Bobby Osborne

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(EDITOR’S NOTE–Eight years ago Mark Varner campaigned in his Welcome column to bring Bobby to Grass Valley.  Well, guess what, Mark, he’ll be there in June.)
Dear friends,

First off let’s say happy birthday to our pal Phil Leadbetter. Just a young pup of 47!

Hope you had a great weekend. The weather sure is saying “bluegrass time” these days and it won’t be long till the California festival season is going strong.

Last week I mentioned David Grisman in my welcome and the subject of the Bluegrass Experience appearing at a future Father’s Day Festival. That’s a pretty good suggestion we got from my friend Ian Gilmore, since the discussion was raised just days before at the CBA BOD meeting on what kind of young-skewing, on-the-edge performers we could get to augment our usual meat-and-potatoes-type artists. The leadership feels that it is incumbent on them to present a full range of quality bluegrass and old-time music. It is always important to consider the next generation of bluegrass fans and gratify their musical tastes as well.

Naturally, the flip side to the edgy stuff is the traditional bluegrass, especially as performed by veteran artists. These acts serve the dual function of pleasing both the old timers and the young fans. I recently attended a festival where the closing act was Ralph Stanley and the day crowd for his set was comprised of more young folks than I had seen at the festival all weekend.

The CBA leadership, especially Carl Pagter has stated that they would like to make a special point of presenting a first generation performer at each of its Grass Valley events. This actually takes a bit of effort, since many of these artists are no longer touring, especially to the west coast. This year we have Bill Clifton. I’ve been listening to his music for years, but never expected him to see him play live. Many people have expressed their pleasure with the booking.

I’ll mention another name, one that has come up during the BOD meetings as leadership works with the band selection committee (Carl Pagter, John Duncan and Angelica Grim). That name is Bobby Osborne. Bobby is not only still active, he has a new band featuring Dana Cupp on banjo, the wonderful Richard Bennett on guitar, David Crow on fiddle and Bobby’s son Bobby Jr. on bass. They also have a fine album on Rounder called Bluegrass and Beyond. It features guest appearances by Marty Stuart, Glen Duncan, and siblings Rhonda and Darrin Vincent. It’s a very enjoyable release with that sweet country flavor you’d expect from an Osborne project.

I think Bobby and his band would be a wonderful group to book for an upcoming Grass Valley. The Osborne Brothers have always been a big favorite out here and this ensemble will have the added benefit of not having to listen to Sonny whining about having to travel out here and wanting to retire.

I’m always amused by younger fans, and even some folks my age, who say, “I like traditional bluegrass. You know, like the Osborne Brothers.” They, in fact, were the original on-the-edge band with their 1960s era explorations with electrified instruments and (gasp) drums! But I do get the reference. They have now become linked with a sweet country approach to bluegrass. It’s music with both feet on the ground and a big smile on its face.

Bobby’s mandolin playing is unique. I love it. When David Grisman was putting together his Bluegrass Mandolin Extraganza CD he had to pass over some players. Not Bobby, though. Grisman recognizes both the value of his style and Bobby’s place in the history of the instrument.

I was talking to my son Marty about FDF 2009 the other day. He asked me who I was looking forward to seeing perform and I hadto say the Grascals. I told him that the best part of this group was that they were as close as one could get to seeing the Osborne Brothers these days.

Here’s a bio of Bobby by Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide

Known as a great mandolinist in his own right, as well as a member of the revolutionary Osborne Brothers band, Bobby Osborne has often been associated with the cutting edge of bluegrass. (Would that be a lawn mower blade?) But the story of his musically rich life leads back to a story that is as sentimental as one of Osborne’s soaring mandolin solos is technically pristine. It is the story of a young man, not quite the legal age of 18 and under massive pressure from his father, singing the song “Ruby” over radio station WPFB in Middletown, OH.

It was the young Osborne’s first radio broadcast. Apparently 50 telegrams arrived immediately requesting that he sing the song again, something that, needless to say, does not happen every time someone is making his or her debut radio broadcast. “Ruby” became something of a good-luck mantra for the Osborne Brothers, who have called it their signature song. It became the group’s first recording and was the chosen selection when the group was picked to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. The group even performed it for President Richard Nixon in the East Room of the White House.

The same year as the historic “Ruby” broadcast, Osborne joined the juggernaut Lonesome Pine Fiddlers band. This group was just changing directions from Western swing to bluegrass. Osborne was picking guitar in that period and the other members were Larry Richardson on banjo, Ezra Cline on bass, and Ray Morgan on fiddle. In 1950, Osborne and his brother Jimmy Martin launched a new combo with the somewhat cumbersome name of Jimmy Martin, Bob Osborne & the Sunny Mountain Boys. It would be amusing to report that many a roadhouse ran out of plastic sign letters trying to promote this outfit, but it would also be a lie since the band imploded almost immediately, although it did manage to broadcast over the Bristol radio station WCYB, known for its ample bluegrass programming of performers such as Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, and the Stanley Brothers. The Cline brothers, Curley Ray Cline and Charlie Cline, rounded out this combo, along with a performer who called himself Little Robert. His real name was Robert A. Van Winkle, which he probably didn’t use because bandleaders would be afraid of him falling asleep during the set.

Osborne also freelanced as a picker with bands such as the Miami Valley Playboys and the Silver Saddle Boys. He also played with the Stanley Brothers for several weeks, just before he was drafted into the Marines. He was stationed in Korea, put right in the midst of some of the fiercest fighting in that conflict. He was wounded in action and received the Purple Heart medal. When he got out of the Army, the Osborne Brothers decided to create a group together. At first, they were again collaborating with Jimmy Martin on projects such as a session for RCA, as well as broadcasting over their own spot in Knoxville. In 1956, the brothers’ new group picked up steam and began performing on The Wheeling Jamboree. The band would continue on this West Virginia radio program for four years.

A major aspect of Osborne’s career then follows the course of the Osborne Brothers, a group that has managed to maintain both its career and integrity for nearly half a century, despite changes in the public’s taste as well as band personnel. For more details, please reference the biography of this group. In summary, one could easily place the Osborne Brothers on the short list of the most innovative groups in the history of bluegrass. The brothers should also be complimented for their courage, since going against the grain in the field of bluegrass is not exactly encouraged. One of the major moves made by this group was radically altering the instrumental makeup of a bluegrass combo. Drums, always considered a no-no for bluegrass, were added for the first time by the Osbornes and remain an aspect of progressive bluegrass outfits of the 21st century, such as Leftover Salmon or the String Cheese Incident. The pedal steel guitar, the only really required instrument in a country & western band and definitely appreciated in Western swing, was not present on-stage in a bluegrass band until the Osbornes

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