Two Legends: Jesse McReynolds and Bobby Osborne

Aug 9, 2023 | Welcome Column

A couple of months ago, bluegrass music lost another two of its founders. On June 23,  Jesse McReynolds at the age of 93 joined his brother Jim, who had passed away from thyroid cancer at age 75. Together Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys helped create bluegrass music as we know it today. They were one of the half a dozen bands that defined the genre early on and their songs can still be heard at any bluegrass event you might go to today. They will always be heard at bluegrass events.

Unless you play mandolin you might not have a full appreciation of what a great picker Jesse McReynolds was. Imagine trying to play Earl Scruggs style banjo only using a flat pick instead of three fingerpicks. That’s essentially what he was doing. His cross-picking style was unique and revolutionary. Noone had ever played like that before and although you occasionally hear mandolinists play some in that style, you’re more likely to see hens teeth because it’s so insanely difficult to pull it off accurately at high speed.

Watch this video and you’ll get some idea of just how good he was. I have never seen any other mandolinist play so forcefully with so little movement. It’s amazing. When he’s strumming along he plays with a full wrist motion but there’s no forearm movement at all like you would see with other great mandolinists like John Reischman or Sam Bush. And when Jesse cross picks those intricate solos it’s almost as if the wrist doesn’t move at all because he uses precise hand muscle movements to get the sound he wants:


But here’s my favorite Jesse McReynolds song (also courtesy of Ron Reno):

Four Days after Jesse passed away we lost another founder, Bobby Osborne who died at the age of 91. Bobby and his brother Sonny were also part of that founding generation of a half dozen premier early bluegrass bands. Like Jim and Jesse, the Osborne Brothers gave us great vocal harmonies. Their band did unique harmony stacks that are a model for great bluegrass singing to this day.

Bobby’s picking style was more conventional than Jesse’s but his touch and tone were impeccable like here on his composition Cherokee Lady:

Bobby plays that tune on David Grisman’s Mandolin Extravaganza CD which also includes Jesse McReynolds. He was very proud of the fact that a symphony orchestra chose to debut his composition in the world of classical music.

As good as Bobby Osborne was as an instrumentalist what I will most remember about him is his singing. I never had the opportunity to hear his band in person until Grass Valley a few years ago when he was well past his prime but that voice! What I heard on stage that year was priceless. Tony Bennett sang right up till the day he died and I’ll bet Bobby did too, and well:

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