Professional musicians for more than forty years, they have influenced more people than anyone save Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs. Prior to the Osborne Brothers appearance on the music scene, the vocal duets, trios and quartets of Bluegrass and Country Music, always had a bit of a rough edge. Although they have demonstrated innovation on their individual instruments and established themselves as super pickers, the Osborne Brothers’ search for, and finding of, the most perfect blend of voices earned them a great deal of the recognition that they enjoy today. Bob’s beautiful, naturally high voice has provided the mainstay of their performances, with their harmony built around his vocals. Sonny owns the perfect baritone voice, singing almost as high as Bob, and many singers have added the third part through the years. Listen closely to groups like the Country Gentlemen, J. D. Crowe & the New South, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the Seldom Scene, the Lonesome River Band, or the Larry Stephenson Band and you easily recognize the influence of the Osborne Brothers.
The Great Depression of the 1930s caused many people to seek work in areas far from where they were born and raised in order to provide a living for their families. Robert Osborne worked on a farm, in his brother’s grocery business, and, like his wife Daisy, as a school teacher when they lived near Hyden, Kentucky, where their three children, Bobby, Louise, and Sonny were born. They moved to Radford, Virginia, then to Dayton, Ohio, where Robert found permanent employment in the National Cash Register plant. Mr. Osborne was a fan of music, specifically Jimmy Rodgers, and he played banjo, guitar and fiddle at local dances.
Bob Osborne was born December 7,1931, and started learning guitar at a very young age, with his father teaching him the chords and how to play rhythm. Ernest Tubb, whom he tried very hard to copy, provided his first major musical influence. He received a D-28 Martin guitar for Christmas in 1947, and the first band he joined was called The Miami Valley Playboys. Bob later played electric guitar in his own group, still singing in the Ernest Tubb style. He played an audition on June 3, 1949, in a tent at WPFB radio, Middletown, Ohio, singing a Bill Monroe song, “Summertime is Past and Gone,” and he also performed “Ruby,” a song he had heard on the radio and juke boxes by Cousin Emmy, a very popular female singer at that time. Bob had learned the words to “Ruby” from his father.
Bob had heard Bill Monroe many times on the radio, but he always thought that Bill played the fiddle, until he saw the Blue Grass Boys in person. He remembers very well seeing the classic version of the Blue Grass Boys that included Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts, and credits this experience for his first interest in Bluegrass Music. Bob’s voice was moving into a higher range, and when he met banjo player Larry Richardson at WPFB, they combined into a duet and a song writing team, and had a radio show on that station for a short time. When they left WPFB, they tried several other radio stations, but were not able to find employment until they arrived at WBRW, Welch, West Virginia. The group called The Silver Saddle Boys included Bob on guitar, Larry, banjo, Eddie King, fiddle, and Buck Duncan, tenor guitar. Bob and Larry left WBRW on October 23, 1949, and joined The Parker Family on WHIS, Bluefield, West Virginia, but stayed only three weeks with that group.
The Lonesome Pine fiddlers also performed on WHIS, and their sound at that time was related to The Delmore Brothers. When Bob and Larry joined the fiddlers on November 11, 1949, Ezra Cline played bass, and led the band, with Ray Morgan on fiddle. The younger pair converted the band into the newer Bluegrass style. They recorded four songs written by Bob and Larry on March 4, 1950 for Cozy Records, including the now standard song, “Pain in my Heart.” Bob and Larry left the Fiddlers after one year, and joined with Curley Ray Cline, but this group was unable to find work, and they returned to the Fiddlers in January, 1951.
When Jimmy Martin was with Bill Monroe, the Blue Grass Boys appeared in Bluefield, and Bob and Jimmy jammed back stage. When Larry Richardson left the Lonesome Pine fiddlers in June, 1951, he was replaced by Charlie Cline on banjo. Jimmy Martin became the guitar player, and Bob switched to the mandolin, playing a Gibson Model “A.” They left after a short time and formed their own group: Jimmy Martin, Bob Osborne and the Sunny Mountain Boys, recording four songs for King Records in August, 1951, with Curley Ray Cline, fiddle, and Charlie Cline, banjo. Bob joined the Stanley Brothers playing mandolin for three weeks, just prior to being drafted into the Marine Corps on November 27, 1951. He served in Korea where he received head wounds from fragments of a mortar shell and was discharged on August 8, 1953.
