Osborne Brothers – A high lead, a long run
“We were getting to the age to where we could tell who was playing what and how and why. Bobby and I, we really started to hone in on that harmony thing. Because I could look at him and I knew what he was doing, and he could do the same thing.”
Of all the Bear Family boxed sets in my collection, none spend more time in my CD player than the two that cover 18 years of recordings made by Bobby and Sonny, the Osborne Brothers. Though not all bluegrass fans are Osborne Brothers fans — their use of drums, pedal steel guitar, electrified instruments and even strings on literally hundreds of recordings made them among the most controversial acts ever to work the bluegrass circuit – they have had an incalculable influence on bluegrass. As Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer Art Menius put it when the first Osbornes boxed set appeared in 1996, the Brothers “provided a bridge not only from the first generation [of bluegrass] to the second, but onward to the third as well” — an accomplishment exceeded only by the beauty and power of the music itself.
Their earliest years are the stuff of legend. Born in Hyden, Kentucky (Bobby in 1931, Sonny in 1937), the two moved with their family to Dayton, Ohio, during World War II. Both gravitated to the music business while still boys. “Music was the only thing that we cared anything about,” Sonny says emphatically. “We didn’t want to be farmers, and we didn’t want to be anything. Just music was the only thing that we wanted to do, that’s it.”
They did it, too. By the time Bobby went into the Marines in 1951 – he spent two years in Korea, nearly dying there – he had recorded with the well-established Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and with Jimmy Martin, then coming off his first stint with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Martin had a hand, too, in Sonny’s spectacular start as a bluegrass musician, taking the 14-year old banjo player with him for the summer when he went back to work for Monroe in 1952. Sonny returned to the Blue Grass Boys the following spring, dropping out of school for good and remaining with Monroe until Bobby was mustered out in the fall. “I know one thing, I grew up in a hurry,” Sonny says. They moved together to Knoxville, Tennessee, marking November 6, 1953, as the beginning of their partnership.
The next two and a half years found the Osbornes in and out of steady musical work. They partnered up again with Martin, who had left Monroe’s band for good; the trio moved to Detroit, making appearances on TV and radio and, in 1954, laying down their first major-label recordings – six sides for RCA. “That’s where music started really becoming important,” Sonny remembers, “and all of us, we were getting to the age to where we could tell who was playing what and how and why. Bobby and I, we really started to hone in on that harmony thing. Because I could look at him and I knew what he was doing, and he could do the same thing. It became easy for us.
“And Jimmy wasn’t that quick with harmony, but Jimmy’s a…I’ll tell you about Jimmy Martin. I don’t get along with him — I don’t stand for anything that Jimmy stands for right now, I just don’t – but at that time there was nobody, nobody on earth better than Jimmy Martin. Jimmy was the best rhythm guitar player and lead singer that this music will ever know at that period right there. Man, it was something else to play with him, it was something else.”
Despite their manifest talent, the trio couldn’t work together for long, and the Brothers returned to Dayton, taking day jobs for a while before joining forces with powerful singer/guitarist Red Allen and fiddler Art Stamper, a veteran of the Stanley Brothers’ Clinch Mountain Boys. “Bobby and me and Art Stamper and Red, we got in Tommy Sutton’s basement – Tommy was a disc jockey in Dayton – without a bass player, and we cut four or five songs,” says Sonny. “‘Ruby’ [a song Bobby had been singing for years since first hearing it as a youth in Hyden] was one of them. We paid Tommy’s train fare to Nashville; I think $50 is what we gave him for train fare, hotel, eating, his whole trip down there. That’s all we had. And son of a gun, he got us a recording contract with MGM, and ‘Ruby’ was what sold it.”
The Osborne Brothers And Red Allen made their first records for MGM on July 1, 1956; not surprisingly, “Ruby” was among them, and though it didn’t chart, it was a big seller and jukebox favorite in the band’s home region, earning them a spot on WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, home of one of the major country shows, the Wheeling Jamboree. The first recording to feature twin banjos, with Sonny playing a perfectly-matched tenor to Bob’s lead on the breaks, “Ruby” was a driving number; Bobby’s high voice soared over the ebb and flow of the banjos and session bassist Ernie Newton’s walking bass line with a haunting cry, while the reverb-laden a cappella ending expertly blended the trio’s voices into a single, rich sound. Still, it wasn’t until 1958 that the Brothers hit the charts; when they did, it was with a song that would set the stage for the rest of their careers and, though the process took years, permanently alter the sound of bluegrass. The song was “Once More”.
FINDING THEIR VOICES
“Bobby and I got to thinking, you know, why don’t we get somebody, get Red to sing the low harmony part, you [Bobby] sing the high lead and I’ll sing under you. That way, no matter who sings the low part, we’ll always sound the same. And I think that was the big secret right there, the big answer, I guess, to our success.
“Once More” is what used to be called a heart song. Written and recorded for a regional label by fellow Jamboree cast member Dusty Owens, it’s a lovely creation in its own right, and it was the perfect candidate for a new vocal treatment the Brothers wanted to try out. Though appreciating the beauty of a high lead arrangement requires no explanation, understanding it does.
Bluegrass harmony, like most country harmony of the time, was built around a lead or melody line by adding a part called the tenor that generally followed the shape of the melody at the next highest harmonic interval. The combination produced the classic duet sound heard in countless country recordings of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. When a third voice was added to produce a trio, it took the baritone part, which mirrored the tenor’s role by following the lead at the next lower harmonic interval. Earlier editions of Monroe’s band had recorded some trios, but the arrangement was permanently established, at least in bluegrass, by Bill Monroe (tenor), Lester Flatt (lead) and Earl Scruggs (baritone) in the Blue Grass Boys’ Columbia recordings of 1946 and 1947, and it was quickly adopted by other groups. With few exceptions, that arrangement – melody, a part above and a part below – was the rule when it came to bluegrass trios; for the most part it worked quite nicely, and still does, producing a sound notably richer than the duet vocal.
A problem, however, arises when the primary singer in a band also has the highest voice. There’s no one to sing the tenor above, so the lead singer must jump to the tenor part on a chorus, with another singer taking over on the melody. If the song is pitched in a key that’s comfortable for the lead singer in the verses, there’s a good chance that he’ll be hard-pressed to sing the tenor; if the song is pitched to where he’s comfortable singing the tenor, his voice may bottom out on the verses.