Bobby Osborne, the singer and mandolin player who, along with his younger brother, Sonny, led one of the most groundbreaking bands in bluegrass history, died Tuesday in a hospital in Gallatin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville. He was 91 years old.
His death was confirmed by Dan Rogers, Vice President and Executive Producer of the Grand Ole Opry. Formed in 1953, the Osborne Brothers are perhaps best known for their 1967 recording of Rocky Top, as they made a habit of mocking bluegrass convention for their first two decades. . They were the first bluegrass group of national fame to incorporate drums, electric bass, pedal steel guitar and even, on records, string sections. They were also the first to record using twin banjos, as well as the first to amplify their instrument using electric pickups.
Employing a broader repertoire than the Appalachian wellspring from which most of their peers drew, Osbourne also worked with a more expansive musical palette, featuring country, pop, and rock music associated with the likes of Ernest Tubb, Randy Newman, and the Everly Brothers.
“We get a lot of havoc from die-hard bluegrass fans,” Mr. Osborne said of the group’s sometimes fraught relationship with bluegrass purists in a 2011 interview with online publication Mandolin Café.
Perhaps no bluegrass dogma bothered Osbourne more than the three-part vocal harmonies they patented on their 1958 recording of the love song “One More Time.”
At the time, bluegrass arrangements typically featured a single voice singing the melody, with a tenor and baritone providing the harmony above and below it. By contrast, Osbourne placed Bobby’s voice, singing the melody, on top of the other two. The result was a bright, cheery blend that became the group’s trademark.
Mr. Osbourne told NPR in 2017 that the group discovered this sound while rehearsing the song “One More Time” while they were returning home from a one-night show. “We knew then that we had discovered something we hadn’t heard before,” he said.
He continued, “So we took the guitar out of the trunk and found the key we were in.” “We sang that song all the way home so we wouldn’t forget that kind of harmony.”
The trio who have perfected this new approach consist of Mr. Osborne, who leads the gritty, high-pitched point of contact; his brother, Sonny, on baritone; and singer and guitarist Red Allen on another part underneath, adding a third layer of harmony.
Mr. Allen was a formative member during the group’s early years, having previously appeared on the Osbornes’ famous 1956 recording of “Ruby, Are You Mad?” Cynthia May Carver.
To some people’s surprise, Osbourne was vindicated over the next decade and a half for steadfastly breaking with tradition. Among other accomplishments, they were named Vocal Group of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1971. They were also one of the few bluegrass bands to consistently put out records on the country singles chart.
Along the way, they’ve built a bridge between first-generation bluegrass kings like Bill Monroe and duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and bold heirs like New Grass Revival and Alison Krauss.
Topping the charts of Osbourne’s 18 singles was “Rocky Top,” an unabashed celebration of mountain culture that reached the top 40 of the country. Written by the husband-and-wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who also wrote such songs as “Tennessee Hound” “Dog” for the Osbornes—and even bigger hits by the Everly Brothers—”Rocky Top” was adopted as one of the official state songs of Tennessee and as the fight song for the University football team. Tennessee Volunteers.
Robert Van Osborn Jr. was born on December 7, 1931, in Thousandsticks, an unincorporated area of Appalachia near Hayden, Kentucky, where he and his brother were raised. Their parents, Robert and Daisy (Dixon) Osborne, were teachers at the school. Robert Sr. supplemented their educational income by working overtime at his parents’ general store.
Young Bobby took up the electric guitar as a teenager after the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he also began playing in local bands and working as a taxi driver.
The Osborne brothers started their own band after Bobby completed two years of service with the Marines in Korea, where he was wounded in action and awarded a Purple Heart. He and Sonny had previously worked with bluegrass stars – Bobby with Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers, his brother with Bill Monroe.
In 1956, the Osbornes joined the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, Virginia, and four years later they became one of the first bluegrass bands to perform on college campuses, appearing at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Afterwards they took their music to college campuses and clubs in the Northeast and performed their music at the Newport Folk Festival.
In 1963 the brothers signed with the Nashville division of Decca Records, then managed by prominent music producer Owen Bradley. In 1964, they became cast members on the Grand Ole Opry.
The Osbornes recorded extensively for Decca (which later became MCA Records) before they parted ways with the label in 1974, disappointed that their initial success on country radio had not extended into the 1970s.
A return to a more time-respectful approach to bluegrass revitalized their career, which over the next thirty years found them cementing their place alongside such pioneers of the genre as Mr. Monroe and Stanley. They were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame in 1994.
Sonny Osbourne retired from performing in 2005, after suffering a shoulder injury, and passed away in 2021. Bobby, who had previously undergone quintuple heart surgery, formed a new group, Rocky Top X-Press, with his son, Bobby Jr. (known as Boj), And he continued to perform and record.
Besides Bobby Jr., Mr. Osborne is survived by his wife, Karen Osborne. two other sons, Wayne and Robbie; a daughter, Tina Osbourne; sister Louise Williams; Five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He lived in Portland, Tennessee, another suburb of Nashville.
Much of the innovation in production, arrangements, and repertoire that the Osbornes introduced to bluegrass has been achieved. Less has been said, however, of how Mr. Osborne, whose lyrical harmony playing was inspired by the jazz-derived solos of old fiddlers, forged a new path as a mandolinist.
Speaking to Bluegrass Situation in 2017, he explained: “Since I’ve always liked fiddle tunes and the mandolin is tuned like a violin—and I was good with a flat pick of the guitar—I’m pretty done with playing fiddle tunes with the mandolin.”
In the process, Mr. Osborne gained a reputation as one of the first bluegrass mandolinists to expand the instrument’s vocabulary beyond what Mr. Monroe, the father of Bluegrass, had established early on.
Alex Troup Contribute to the preparation of reports.
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