Bobby Osborne passed away on Tuesday at a hospital in Gallatin, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville. He was a vocalist and mandolin player who, together with his younger brother Sonny, headed one of the most innovative ensembles in bluegrass history. He was 91.
Grand Ole Opry vice president and executive producer Dan Rogers acknowledged his passing. The Osborne Brothers, a bluegrass band formed in 1953 and arguably best remembered for their 1967 rendition of “Rocky Top,” often defied the genre’s norms during the 1960s and 1970s. They pioneered using drums, electric bass, pedal steel guitar, and string sections in bluegrass recordings and became a household name. They also amplified their instruments with electronic pickups for the first time and recorded with two banjos.
According to his official website, in 1967, Osborne and his brother Sonny formed the musical duo known as “The Osborne Brothers,” their rendition of “Rocky Top” was adopted as the official state song of Tennessee. Osborne was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry.
Osborne was one of the most influential and innovative figures in bluegrass; he fused the traditional music genre with rock & roll, pop, and country elements at a time when such influences were frowned upon.
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Bobby Osborne Biography
Bobby Osborne was born in eastern Kentucky to a teacher and grocer during the Great Depression. After the typical early-1940s migration to the region’s industrial centers, the family eventually settled in Dayton, Ohio.
At a local tavern, he started performing with people who shared his interests. In 1949, Bobby was discovered by a local talent scout and taken to WPFB in Middletown, where he made quite a splash with his debut radio show. Larry Richardson, a promising young banjo player from Galax, Virginia, relocated to Middletown and played alongside Bobby in several bands before eventually joining the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers.
Bobby Osborne Career
Osborne and his brother Jimmy Martin formed a new group in 1950 called Jimmy Martin, Bob Osborne & the Sunny Mountain Boys, which was a mouthful. Before moving on to WJR in Detroit and CKLW in neighboring Windsor, Ontario, they were heard on WPFB in Middletown. “20-20 Vision” and five more blazing bluegrass standards resulted from a recording deal with RCA Victor.
Besides being a full-time musician, Osborne worked as a session picker for groups like the Miami Valley Playboys and the Silver Saddle Boys. A few weeks before being recruited into the Marines, he played with the Stanley Brothers.
The brothers’ new band began playing on The Wheeling Jamboree that year (1956). The band played on this West Virginia radio show for four years.
Red Allen had left the scene by 1958. The group, now known as the Osborne Brothers, revolved around Bob’s singing.
The brothers signed with Owen Bradley, a legendary music producer and Decca Records’ Nashville branch head 1963. The group joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1964.
After releasing several albums on Decca (later rebranded as MCA Records), the Osbornes eventually severed ways with the company in 1974, disappointed that their early success on country radio had not translated into the next decade.
As the turn of 2000 approached, the Osborne Brothers’ success showed no signs of slowing down. As bluegrass gained popularity worldwide, the Osbornes embarked on several trips abroad. Tennessee adopted “Rocky Top” as its state song in 1982. The Osbornes received a similar accolade from the state of Kentucky, where they were born, for their arrangement of “Kentucky ” in 1992.
Sonny Osborne’s rotator cuff surgery in 2005 ended the brothers’ musical connection after 50 years on the road together since he could no longer play the banjo. The Rocky Top X-Press was Bobby’s next endeavor after he left his band.
Bobby Osborne Family
Mr. Osborne is survived by his wife, Karen Osborne; two other sons, Wynn and Robby; daughter, Tina Osborne; sister, Louise Williams; five granddaughters, and six great-grandchildren, in addition to his son, Bobby Jr. Portland, Tennessee, was another of Nashville’s suburbs where he made his home.
Mr. Osborne is often credited as one of the first players to add to the bluegrass mandolin’s lexicon beyond what the “father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, had already developed.