The new Osborne Brothers album, Nashville, is really an old Osborne Brothers album, shelved some 40 years ago when the duo parted ways with the record label that financed it.
Lead singer and mandolinist Bobby Osborne and singer and banjo player Sonny Osborne cut these seven sides with celebrated countrypolitan producer Owen Bradley and A-team Nashville session players who’d been involved with too many recordings to count.
What the Osbornes were doing stood out, though. Here was a first-generation bluegrass brother duo straddling electrified, early ‘70s country and straight-ahead bluegrass — and a boldfaced boundary between the two genres had most certainly been drawn by then.
The brothers long ago returned to an acoustic sound. Since Sonny retired nearly a decade back, Bobby has carried on as a solo artist and a Grand Ole Opry regular, backed by the Rocky Top X-Press.
With the responsibility of telling journalists about the duo’s good old days squarely on his shoulders, Osborne clearly recalls how he was inspired as a teenager by the music of early Opry stars like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Ernest Tubb. Still in remarkably keen voice, he’ll proudly mark the 50th anniversary of the Osborne Brothers’ own Opry induction in August.
“I got my own style of playing the mandolin and my own style of singing,” says Osborne, 82. “There’s nobody out there that sounds like me, and I’m glad of that.”
CMT Edge: This might be an obvious question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. If you’ve had these recordings sitting around since the early ‘70s, why didn’t you release them before now?
Osborne: A lot of times when people quit a label, they don’t ever release those other songs, and they’re tied up forever. We bought those masters from Decca Records, and they belonged to us. So we kept ‘em until it was the right time to put ‘em out. As time went on, why, we recorded with other labels, but we never did run across any time where those would be real beneficial to put out.
Where have the masters been all this time?
I kept them here at my house for probably 10 years. Then my brother wanted to take ‘em and remix ‘em to today’s standards. When we recorded those, most of it was on a four-track recorder. So you had to have the steel guitar and electric guitar and all that — two or three of ‘em — on the same track. If you wanted to get one [instrument] off and keep another one on, you couldn’t do that. He give up the idea of remixing ‘em, so we just left ‘em like they was.
The opening track, “Gonna Be Raining When I Die,” has so much kick, it almost feels like country-rock.
At that time, we had the best studio musicians in this town. They enjoyed working with us because it was different from what they did every day with country. They helped us with arrangements to get that sound and all. It was different for us. It put us in a different category than straight bluegrass.
These recordings are from the era when you were playing plugged-in and amplified with steel guitar and drums. Sometimes people have interpreted that as an experimental move — pushing the boundaries, stepping on the toes of bluegrass traditionalists. But from what you and Sonny wrote in the liner notes of this album, it sounds like you made that move by necessity. How did it happen, and how big of a deal did it seem to you at the time?
At that time, there was only three of us [in the band]. Just Sonny, me and [guitarist] Dale Sledd. We worked [on package tours] with George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, the biggest ones. We were playing to 10,000 to 15,000 people each time.
That music was so loud to the people that were sittin’ in that audience out there, why, when we came on — just three guys without amps or anything — you couldn’t hear nothing we did. We just thought, “Well, we have got to do something.” … To compete with them out there, we had to amplify them instruments of ours. Because, I mean, they drowned us out everywhere we went.
We put the amps on ‘em and put pickups on our instruments. With those amps and our harmony and everything, we entertained the country people just as good as Merle Haggard or George Jones or anybody else would. It became a trademark with us to do that. We hung right onto it until the country package shows were over with. Then we went back to the straight bluegrass.
“Rocky Top” is a song I’ve clogged to more times than I can count. I gather that you and Sonny deserve the credit for it being so good to dance to because you sped it up, where Felice and Boudleaux Bryant had envisioned it as a slower song. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. When I heard [Boudleaux] singing “Rocky Top” slow, it just came to my mind, “If we sing it that way and play double-time, it would make a good recording.” I told him, “If you can finish [the song], we’ll take it to the studio tomorrow and see if we can get it recorded.” And he finished it up.
You recut a few songs from Nashville, like “Going Back to the Mountains” and “Muddy Waters,” for your recent solo album, New Bluegrass & Old Heartaches, and even sang them in the same key from four decades earlier. A lot of singers would’ve had to lower the key after that much time passed. How is it that you can still sing them just as high?
You’re right. Today Bill Anderson, Connie Smith, all of ‘em [sing lower]. As we all get older, our body changes. “Rocky Top,” I still do it in the same key, “Ruby” and all those. … My voice stayed to where I could sing ‘em in the same keys that we recorded them in. … My voice has just hung in there with me, and I’m thankful for that.
Hear “Gonna Be Raining When I Die,” written by Bobby Osborne and recorded at Bradley’s Barn.