|Osborne in 2017, the year of his last album
(Photo by Larry McCormack, The Tennessean)
Bobby Osborne, the older but persisting half of a duo that brought innovation to bluegrass music, helping it keep a commercial foothold, died Tuesday. He was 91.
“Osborne may be best known for cutting ‘Rocky Top’ with his longtime brother-bandmate Sonny Osborne, but his mandolin playing and familiar tenor vocal stretched far beyond the licks of a Tennessee state song,” Matthew Leimkuehler reports for the Nashville Tennessean. “The brothers built a legacy that led to a White House performance and Country Music Association Award win. At the height of popularity, they bridged a space between country and bluegrass music, receiving radio play and adopting amplified instruments on concert bills — a rarity among string bands at the time.”
Sonny Osborne retired in 2005, and died in October 2021 at 83, but his brother was still performing and teaching when he told Steve Hensley of WYMT-TV in Hazard, Ky., near their home Leslie County, in May 2022, “I was born to do it, and I ain’t going to quit.” He “took his final Opry bow on May 19, 2023, nearly 60 years after being asked to join,” Leimhuehler reports.
“The Osborne Brothers premiered in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1953 and became the first bluegrass group to appear on a college campus with their 1960 performance at Antioch College,” WYMT reports. Their use of drums and electric instruments rankled bluegrass purists, but their commercial success held sway. They got “Rocky Top” from prolific writers Boudleaux and Felice Bryant and made it the B side of a December 1967 single, but WSM DJ Ralph Emery flipped the disc and made it a hit. Five years later, it was the signature tune of the University of Tennessee marching band. The brothers would open and close shows with it, and after Sonny retired, Bobby’s band was named the Rocky Top X-press.