Osborne Brothers – A high lead, a long run
Bobby Osborne is a one-of-a-kind singer – “there’s no limit to what he could do, and he was the best that ever was at what he did,” Sonny accurately notes – and it was obvious that his vocals were the centerpiece of the band’s sound. But, as Sonny once told an interviewer, “he was having to strain his voice to sing the low parts for a lead and then go into a natural register to sing the tenor.” That wasn’t a problem when Red was singing the lead, but on the other hand, having another lead singer diluted the focus on the Brothers, and on Bobby in particular, and it made them uncomfortably reliant on a third party.
Sonny recalls how they came across the solution. “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. Because we’ve always sounded the same, and that’s strictly because Bobby’s part is always dominant.”
Though the high lead trio would become a staple of the Osborne Brothers’ sound, it was enhanced by a savvy, creative flexibility that made the most of every opportunity. “Singing harmony is all in knowing why you’re doing things,” Sonny says. “It’s not just making a note match, it’s knowing why you do that note. Why do you go from this note to that note and the other guy stays where he is — it’s knowing why, that’s the main part of that. See, what we always did, we never did follow any kind of pattern with that harmony thing. We always figured you’ve got three lines and it’s gotta be harmony. It didn’t matter who sang them. Whoever could get the best tone out of a note, that’s who went to that note, and so we switched parts constantly all through a song, we just continually switched parts.”
THE BUSINESS OF BLUEGRASS
“[Doyle Wilburn] had gotten us a guest appearance scheduled for that coming Saturday on the Opry, he had booked us to do some Armed Services radio shows on Sunday before we came back to Dayton, we were going to sign with their publishing company, which was Sure-Fire Music, and their booking agency, which was Wil-Helm Agency. He did that in a period of three or four days, and this was more than we’d been able to do in six months.”
The innovations of the high lead trio and the related development of sophisticated approaches to harmony were the centerpiece of the Osborne Brothers sound henceforth, but they weren’t the only components.
On the instrumental front, Bobby and Sonny were also blazing new trails. Bobby developed a syncopated, melodic approach to the mandolin derived from the jazz-inflected solos of bluegrass’s hottest fiddlers. Sonny played a stunning panorama of styles, from right-hand picking patterns that punched out quirky, inspired variations on classic Earl Scruggs licks to a wholly new chordal sound. The latter was a perfect accompaniment to the country material the Brothers focused on in a series of sessions for MGM over the next five and a half years.
Singer/guitarists came and went. Allen departed in 1958, succeeded by Jimmy Brown Jr. and then the supremely talented Benny Birchfield, who also recorded a half-dozen banjo duets with Sonny. Studio musicians such as guitarist Ray Edenton, bassist Lightnin’ Chance and drummer Buddy Harman rounded out the instrumental sound, and occasional guests such as Ira Louvin, Hank Garland, Pete Drake and even (on separate occasions) Rusty and Doug Kershaw chimed in one way or another.
But the focus was now on the Brothers for good, and the sound was therefore consistent and identifiable. It was also brilliant and beautiful, producing such tour de forces as Ira Louvin and Doug Kershaw’s “Five Days Of Heaven”, Hank Williams’ “May You Never Be Alone”, and the last cut they recorded for MGM in 1963, Rufus Bridley’s “Sweet Thing”, on which Bobby’s aching, heartsick lead alternated with lush, poignant trios.
Still, though the Brothers had hit their stride musically, they were unhappy with their progress, or lack thereof, in the business. Sonny remembers how they felt by the end of their tenure with the label: “Our career had really come to a standstill. We had records out, but otherwise it was just standing there doing nothing. And we were doing a lot of kind of heavy-duty drinking, and just about everything associated with that.
“We played this place somewhere in Pennsylvania one night, and Bobby and I were laying in the beds in our hotel room, and both of us…it was just on our minds. Bobby had a child by this time, and I had just gotten married – and I said what are we going to do, and Bobby said, I don’t know, but we gotta do something. And he said, you know something, Doyle Wilburn one time gave me a card, and I believe I’ve got it; let me see if I can find it. So he got up and got in his billfold, and sure enough he found that card. I called Doyle — and this is 2:30, 3:30 in the morning – and Doyle said, do you know what time it is, and I said yup, and just think, where I am it’s an hour later from where you are. He said you big SOB, what do you want? And I said, well, you remember a couple of years ago you told Bobby if he wanted a change to call you? Well, we’re ready to almost do anything or quit, one or the other. He said, give me until you get home, which was in five days, and let me see what I can round up.
“I called him when we got back. He had gotten us a guest appearance scheduled for that coming Saturday on the Opry, he had booked us to do some Armed Services radio shows on Sunday before we came back to Dayton, we were going to sign with their publishing company, which was Sure-Fire Music, and their booking agency, which was Wil-Helm Agency. He did that in a period of three or four days, and this was more than we’d been able to do in six months. And so a little spark of hope came up.”
Doyle and Teddy, the Wilburn Brothers, are little-remembered these days, but in the early 1960s, they were Nashville powerhouses, with a string of Top 10 hits for Decca, their own businesses (including a syndicated TV show that was just getting underway when Sonny made his call), membership in the Grand Ole Opry since 1956, and a lot of credibility as starmakers, having sponsored Loretta Lynn’s triumphant entry into Nashville. Their support made a huge difference for the Osborne Brothers, and Sonny remembers Doyle Wilburn with a lot of gratitude.
“We sat in the office and watched him con our way into a Decca record contract. I watched him do it,” he recalls. “He called Owen Bradley, and he said, ‘I got these guys that are on MGM, and RCA’s gonna sign them today. They’re good, and if you want them, you can have them, with Decca.’ Owen asked who we were and all this stuff, and he said, ‘I don’t think I’m interested, I don’t think they’d be good for the label right now.’ And Doyle said, ‘Chet [Atkins, at RCA] is gonna sign them this afternoon, he’s already said he is.’