Bluegrass lost a giant last month with the death of banjoist Sonny Osborne. With his older brother Bobby in the Osborne Brothers band, Sonny made some of the most innovative, exciting, and controversial bluegrass of the 1950s and 1960s. The Osborne Brothers became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964, and much of their music during that decade sounded like the country music of the day, to the consternation of many of their bluegrass fans. But it worked for them: the brothers’ most famous hit, 1967’s “Rocky Top,” written by the Nashville songwriting team Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, has become a bluegrass standard and an official state song of Tennessee.
Roland “Sonny” Osborne was born in Kentucky in 1937. When he was a boy, the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, for work, part of the great northern migration documented this year in the book “Industrial Strength Bluegrass” (discussed in my July 30, 2021 post). Sonny was a true child prodigy—he began playing banjo when he was 11 and in 1952, when he was only 14, he toured and recorded with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. In an interview in Frets Magazine in the early 1980s, Sonny described how he began to play, suggesting (although he didn’t use the term) that synesthesia helped him: “Banjo music has always been like a picture in my mind. I can actually see the notes; there are forms to it. … One day I didn’t have a banjo and I couldn’t play and the next day I had one and I could.” Sonny’s mandolin playing older brother Bobby played him a few Scruggs banjo rolls and Sonny took it from there.
Sonny’s gig with Monroe was courtesy of Jimmy Martin, who in 1952 was between stints as Monroe’s guitarist and lead singer. Sonny recorded several tunes with the Blue Grass Boys, including Monroe’s first recording of his mandolin instrumental “Pike County Breakdown.” Flatt and Scruggs learned the tune when they were with Bill and they released their banjo record of it before Bill had recorded the tune. Sonny asked Bill if he wanted Sonny to play the banjo part like the “other record,” and Bill played him the mandolin part and told him to “play it like it sounds.” (This quote comes from Tony Trischka’s interview with Sonny published in “Masters Of The Five String Banjo In Their Own Words and Music.”) All of 14, Sonny was hesitant to mention Flatt and Scruggs to Bill Monroe because he knew that Bill then was not on good terms with his illustrious former sidemen.
In 1952-53, Sonny recorded a number of banjo instrumentals for Gateway Records in Cincinnati, which helped to make his name known among banjo fans. His composition “Sunny Mountain Chimes,” the first recorded use of banjo harmonics, or “chimes,” in bluegrass, showed how far he had come in just a few years. In 1954 Sonny and Bobby teamed up with Jimmy Martin and recorded several of Martin’s most famous songs, including “20-20 Vision.”
By 1956, the Osborne Brothers with guitarist Red Allen had their own record deal and the brothers began their long career as bandleaders. At this time they developed a distinctive vocal style featuring Bobby’s voice singing the melody (or “lead”) as the highest voice in a trio, with the baritone and tenor parts sung below it. (A conventional bluegrass trio puts the lead in the middle with the tenor harmony above it and the baritone harmony below.) Giving Bobby the lead parts to the songs made the brothers less dependent on a guitarist/lead singer. Sonny generally sang the baritone part and the guitarist (there were many who followed Red Allen) sang the tenor, which was usually the lowest part in the Osbornes’ trios. The Osbornes debuted their new vocal sound with “Once More.” This recording was also unusual for bluegrass at the time because it featured dobro (only Flatt and Scruggs were then using dobro in bluegrass) and drums. Another notable high lead trio was the Louvin Brothers song “Give This Message To Your Heart,” recorded after Red Allen left the band, with guest Ira Louvin filling in the third part. Both these recordings demonstrate the Osborne Brothers’ fancy vocal endings, which became another of their musical trademarks.
These songs already sound more country than bluegrass, but they were enormously influential, copied by bluegrass and country vocalists including the Country Gentlemen. In Neil Rosenberg’s “Bluegrass A History,” John Duffey recounted driving around the Washington DC area until his car radio could pick up the Osbornes on the Wheeling Jamboree, broadcast from Wheeling, West Virginia on WWVA. The brothers’ slower recordings like “Lonely, Lonely Me” also demonstrate Sonny’s innovative banjo style, especially on the vocal backup parts. Sonny said that he derived this style from listening to other instruments including steel guitar, electric guitar, and piano. He enjoyed backing up a singer or another instrumentalist, and he noted that silence is sometimes best: “Some of the most effective background ever played is done by removing both hands from the instrument.”
In 1960, the Osborne Brothers played the first college folk concert by a bluegrass band, also described by Neil Rosenberg (who was there as a member of an opening band) in his book. Although some of the Osborne Brothers material had a folk flavor, such as “The Cuckoo Bird,” they considered themselves primarily country artists, and Nashville’s top steel guitar, electric guitar, and piano session players often played on their records.
In 1964, the Osborne Brothers joined the Grand Ole Opry and Mel Bay published Sonny’s bluegrass banjo instruction book (beating Earl Scruggs’s better known book to the market by a few years). At the time, and for years afterward, only three other bluegrass bands were Opry members-Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Jim and Jesse McReynolds. The Osbornes’ biggest hits date from the mid-1960s: “Pathway of Teardrops,” “Memories,” “Up This Hill and Down” (where the banjo sounds like an electric guitar), and, of course, “Rocky Top.” During this period the Osbornes plugged in and amped up for their live shows, further annoying bluegrass purists. Sonny explained that they needed the extra oomph to compete with the high volume of the electrified country bands they often toured with. In yet another innovation, for a time, Sonny played a six string banjo, modified by adding a long G string below the fourth (D) string.
In the 1970s the Osborne Brothers became bluegrass festival regulars and returned to a more bluegrass sound in their recordings and shows. They continued to tour and record until Sonny retired from active performing in the early 2000s. Sonny Osborne remained involved in bluegrass after his retirement, teaching at banjo camps, writing, and designing bluegrass banjos, such as the “Osborne Chief,” named after Sonny’s longtime nickname. He was a jovial presence on the banjo scene, always willing to talk to anyone about his music. Now the music alone speaks for him. It is a legacy worthy of a great musician.