When the news broke earlier this week informing us of Sonny Osborne’s passing, my mind raced back to when I first heard him and sibling Bobby – bluegrass music’s indomitable Osborne Brothers – on a record.
It was in high school when a friend well-versed in the traditions of string music played me a record that had been cut two decades earlier. The tune was “Ruby, Are You Mad?” Hearing it was like listening to a bomb go off.
Along with Bobby Osborne’s high tenor singing, which sounded like it was being beamed in from outer space as opposed to the siblings’ Hyden homestead, there was the banjo charge. That was Sonny’s endlessly joyous work. Sure, the playing was fast, but it wasn’t the speed that shook me. It was that pure, assured jubilation that made the Osborne Brothers freight train roar.
Sonny Osborne died Oct. 24 at 83.
I must sheepishly admit that I hadn’t thought much about that awakening or the Osborne Brothers in general of late, despite the fact that their songs “Rocky Top” and “Kentucky” have long been monuments of bluegrass form and tradition, as well as figurehead tunes for two states. The brothers’ split in 2005 with Sonny’s retirement. Absence from the big bluegrass touring picture for close to two decades makes a few memories fade. But when I listened to “Ruby” again yesterday, the effect was just as jarring as when I was introduced to it so many years ago.
Just three players – Sonny, Bobby and co-guitarist Red Allen – made the record. But with a killer mountain tenor, some sterling harmonies and that atomic banjo drive igniting the Osborne Brothers’ commanding sound, nothing else was needed.
Central Kentucky audiences know a thing or two about bluegrass banjo, especially with a musical titan like J.D. Crowe living here. In a stylistic context, Osborne and Crowe were different players, but their fearlessness proved a common bond. Their tone and technical command were immaculate, as was their understanding of musical tradition. But their sound was made all the more scholarly by being open enough to roll with the times, especially in terms of incorporating country music dialects into their sound. The Osbornes famously flew against the traditional wind a time or two by incorporating electric instrumentation into their sound during the 1960s and then taking to stages other than outdoor festivals – namely, college campuses.
That didn’t stop the accolades, of course. They were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1964 with membership in the much-later-formed Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Kentucky Music Hall of Fame following in the decades to come. There was glorious music along the way, too, from the famed trio’s recordings with Allen to adventurous journeys incorporating drums and dobro with later, larger groups.
Bobby carried on after Sonny’s retirement. But once that mighty banjo locomotive was retired following the Osborne Brothers’ 52-year long run, a major chapter in bluegrass history was complete.
Of course, for many fans, the Osborne’s legacy boils down to two words – “Rocky Top.” It is as recognizable as any song in the bluegrass canon, which likely unsettles those in their home state, given its close affiliation with all things Tennessee – especially their storied sports rival, the University of Tennessee.
But the brothers were continually respectful of their Kentucky heritage, whether it was through Karl Davis’ namesake tune, which the Osbornes popularized in 1965, or the bluegrass festival bearing the brothers’ name that has been staged in Hyden for the last 28 years.
Kentucky gave something to Sonny Osborne, too – his name.
“When I was born, I was supposed to be named Roland,” wrote Osborne is his popular “Ask Sonny Anything” column for Bluegrass Today magazine in 2020. “But at the Hyden hospital ... they might not have known how to spell Roland, so someone might have said, ‘Just put Sonny on the paper till someone straightens it out.’
“Guess what? No one ever straightened it out.”