The Originalest Original
A conversation with Bobby Osborne
Bobby Osborne, the 85-year-old singer and mandolinist best known for the bluegrass music he started playing with his brother a half-century ago, has a new record out this week called Original. (Full disclosure: the album was made with the help of a grant from the FreshGrass Foundation, which also operates No Depression.)
Original is a loaded title for an album dropping at the far end of the artist’s career. But make no mistake, 54 years after stepping out of Kentucky to make music with his brother Sonny, Bobby Osborne has more than earned the moniker.
In the realm of bluegrass music that even folks like me — which is to say not-so-much bluegrass fans — can enjoy, Bobby and his brother were the deviant pioneers. Osborne was an originator of the high lonesome vocals that became synonymous with bluegrass music, though he and Sonny were as inclined to veer from “exactly bluegrass” just as often as they stuck to it. While Sam Bush’s Newgrass Revival is often hailed as the progenitor of newgrass, the Osborne Brothers certainly cleared the way for them to make their lasting impression.
As Osborne told me earlier this week, “My brother and I always wanted to be different. We’d record anything that was good, [anything] that we felt.” In this case, he was referring to his version of the Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” which appears on Original at the suggestion of producer Alison Brown (who also lent her banjo to the track). As outside-the-box as the tune may have seemed, it matches Osborne’s smooth tenor so perfectly, its twang feels inherent. Besides which, that tune brought Osborne into a studio to film his first ever music video, surrounded by a crowd of innovative bluegrassers who no doubt owe him a debt: Brown, Claire Lynch, Sierra Hull, Rob Ickes, Stuart Duncan, Trey Hensley, and Todd Phillips. Indeed, the “all-star band” energy stretches throughout the disc, with appearances from Trey Hensley, Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Jim Lauderdale, Del McCoury, Darrell Scott, and the list goes on. So, that’s where our conversation began. It’s been edited for continuity.
Kim Ruehl: I’d like to start talking about your new record Original. You got quite a cast of characters on this album. How did this all come to be?
Bobby Osborne: Well, it’s kind of a long story.
I had asked Alison [Brown], I guess two years ago, to do a project on me. She got me to come down [to Nashville] and sing with Pete Rowan, the guy that used to work with Bill Monroe. She did a project on him and … being that I hadn’t recorded anything for three years, I asked her. She said, ‘Let me think it over,’ and one thing led to another. Finally she decided she’d do a project on Bobby Osborne!
I knew Alison was a great musician and business lady, and all that, but I never knew she did any producing. [But] we got to picking out some songs and it turned out to be the CD of my life. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
Her producing on it was just crazy. I couldn’t expect anything better. I let her pick out the material and somehow or another she knew the songs that would fit me best. I thought I could use my band, and she said, ‘Well, I’ll allow you to use your band on two tracks and Compass will have the other eight tracks.’ I said, ‘That’s fine with me, anything’s fine with me.’
All these songs that she picked out, they just fit my voice just perfect, and we went from there.
I saw the video you did for the song, “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.” I was wondering what you must have thought when Alison brought that Bee Gees song to you.
[Laughs] Well, it kind of shocked me, a little bit, that she wanted me to do a Bee Gees song. In the past, my brother and I always wanted to be different and we’d record anything that was good, [anything] that we felt. We didn’t just record bluegrass songs; we’d record anything, so she knew that from past experience.
She asked me about the song and I said, ‘Well, I think I could sing it,’ and she said, ‘Let’s work on that because I think it’d be a good song for you.’ So I started singing it around the house here and then I thought, ‘Boy, I can sing that!’
I was familiar with the Bee Gees because of the harmony – I’ve always been interested in harmony my whole life.
But the video, I’d never done a video of any kind. I’ve seen them played back before, by different people, but I never thought about doing a video, you know. Christina [Dunkley, Compass PR] approached me and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing a video?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how [to do that], but I’d be interested. … I’ve done everything else, I may as well try a video.’
We met [up] that morning and all the pickers were there, and of course Alison got her banjo on too. I didn’t know what was going to take place. I had no idea, but when I saw the finished thing on it, I was happy to have gotten a chance to do that.
I’ve gotten so many compliments on that video, people saying, ‘How did you get to do that video?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know. Ask Alison.’