Sonny Osborne was born October 29, 1937. His path to music would prove a bit different from that Bob had taken. When he was about twelve years old, he visited with Bob and Richardson when they were with the Lonesome Pine fiddlers, and he liked the sound of the banjo, He listened to the playing of Earl Scruggs, and told his father that he could play a tune on the banjo, even though he had never attempted to play the instrument. Mr. Osborne was skeptical, but he obtained a banjo, and Sonny quickly proved that he could play that tune. The majority of people who attempt to learn to play an instrument spend many hours of constant repetition to reach a certain level of proficiency. Sonny, on the other hand, must first get the tune firmly fixed in his mind and know exactly what he wants to accomplish; the end result is the wonderful instrumental work we have enjoyed for many years.
The Osborne Brothers first recorded together when Bob and Jimmy Martin went to Dayton, Ohio, to join with sister Louise and Sonny in July, 1951. They recorded four songs for Kitty Records, with one record label reading: “Lou Osborne and the Stoney Mountain Boys,” with the song, “New Freedom Bell,” written by Lou Osborne and Ott Ginter, vocals by Lou and Bob Osborne. Jimmy and Bob, you see, still belonged to the Lonesome Pine fiddlers at the time of these recordings.
When Jimmy Martin returned to Bill Monroe in 1952, Sonny Osborne went with him, joining Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys at the tender age of fourteen. He had only been playing banjo for about seven months. Sonny recorded with Bill on July 18, 1952, 2 sessions, 7 songs, and on July 26, 1952, 2 songs. Given no advance notice of the recording sessions, the teenager had to learn the songs in the studio. When Sonny returned to Dayton to go to school at the end of summer, he teamed with Enos Johnson and Carlos Brock to record some covers, songs previously made popular on recordings by Flatt and Scruggs and other well known artists.
Sonny played again with Bill Monroe in the summer of 1953, but returned home to Dayton when Bob was discharged from service. They recorded more covers for Gateway Records, using the name Sonny Osborne and the Sunny Mountain Boys. Enos Johnson can be heard on the song, “I’m on My Way (Back to the Old Home)” at the end of the third verse and chorus saying, “Sonny Osborne,” in the manner used by radio performers, to identify the person who was taking the next instrumental break. Gateway Records released much of this material on albums entitled The Early Recordings of Sonny Osborne: Volume 1, 2 and 3 in 1976 and 1979.
When Bob and Sonny teamed with their old friend to become Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, they could not have realized the impact their music would have on future Bluegrass musicians. The combination of their talents made for some great recordings such as: “20-20 Vision” and “If I Could Count on You,” for RCA. This group only stayed together for a short time, and then the Osbornes played with Charlie Bailey at WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia. Old Homestead released an album in 1975 (OCHS 102) called Everlasting Joy: Early Bluegrass Gospel credited to Charlie Bailey and the Happy Valley Boys with the Osborne Brothers.
The progress that Bob and Sonny had made with their music was evident, but they were a long way from where they wanted to be: members of the Grand Ole Opry. They returned once again to Dayton and worked in the bars and dives, for these were the only places to play. Band personnel was sometimes interchangeable with other groups, and several people played with them during this period. The places they played were quite rowdy, and the audiences often showed more interest in drinking and talking than in the music. There were some advantages to the situationthe experience they gained and the friends they made.
It was not unusual for musicians to play in a bar, then meet in the wee small hours of the morning, sometimes out in the middle of the street, to play and sing. In this way Bob and Sonny met Harley “Red” Alien, who would have a dynamic effect on the Osborne’s music. They became regular members of “WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree” with their close harmony trios with Red bringing the house down.
