NASHWILL – Sonny Osborne, a banjo player and singer who, along with his older brother Bobby, led one of the most innovative and beloved bluegrass bands, died Sunday at his home in nearby Hendersonville, Tennessee. He was 83 years old.
His death after a series of strokes was confirmed by his friend and protege Lincoln Hensley.
Best known for their 1967 hit Rocky Top, the Osborne Brothers pioneered the style of three-part harmonious singing, in which Bobby Osborne sang tenor melodies above the other two voices of the trio, rather than between them, as was the case in bluegrass. Sonny Osbourne has sung the baritone harmony with various second tenors over the years, adding a third layer of harmony to complete the vibrant lyrical mix that has become the band’s trademark.
The Osbornes went further with the bluegrass convention, complementing Mr. Osborne’s energetic yet richly melodic banjo playing – and his brother’s jazz-inspired mandolin work – with string sections, drums, and pedal guitar. They were also the first bluegrass group to record with two banjos and, even more disturbing to bluegrass purists, they added electric pickups to their instruments, abandoning the long-standing practice of gathering around a single microphone.
Addressing the group’s critics in a 2000 interview with music magazine No Depression, Mr. Osborne recalled the treason charges that had been leveled against the group for “becoming electricity” – a censure reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s conviction for speaking out. with electric orchestra at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
“They thought, ‘Oh, they changed, they did this, they did that, they changed,’ well, we didn’t,” Mr. Osborne insisted. “We played the same way as usual. We just added it all around us. “
Despite – or perhaps because of – their unorthodox approach, the Osbornes became one of the few bluegrass bands of the 1950s and 60s to consistently place records on the country charts. In 1971, they were named Vocal Group of the Year by the Country Music Association, a rarity for a bluegrass ensemble.
The Osbournes’ repertoire was as vast as their sonic palette, including Randy Newman’s Old Kentucky Home and Midnight Flyer, a song written by Paul Kraft (who also wrote Bobby Baer’s 1976 hit Dropkick Me, Jesus. “) And popularized by the Eagles shortly after the Osbournes recorded it in the early 70s.
In 1968, they released Yesterday, Today & the Osborne Brothers, which linked the bluegrass past to its future, expanded its idiom vocabulary, and heralded fearless heirs such as Newgrass Revival and Alison Krauss & Union Station.
The first side of the original LP consisted of traditional dishes associated with the bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. The second side was full of material, arranged in a more modern way, including “Rocky Top”, a song written by the spouses Budlo and Felice Bryant (best known for their hits from the Everly Brothers).
“Rocky Top”, which entered the top 40 country hits thanks to the bright instrumental solos of both Osborne brothers, later became the official song of the State of Tennessee. Like Tennessee Hound Dog, another top 40 country hit written for the Osbournes by the Bryants, Rocky Top was a shameless song to the brothers’ mountain culture of childhood:
Rocky Top, you will always be
Home sweet home for me.
Good old Rocky Top
Rocky Top, Tennessee
Rocky Top, Tennessee.
Sonny Osborne was born on October 29, 1937, in the Thousandsticks, an Appalachian enclave near Hayden, Kentucky, where he and his brother grew up. Their parents, Robert and Daisy (Dixon) Osborne, were school teachers; their father supplemented the family income by working in his parents’ department store.
Mr. Osborne started playing the banjo at age 11 after the family moved to Dayton, Ohio. He and his brother formed their own band in 1953, while Sonny, still in high school, also played with Bill Monroe for a while. In 1954, the brothers made half a dozen recordings with the flamboyant bluegrass orchestra leader Jimmy Martin.
“We didn’t want to be farmers,” Mr. Osborne said in his No Depression interview. “Music was the only thing we wanted to do, that’s all.”
The Osbourne family joined the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1956 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Among their most famous recordings from this period were “Ruby, Are You Mad?” an old fashioned love song. Both were released by MGM Records in the late 1950s and attributed to the Osborne Brothers and Red Allen, who played tenor vocals and acoustic guitar in the band’s early incarnations.
The Osbornes became the first bluegrass band to perform on a college campus, appearing in 1960 at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, before spreading their Appalachian “folk” music to places in the northeast such as New York University and Club 47 in Boston.
In 1963, the Osbournes signed to the Nashville branch of Decca Records, which was then headed by famed producer Owen Bradley. A year later they joined the Grand Ole Opry. They also began to seriously oppose the bluegrass tradition by adding drums and kudos to their performances, among other things.
The Osbournes recorded extensively for Decca (which later became MCA) before leaving the label in 1974, disappointed that they had not achieved more than average success in country radio. A return to a more traditional approach rejuvenated their careers, securing the reputation of bluegrass elders for the next three decades alongside the likes of Flatt & Scruggs, Mr. Monroe and Stanley Brothers. They were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame in 1994.
Mr. Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder injury. However, he remained active in bluegrass circles, promoting his own banjo line and writing “Ask Sonny Anything,” a weekly column for Bluegrass Today filled with the same energy and wit he once displayed on stage.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Osborne is survived by his 63-year-old wife Judy Wachter Osborne; his sister Louise Williams; son Stephen; daughter Karen Davenport; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In 1965, Mr. Osborne began experimenting with a special tuning that gave his banjo a tone reminiscent of an electric instrument, sometimes even horns or steel guitar. What he discovered, fueled by his omnivorous taste in music, did not just shape his approach to banjo playing, which became broader; he also shaped the sonic direction the Osbournes will follow for the rest of the decade – and beyond.
“The sheet music itself is the result of constantly listening to any other music you can imagine,” explained Mr. Osborne in 2000. “Steel guitars and electric guitars, French horns, saxophone, trumpet, piano – if you listened to all this, if you were a big fan of the music that I listened to, you would hear a little bit of everything.
“The notes I played have everything, but when you put them on the banjo, it’s a completely different game.”