You were part of a generation who were playing authentic rural music, from the place where you were from in Kentucky, with your brother. Can you talk a little bit about how you got started?
I got to listen to the Opry when I was probably 11 or 12 years old. Somehow, I just liked Ernest Tubb’s singing. My voice was kind of low back in those days. … My dad showed me three chords on a guitar and I got really interested in trying to learn how to sing. Of course my daddy was a Jimmie Rodgers fan and he liked to sing those songs like Jimmie Rodgers. But I got a chance to see Ernest Tubb in person … and as I watched him, I thought, ‘Boy, I’d like to do that!’
I knew nothing about bluegrass music. I’d never heard of Bill Monroe or nothing like that.
I was listening to the Opry one night and I thought I heard the strangest sound coming out of the radio. I thought I had the wrong station. So I asked my dad, “What is that thing?’ He said, “It’s a banjo.” … [The emcee] never mentioned who it was or nothing, but I liked the sound of what I heard, and I listened for weeks to see if I could hear that sound. Finally I heard that sound again. I liked the sound of that banjo, and I found out later on it was Earl Scruggs playing a tune called “Cumberland Gap.” From then on, I really got interested in that music.
Then one day, I was trying to learn an Ernest Tubb song and my voice changed over into a higher pitch. I couldn’t sing Ernest Tubb songs anymore — not the way he did. You’re not going to sound like Ernest Tubb [if you’re] singing songs in a higher key.
You know, Ernest Tubb was one of my first heroes, ever since I first heard of him. Of course, coming to the Opry in 1964, I got a chance to meet the guy, worked a lot of shows with him and he was just a super person. [But once] my voice had changed to a higher pitch, I could sing any of those [bluegrass] songs. I never lost track of my country songs and Ernest Tubb, and some of the people who came along later, … but I loved bluegrass because I had the voice to sing it.
I played the guitar until someone told me the guy who sang the high part [in the Blue Grass Boys] played the mandolin. I didn’t know what a mandolin looked like so I found a mandolin and started playing it.
How do you think bluegrass music has changed over the years?
Well, … I came along in the early days of bluegrass music with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and people like the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and of course Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers came out about the same time. To me that was the early generation of bluegrass music.
The generation of people who have come along since I did, the younger generation, they have their own ideas I guess.
But you know the instruments that are known to play bluegrass music are the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass, and now the Dobro — those were just the instruments people chose to play bluegrass music. I think it all came from Bill Monroe not having any electricity to the mandolin and the guitar and upright bass, but those insturments have been known to be strictly bluegrass instruments.
But to me, the day bluegrass was born was when Earl Scruggs showed up to the Opry and started playing with Bill Monroe. [The] bluegrass we know has all been built around the banjo playing of Earl Scruggs. My brother and me, we had him to learn from. None of us sounded the way he did — we couldn’t sound like him. To me, there was only one Earl Scruggs, one Bill Monroe, one Lester Flatt.
When we came along, we sang the same songs but we had a different sound because our voices were younger, coming from a younger generation. New people come along, [and they] have new ideas bout bluegrass. They have the same instruments ... [but] each time a new generation comes along they do bluegrass the way they feel like playing it.
Look at country music. [It used to be] Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and people like that, back in them days, but country music has changed over the years also. I think music in general … all kinds of music have changed.
I’ve thought a lot about the changes. Like, if our country hadn’t changed, why, we’d [still] be living back in the times like when I was a kid. The people that have come along, the young kids, they’re the ones that have changed it.
The people that go and see festivals, they see new people playing [bluegrass] and they enjoy their generation of people playing bluegrass music moreso than they would bluegrass that came along in the '40s.
When I came along, I never tried to sing like anybody at all. [My voice] just came out. I’ve learned some things about singing that have helped me an awful lot, [like] how to pronounce my words real clear.
Are you familiar with Hank Thompson? I got to play some shows with Hank Thompson and I have every album he ever put out. The one thing I noticed was how clear he sung his words. … When I heard him sing, I thought, 'That’s exactly what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to say my words plain like that to where people can understand.' Because I’ve tried to copy lyrics down from recordings where people didn’t say their words plain. Bluegrass people are pretty bad about that [laughs].
I wanted to say my words as plain as I could. That’s one change I’ve made through the years.
I think I sound different from all the rest of them, because I don’t try to sing like [someone else]. I think I fit in with what I do.