Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame member Sonny Osborne died Sunday (Oct. 24) at age 83.
Regarded as one of the all-time great banjo stylists, he starred with brother Bobby on the Grand Ole Opry as well as on hit records such as “Rocky Top.” The Osborne Brothers were named the CMA Vocal Group of the Year in 1971.
Roland “Sonny” Osborne was born in the coalfields of Kentucky, but raised in Dayton, Ohio. At age 11, he became passionate about the banjo, practicing 8 to 15 hours a day. He began to appear on local radio and to make records in a duo with his sister Louise.
When he was 14, he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band. In 1952, he recorded several classics with the group, including “Memories of Mother and Dad” and “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake.” He also recorded as a solo artist.
He joined forces with older brother Bobby in 1953. They honed their skills working for Jimmy Martin, Charlie Bailey and Red Allen. The bluegrass classic “Once More” was recorded by Allen with the Osbornes in 1958.
The Osborne Brothers recorded on their own for RCA and MGM during this period. Sonny soon garnered industry recognition for his cutting-edge approach to banjo playing and for arranging the group’s complex harmony vocals. The act’s calling card was brother Bobby’s sky-high tenor lead singing.
Around 1963, Sonny made contact with Doyle Wilburn of Nashville’s hit-making Wilburn Brothers. Wilburn got the brothers a contract with Decca Records, arranged for them to join the Grand Ole Opry (1964) and signed them for publishing and booking.
This coincided with Sonny encouraging his band to modernize. He electrified his banjo and added drums and electric bass to The Osborne Brothers sound. As a result, the group scored hits on the country hit parade and toured with mainstream pop and country acts. Their charted favorites included “Roll Muddy River” (1967), “Rocky Top” (1968), “Tennessee Hound Dog” (1969), “Ruby Are You Mad” (1970), “Midnight Flyer” (1973), “Blue Heartache” (1973) and “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” (1980).
“Rocky Top” was named one of the state songs of Tennessee in 1984. It is performed in Knoxville every time the University of Tennessee Vols score a football touchdown.
In the 1980s, the Osbornes ditched electrified instruments and reverted to acoustic bluegrass. They recorded for niche labels such as CMH, Sugar Hill and Piencastle.
The Osbornes were also recruited to play on records by others. They have backed Conway Twitty, Carl Smith, Charley Pride, Wade Ray, Jethro Burns and Mac Wiseman. They also collaborated with jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton.
Sonny Osborne had a side career as a record producer. He worked on discs for The Pinnacle Boys, The Virginia Squires, Terry Eldredge and multiple bluegrass award winner Dale Ann Bradley.
The Osborne Brothers are believed to be the first bluegrass act to play on a college campus (1960) and to be invited to perform at The White House (1973). They were elected to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1994 and were presented with a National Heritage award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997.
Sonny Osborne was the first to popularize the electrified six-string banjo, the double banjo and instruments combining the banjo with resonator guitar. He underwent rotator-cuff surgery, which caused him to quit playing and to retire from the road in 2004. Since then, he has promoted a line of banjos branded with his nickname, “Chief.”
Brother Bobby Osborne continues to play the Opry with his band The Rocky Top X-Press.
“Sonny Osborne was ‘The Chief,’” says Kyle Young, CEO, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He somehow played with both ferocity and humor, and those things were essential elements of his musicality and his personality. Though he was a staunch advocate for traditional bluegrass, his banjo style moved the genre forward and allowed bluegrass music to reach new audiences. He was also an innovative harmony singer, and when his voice joined with brother Bobby a sound was created that will never be replicated. Sonny Osborne was a lovably ornery delight.”
Sonny Osborne’s death was reported last night. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.