Near the end of a concert Tuesday night at the Ryman Auditorium, Bobby Osborne, lead tenor and mandolin player for The Osborne Brothers, paused to introduce his band members. He went on to say how much he and his brother, banjo player and harmony singer Sonny Osborne, enjoyed playing in the venerable hall.
“To us, it’s like coming back to the house again,” Bobby said in his Kentucky-bred country accent.
The Osbornes’ legacy is tied closely to the Opry and the Ryman (which presents bluegrass music every Tuesday night during the summer, through Aug. 15). The brothers have been Opry mainstays since 1964. They joined the cast soon after landing a recording contract with Decca Records. They went on to expand their sound by adding steel guitars and drums, helping their records get played on country radio.
At 3 p.m. CT on Saturday (July 22), the Osbornes will perform as part of a two-day OpryFest Bluegrass Jamboree, a celebration of bluegrass music and its role in the Opry’s history. The event takes place Saturday and Sunday on the Opry Plaza adjacent to the Grand Ole Opry House on Briley Parkway in Nashville. Acts will be featured on two stages.
“Since the early days the Opry has served as a springboard for bluegrass music,” says Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. “It gave artists like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Osborne Brothers and many others a venue to play their music and reach the masses live or by the WSM clear-channel radio airwaves.”
Among those also scheduled to appear Saturday are Mountain Heart, the John Hartford String Band, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, the Tim O’Brien Band, Ralph Stanley and J.D. Crowe & the New South.
Sunday’s lineup includes the Lonesome River Band, Claire Lynch & The Front Porch String Band, Seldom Scene, IIIrd Tyme Out and the Del McCoury Band.
Where once they pushed the boundaries of bluegrass convention, the Osbornes now work in a style harking back to their early days. Like the McCoury band, The Osbornes have returned to an earlier performing tradition, working around a single mic. The practice requires some nifty choreography as first one, then another player moves in to sing or take an instrumental solo.
At the Ryman, they had their moves down pat. Bobby took most of the vocal leads. On the group’s trademark three-part-harmony choruses he moved to the side to make room for Sonny and upright bassist Terry Smith. Anticipating instrumental breaks, the Osbornes adjusted to accommodate resophonic guitarist Gene Wooten and young fiddler Shad Cobb. Rhythm guitarist Dana Cupp mostly worked behind the others.
On disc, The Osborne Brothers also are revisiting their past, undertaking a four-volume retrospective of their career. Two installments — Hyden, documenting their traditional roots, and Dayton to Knoxville, exploring their professional beginnings — have been issued by Pinecastle Records. The second volume includes a radio transcription from 1951 and an early demo from 1954. Both find the Osbornes working with bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin. A third volume in the series, Detroit to Wheeling, is in the works. The first two discs come with extensive historical notes and background information on the songs.
After working in other bluegrass bands, Bobby, 68, and Sonny, 62, began performing together as a team on Nov. 6, 1953. In the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny, just 14, had played banjo with Bill Monroe, giving him the distinction of being the youngest member ever of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.
The Osbornes worked for years in Dayton, Ohio, and Wheeling, W.Va., before coming to Nashville. In April 1956 they recorded “Ruby,” still one of their best-known songs and a bluegrass standard, for MGM Records. The recording is unique in that both Sonny and Bobby play banjos on the track. Red Allen joined them on vocals. “It was a honkin’ record,” Sonny said to radio deejay Eddie Stubbs during a 1999 interview.
The group charted first in 1958 with “Once More,” recorded for MGM. Bobby sang his high tenor lead over the harmonies of Sonny and Allen (who received co-billing). They learned the song, recorded originally by Dusty Owens, during a car trip from Wheeling, W.Va., to Dayton, Ohio. Inspired in part by the tonal innovations of the pedal steel guitar, the group continued to develop a unique approach to harmony. “It put us in a whole different category,” Sonny told Stubbs in the radio interview.
The group did not chart again until 1966 after landing their Opry membership and a Decca contract with help from Doyle Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers. The Osbornes’ updated sound played well on country radio, and for 10 years they had hits. In 1971, the Country Music Association named them Best Vocal Group of the Year. Among the public at large, the group is perhaps known best for recording the definitive rendition of “Rocky Top,” a bluegrass standard, the fight song of the University of Tennessee and one of the state songs of the state of Tennessee. In 1994 they joined the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor.
Tuesday night at the Ryman, the group closed its show with “Rocky Top,” but not before exploring such gems in their repertoire as “Midnight Flyer,” “Roll Muddy River,” “Kentucky” and the exquisite “Beneath Still Waters.” They also pushed back for earlier fare such as “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” and “The Great Speckled Bird” (sung by Wooten). Sonny played “America the Beautiful” on his banjo and Smith sang lead on the Dolly Parton’s 1980 country hit, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” After more than 35 years on the Opry, 45 years as partners and 50 years as professional musicians, the Osbornes still burn brightly.