One night while driving from Wheeling to Dayton, they attempted to sing the song “Once More.” When they got the song into a key high enough for Bobby to sing the verses, however, it proved too high for anyone to sing lead when he would go to the tenor part. Through a process of elimination, they realized that Red and Sonny could sing vocal parts under Bob’s lead, and the high lead trio, Osborne Brothers style, was born. The vocal parts were Bob, high lead. Sonny, baritone and Red, Low tenor. Check the Osborne’s recordings, and you will find many great examples of how the high lead trio has served them well through the years. Sonny has often related how he associated the high lead with the steel guitar.
The Osbornes signed with MGM Records and had much success with their recording of “Ruby” that featured twin banjos and a long harmony ending that became a trademark for the Osbornes. Red Alien appeared on the Osborne’s first album, Country Pickin’ and Hillside Singing (MGM E3734), then left in 1958 and was replaced by Johnny Dacus. Many guitarists and vocalists have helped Bob and Sonny to continue their sound through the years, including: Jimmy Brown, Gordon Cash, Harley Gabbard, Ronnie Reno, Dale Sledd, Bob’s son Robbie Osborne, Earl Ray Brewster, and Terry Eldridge. All of these have done their job extremely well, but it was Benny Birchfield, now married to Grand Ole Opry Star Jean Shepard and playing in her Second Fiddle band, who had the skills to catch the third part in the trios the quickest. When Bob and Sonny were preparing to record their double album, Bluegrass Collection (CMH 9008), in 1978, they asked Benny to sing and play guitar. The resulting covers were a far cry from the early days since they had the freedom to rearrange each song to fit the style they had developed. This produced some fine Bluegrass Music.
The many years that Bob and Sonny spent honing their natural talents received a just reward when they became regular members of the Grand Ole Opry on August 8, 1964. No further bluegrass artists would receive this honor until Alison Krauss on July 2, 1993. The Osborne Brothers added various instruments to their recordings, such as steel and electric guitars, and drums. They even recorded with a Symphony Orchestra for their Bluegrass Concerto album (CMH 6231). These additions generated much controversy in the Bluegrass ranks, but the Osborne Brothers wanted to increase the airplay of their records, resulting in more sales and more exposure for Bluegrass.
When the Osbornes began carrying a totally amplified band in the late sixties and early seventies, the controversy raged even higher, but through it all, the Osbornes have always maintained the mandolin, banjo, and their fantastic singing. They found it necessary to amplify all instruments in order to be heard on the Grand Ole Opry package shows following very loud country groups. When Bob and Sonny were being interviewed on the “Back Stage at the Opry” program on the Nashville Network, they were asked about their use of electric instruments. Bob replied, “Well, it worked for us, and our fans seemed to accept what we done pretty well.”
The songs that the Osbornes have recorded for MGM, Decca, (now MCA), CMH, and Sugar Hill Records have all achieved some popularity, but one song for which they will be long remembered is “Rocky Top,” written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The single record of this song, released on Christmas Day, 1969, sold 84,000 copies in three weeks. The song was also released on their Decca (DL 4993) album Yesterday, Today And The Osborne Brothers.
The Tennessee State Legislature adopted “Rocky Top” as their “State Song” in February, 1972 by a vote of 97-0. Many other artists have recorded “Rocky Top,” but none have ever equaled the original by the Osborne Brothers. They first recorded the song “Kentucky” for their Decca (DL 4602) LP, Voices in Bluegrass, and this was voted a state song for the Blue Grass State on March 18, 1992. It was written in 1942 by Karl Davis of the Karl and Harty team, members of the early Renfro Valley Barn Dance. The Osborne Brothers are very likely the only musicians involved in any style of music who have had two different recordings selected as state songs.
The Osborne Brothers were the first Bluegrass band to perform in the East Room of the White House, appearing there in 1973. They played the first major bluegrass campus concert on March 5,1960 at Ohio’s Antioch College, and were also the first Bluegrass Band to play at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. They have also proven themselves very good business men, not only by their years as successful musicians, but by their venture into other areas of the Business. They have their own booking agency. Allied Entertainers, as well as their Rocky Top and Lizzie Lou publishing companies.
The honors that the Osborne Brothers have received number many, such as CMA Vocal Group of the Year, for which they were nominated seven consecutive years, members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, and induction into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1986. This long list will continue to grow, each honor earned by many long hours, days and years of dedication to entertaining their fans.