Bluegrass innovator Sonny Osborne dead at 83

NASHVILLE – Sonny Osborne, the banjo player and singer who, along with his older brother, Bobby, led one of the most innovative and beloved groups in bluegrass music, died Sunday at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. He was 83 years old.

His death, after a series of beatings, was confirmed by his friend and protégé Lincoln Hensley.

Best known for their 1967 hit “Rocky Top”, the Osborne Brothers pioneered a three-part harmony singing style in which Bobby Osborne sang tenor melodies set above the other two voices of the band. trio, rather than between them, as was the custom in bluegrass. Sonny Osborne sang the baritone harmonies, with various second tenors over the years adding a third layer of harmony to complete the bright and lyrical mix that has become the band’s calling card.

The Osborne again broke bluegrass conventions by augmenting Mr. Osborne’s catchy 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 band to record with twin banjos and, more alarmingly for bluegrass purists, to add electric mics to their instruments, abandoning the long-standing practice of cuddling around a single microphone.

Address critics of the group in an interview in 2000 with the music magazine No Depression, Mr. Osborne recalled the allegations of treason which were brought against the group for “switching to electricity” – a censure reminiscent of that which was inflicted on Bob Dylan for having played with an electric group at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

“They were thinking, ‘Oh, they changed, they did this, they did that, they changed’ – well, we didn’t,” Osborne insisted. “We played the same things that we normally play. We just added this stuff all around us.

Despite – or perhaps because of – their unorthodox approach, the Osbornes emerged as one of the few 50s and 60s bluegrass groups to regularly place their recordings on the country charts. In 1971, they were named Vocal Group of the Year by the Country Music Association, a rare accolade for a bluegrass ensemble.

The Osborne repertoire was as vast as their sonic palette, encompassing “Old Kentucky Home” by Randy Newman, and “Midnight Flyer” a song written by Paul Craft (who also wrote Bobby Bare’s 1976 hit “Dropkick Me, Jesus”) and popularized by the Eagles shortly after the Osbornes recorded it in the early 1970s.

In 1968, they released “Yesterday, Today & the Osborne Brothers”, an album that links bluegrass’s past to its future, expanding the idiom’s vocabulary while serving as a harbinger of intrepid heirs like Newgrass Revival and Alison Krauss & Union Station.

The first side of the original LP consisted of traditional dishes associated with bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. The second side was steeped in material arranged in a more contemporary vein, including “Rocky Top,” a song written by the husband-and-wife team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant (best known for their Everly Brothers hits).

A Top 40 country hit boosted by the instrumental solos of the two Osborne brothers, “Rocky Top” was later adopted as the official song by the state of Tennessee. Like “Tennessee Hound Dog,” another Top 40 country hit written for the Osbornes by the Bryants, “Rocky Top” was a shameless hymn to the mountain culture of the brothers’ childhood:

Rocky Top, you will always be
Home sweet home for me.
Good old Rocky Top
Rocky peak, Tennessee
Rocky peak, Tennessee.

Sonny Osborne was born on October 29, 1937 in Thousandsticks, an Appalachian enclave near Hyden, Kentucky, where he and his brother grew up. Their parents, Robert and Daisy (Dixon) Osborne, were teachers; their father supplemented the family income by working in his parents’ general store.

Mr. Osborne started 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 performed briefly with Bill Monroe. In 1954, the brothers made half a dozen recordings with flamboyant bluegrass conductor 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 Osborne joined the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, W.Va., in 1956 and remained there for the remainder of the decade. Among their most acclaimed recordings from this period are “Ruby, are you crazy? “ a barnburner, featuring the two Osborne brothers on the banjo, written by old-fashioned singer Cousin Emmy (aka Cynthia May Carver), and “Once More”, an old-fashioned love song. Both were released by MGM Records in the late 1950s and credited to the Osborne Brothers and Red Allen, who featured on tenor vocals and acoustic guitar in the group’s early incarnations.

The Osbornes became the first bluegrass group to perform on a college campus, appearing in 1960 at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio before taking their Appalachian “folk” music to northeastern places like University. in New York and Club 47 in Boston.

The Osborne signed in 1963 with the Nashville division of Decca Records, then headed by famous producer Owen Bradley. A year later, they joined the Grand Ole Opry. They also began to seriously break away from the tradition of bluegrass, among other things, supplementing their performances with drums and dobro.

The Osborne recorded extensively for Decca (who later became MCA) before leaving the label in 1974, disappointed that they had only average success on country radio. A return to a more traditional approach rejuvenated their careers, securing their reputation over the next three decades as elders of bluegrass alongside giants like Flatt & Scruggs, Mr. Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. They were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame in 1994.

Mr. Osborne retired in 2005 after sustaining a shoulder injury. He nevertheless remained active in bluegrass circles by promoting his own line of banjos and writing “Ask Sonny Anything,” a weekly column for Bluegrass Today that was bursting with the same energy and spirit he had. formerly shown on stage.

Besides his brother, Mr. Osborne is survived by his wife of 63 years, Judy Wachter Osborne; his sister, Louise Williams; one son, Steven; one daughter, Karen Davenport; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 1965, Mr. Osborne began to experiment with a special tuning that gave his banjo a timbre reminiscent of an electric instrument, sometimes even horns or a steel guitar. What he discovered, fueled by his omnivorous taste for music, did more than shape his approach to banjo playing, which expanded; it also shaped the sonic directions the Osborne would take for the rest of the decade – and beyond.

“The notes themselves came from constantly listening to every other kind of music you can imagine,” Mr. Osborne explained in 2000. “Steel and electric guitars, horns, saxophone, trumpet, piano – so you were listening to it all, if you were to be a big fan of the kind of music I was listening to you would hear a little bit of everything in there.

“There’s a bit of everyone in the notes I’ve played, but when you put them on the banjo, then it’s a whole different ball game.”

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