Bobby Osborne is trying to find his way back to the lakeside home where he first heard “Rocky Top,” the song that would define his career as one half of the Osborne Brothers, one of bluegrass’ most popular and innovative groups.
“I think this was a big open field when I moved here,” Bobby says about the Nashville suburb we are currently driving through. The GPS guides us off a busy road and into a serene neighborhood.
“This is the street, I guess,” he says. “They lived at a dead end. I bet it’s probably not there no more.”
The lakeside house once belonged to the legendary songwriting couple Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. It’s still there, but the dead end has become a cul-de-sac.
Bobby stares out the car window, reminiscing about the afternoon that Boudleaux sat in an easy chair and strummed through an unfinished song he thought the brothers might like.
“Boudleaux had kind of a low voice,” Bobby remembers. “But he would sing like… He sang the words to it slow and played it slower and lower.”
The Osborne Brothers came up with a different way of doing the song.
Their record label paired “Rocky Top” with a ballad, and released the two-sided single on Christmas Day 1967. The slower song got all the airplay until a well known Nashville DJ decided to flip the record over.
“And minutes after he played that, his switchboard lit right up, people calling in wanting to hear it again,” Bobby says.
The song got so popular, audiences would demand to hear it multiple times in a single concert.
Bobby and Sonny Osborne grew up in rural Kentucky, then in Dayton, Ohio when the family migrated north. Bobby was the older of the two and took to music first, mimicking the cavernous singing of Ernest Tubb.
“But when I was about 16 I think, my voice all the sudden, it just changed overnight,” Bobby says. “I wanted to stay low like Ernest Tubb, but it just changed and went up to the pitch it’s at now.”
He gave up his honky-tonk dreams and shifted his focus to the high, lonesome singing and fleet-picking he heard Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys playing on the radio.
Soon enough, he was sharing the stage with bluegrass pioneers Jimmy Martin and The Stanley Brothers. But when Bobby teamed up with his own brother, they were determined to set their music apart.
They started by trying a different approach to harmonizing. Everyone else in the genre sandwiched lead vocals between tenor and baritone parts. But while driving home from a gig, Bobby toyed with singing the melody on top.
“We knew then that we had caught onto something that…we had never heard before,” he says. “So we got the guitar out of the trunk and found out what key we was in, and we sang that song all the way home so we would not forget that type of harmony because that’s what we wanted to do.”
The Osbornes also experimented instrumentally. They were one of the only bluegrass groups playing arenas alongside loud country bands during the ‘60s and ‘70s. They adapted by expanding their string band sound to include electric guitars and drums. They freely drew material from country, pop and rock.
Sonny eventually retired from performing. Bobby reinvented himself as a solo act when he was in his early 70s, and just released his latest album, Original, in June.
Now, at 86, Bobby is long past the point when plenty of other singers lower the keys of their songs to accommodate their aging voices. He’s still singing just as high. His secret?
“I think drugs and alcohol and smoking,” he says, meaning that he does not do those things. “Oh, if I’d have been doing that, I couldn’t have carried a tune in a water bucket I don’t guess.”
Bobby’s voice impressed 26-year-old mandolinist Sierra Hull, one of the many guest performers on his latest album.
“It’s totally exciting to hear somebody that still has that kind of force with their vocal chops at 80 years old,” Hull says. “I mean, I think that would be the dream for most any of us if we can even just do it at all, let alone do it at that level.”
“There was nothing I could suggest that he wouldn’t consider,” Brown says. “And if it wasn’t right, he said so. Bobby has always been an innovator and his wide openness to trying anything is still very much a part of his musical spirit and genius.”
It’s clear that Bobby enjoys being a bridge between past and present. He doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“People ask me now, ‘When you gonna quit?’” he says. “Why, they ask the wrong guy. I don’t intend to quit as long as I can do what I’m doing now. Now, if I get to where I can’t sing or can’t play or can’t think good or whatever, then I might have to. But I ain’t gonna quit ‘til then.”