Bobby Osborne Tribute Concert – Belcourt Theater (Nashville, TN)
Bobby Osborne, the lead-singing, mandolin-picking half of the Osborne Brothers, had already cut two solo albums in the five years before Sonny Osborne’s 2005 retirement put the duo into the history books, so his new one (Try A Little Kindness, his first for Rounder Records) doesn’t qualify as a debut. Still, it marks the close of one meta-chapter in his 50-something-year career and the start of another, so a double-barreled event that would both celebrate his formidable contributions as a member of the Brothers and highlight his new role as a bandleader rather than a partner made sense. As it turned out, it made for some pretty fine music.
With six artists lined up for the homage along with Bobby and his band, the Rocky Top X-Press, it could have been a grueling affair; instead, with a concise opening set from the latter and even more compressed appearances by the former, the show was well-paced and lively. Osborne opened with five numbers from the new disc, perfunctorily (and unnecessarily) apologizing for reading the lyrics to “Sunday Morning Coming Down” before nailing the song with his distinctive voice. At 74, he’s still a more convincing singer than most men half his age.
Osborne finished his set with a strong take on the album’s uptempo opening track “The Hard Times”. The band, including former Blue Grass Boy Dana Cupp on banjo and IBMA chairperson David Crow on fiddle, was engaging and loose, laying down a shambling beat behind Bobby’s brisk mandolin chop and occasional solos.
The rest of the participating artists could be categorized several ways: by gender, with Alecia Nugent and Claire Lynch representing female singers whose debt to the Brothers begins with their innovative “high lead” vocal harmony arrangement that gives the melody to the highest part; by the extent to which Bob and Sonny served as direct models (as with Larry Stephenson and the Grascals) or more as general inspiration (Marty Stuart, Marty Raybon); or by whether they brought their own bands with them.
Each took the stage for a three-song set (mostly Osborne Brothers favorites, of course), with Bobby participating on one of the tunes. Highlights included Nugent’s glistening take on “Windy City”; Raybon’s solo performance of “Ghost In This House”, after which he was joined by Osborne and members of his band for a muscular reading of “Will You Be Loving Another Man” (a Monroe song by way of the Brothers); Lynch and Osborne’s turn on one of the prettiest of the Brothers’ early trios, Helen Carter’s “(Is This) My Destiny)”; Jamie Johnson and the rest of the Grascals’ version of “The Hard Times”, after which Osborne and the group’s Terry Eldredge looked back to the years Eldredge spent with the Brothers, giving what was arguably the most polished duet of the evening on Flatt & Scruggs’ “I’ll Just Pretend”; and Marty Stuart & his Fabulous Superlatives’ nifty reading of “Making Plans”, on which Kenny Vaughan endeared himself by reproducing a key Sonny Osborne banjo lick on his acoustic guitar.
The evening concluded with a couple of miscellaneous performances that were among the best. Lynch took the lead on the sprightly “Up This Hill And Down”, a song which, probably not coincidentally, is on her new disc, New Day; and Stuart and Osborne offered a gripping reading of the Monroe Brothers’ first recording, a mandolin/guitar and vocal duet on “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?” that was both distinctively theirs and reminiscent of the original.
After that, the traditional everyone-on-stage closer was, inevitably, a good-spirited stab at “Rocky Top”. All in all, the show was a relaxed affair that had the unmistakable air of a family gathering, even as it made the case that there’s plenty of good music left in Bobby Osborne.