Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member Bobby Osborne died today (June 27) at age 91.
The Opry confirmed his death. Opry VP/Executive Producer, Dan Rogers, shared, “Bobby Osborne was among the last of his generation of bluegrass pioneers. What a profound loss for the Opry family and bluegrass music fans around the world. Mr. Osborne’s legacy will live forever on this stage we love and wherever his style is emulated. Thank you to Bobby Osborne for more than 70 years of music and memories.”
Even into his 90s, the tenor singer and mandolin player performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry with his band The Rocky Top X-Press.
Robert Van Osborne Jr. was born in Kentucky in 1931 and grew up in the Dayton, Ohio area. He was inspired to become a bluegrass singer after seeing a show by Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys in 1947. He began performing on WPFB in Middletown, Ohio two years later.
He spent several seasons with The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, then graduated to Jimmy Martin’s band. Following a brief stint with The Stanley Brothers, Bobby Osborne joined the Marines for combat duty in Korea. He was wounded and was discharged in 1953.
At this point, he joined forces with younger brother Sonny Osborne (1937-2021). 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. From the start, the act’s calling card was Bobby’s sky-high tenor lead singing. In fact, Monroe once said that there were only three great tenors in country music — himself, Ira Louvin and Bobby Osborne.
Brother Sonny soon garnered industry recognition for his cutting-edge approach to banjo playing and for arranging the group’s complex harmony vocals. 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 the modernization of the band. Sonny electrified his banjo, and the act 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 1982. It is performed in Knoxville every time the University of Tennessee Vols score a football touchdown. In 1992, the Osbornes’ rendition of the Karl & Harty classic “Kentucky” led to a similar honor from the Blue Grass State.
By then, the Osbornes had ditched electrified instruments and reverted to acoustic bluegrass. They recorded for labels such as CMH, Sugar Hill and Pinecastle.
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.
The brothers mentored such future stars as The Grascals and Dale Ann Bradley. They also performed with the 1997 bluegrass/hip-hop fusion act The GrooveGrass Boyz.
Bobby’s mandolin performance of “Ashokan Farewell” appeared on the all-star Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza album, which won the IBMA Instrumental Album and Recorded Event awards in 2000.
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.
Brother Sonny Osborne underwent rotator-cuff surgery, which caused him to quit playing and to retire from the road in 2004. This is when Bobby formed The Rocky Top X-Press and became a solo Opry star. He was joined in the new group by his guitarist son Bobby Osborne III.
The new band recorded for Rounder and Compass. In 2021, Osborne had a late-career bluegrass hit with a version of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever.”
Sonny Osborne passed away in October of 2021 at age 83.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
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