrass Music (1962 MGM), and Cuttin' Grass (1963 MGM.)
They were asked to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1964, but hungry to breakout of their traditional niche, they soon added electric mandolin, guitar, bass and sometimes a drummer to their lineup. They got some flack from purists, but picked up a younger, hipper crowd. They were the first bluegrass act to play Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe and signed with Decca, a country powerhouse in those days. Yesterday, Today & the Osborne Brothers (1968 Decca) included “Rocky Top” which became a country hit, and the state song of Tennessee in 1984. They also made Favorite Hymns by the Osborne Brothers (1969 Decca), Ru-beeeee (1970 Decca), which reprised their most famous MGM hit and included the chart topping "Tennessee Hound Dog," Country Roads (1971 Decca), named after their cover of the John Denver hit, Bobby & Sonny (1972 Decca), Fastest Grass Alive (1974 MCA), and Pickin' Grass and Singin' Country (1975 MCA.)
In 1971 they were CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year and in 1973 they were the first bluegrass group to perform at the White House, at the request of Richard Nixon. In 1974, they went back to a traditional acoustic sound and signed with CMH for I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me (1974 CMH), Number 1 (1976 CMH), The Essential Bluegrass Album (1979 CMH) and Bobby & His Mandolin (1981 CMH.)
The Osbornes stayed on the road until Sonny retired in 2005. Their releases include Some Things I Want to Sing About (1984 Sugar Hill),
Once More, Favorite Memories Vol. 1 (1986 Sugar Hill), Once More, Vol. 2 (1987 Sugar Hill), Singing, Shouting Praises (1988 Sugar Hill), When the Rose Bloom in Dixieland (1994 Pinecastle), The Ernest Tubb Song Folio (1995 Pinecastle) and Class of '96 (1996 Pinecastle.) Bobby is still on the road with Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-press and records for Rounder Records. He’s cut Try A Little Kindness (2006 Rounder, 2006) and Bluegrass Melodies (2007 Rounder.)
Far a career overview pick up The Osborne Brothers 1956-1968 (1995 Bear Family Germany), a four CD set of records from the MCA and Decca years, or The Osborne Brothers 1968-1974 (1995 Bear Family Germany), all their sides from Decca/MCA. The Best Of The Osborne Brothers (1990 MCA) is a concise single CD of their 1970s work for Decca.