Bluegrass Banjo

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Sonny Osborne (born 1937 in Hyden, Kentucky) began his professional banjo career at age 14, as the youngest player ever to record with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. He had begun to play the banjo as an 11 year old sixth grader in Dayton, Ohio, where his father, Robert, had moved the family in 1941. Bobby Osborne, Sonny’s older brother, was playing guitar with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers at that time, and when he would come home to visit he would bring the band’s banjo player, Larry Richardson, with him.

Sonny heard Larry play banjo and asked him to show him how to play, but Larry refused, and sat
with his back toward Sonny so that the boy could not see his fingers. Sonny then decided to learn to play on his own, and he convinced his father to order him a $100 Kay five string banjo through his school’s music department. While he was waiting for the banjo to arrive, Sonny figured out the right hand breaks on “We’ll Be Sweethearts in Heaven” and “Cripple Creek,” so that when he did get his banjo, he was immediately able to play it. He then began practicing for at least five and sometimes for as many as fifteen hours each day.

Banjo playing was not Sonny Osborne’s only talent. He had played basketball and baseball in 7th and 8th grades and in 9th grade he played on his high school’s varsity football team. He had several inquiries from colleges and could have had a football scholarship, but his interest was the banjo. In 1952, when he finished 9th grade, he and Jimmy Martin, a member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers who had heard Sonny play when the boy had visited his brother the previous summer, went to see Bill Monroe in Beanblossom, Indiana. Bill hired both of them and, within a week, Sonny was playing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. During that summer, Sonny played with Monroe’s band and recorded nine tunes with them as well, but when September came, he returned to Dayton to begin the 10th grade. In what would be his last year of formal education, two important things happened to Sonny. The first was that he met Judy, the woman to whom he has been married for over 40 years. The second was that he persuaded his father to let him leave school and join Bill Monroe as a permanent member of Monroe’s band.

Sonny stayed with Bill Monroe until 1953, when his brother, Bobby, finished his time in the service and returned home to Dayton. Before he had been drafted, Bobby had played with Larry Richardson, first in a duo and later with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. He had also formed a band with Jimmy Martin, but he left after only a brief time to make a one-shot single, “New Freedom Bell,” with his siblings, Louise and Sonny, and then to join the Stanley Brothers. Sonny left Monroe to join his brother and the boys began their career as The Osborne Brothers on November 8, 1953, on WROL Radio in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Sonny and Bobby stayed at WROL until 1956, when they left to play for the Wheeling Jamboree. Later in that year, Red Allen joined them. The three toured and recorded until 1958. It was then that their song, “Once More,” became number 13 on the country charts and pushed them into the musical mainstream. Allen left the Osbornes shortly afterwards, but the brothers replaced him with a string of musicians and vocalists and the Osborne Brothers band remained with the Wheeling Jamboree until the early 1960’s.

Sonny and Bobby Osborne can claim credit for several firsts in Bluegrass music. Theirs was the first Bluegrass band to play at a college campus when, in 1960, they appeared at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. They were the first Bluegrass musicians to use twin harmony banjos in their act. They were the first to experiment with non-traditional instruments when they added piano, steel guitar, and electronic instruments to produce the new bluegrass sound that would make them popular and accessible to a larger and younger audience. While this sort of experimentation angered bluegrass traditionalists, the Osborne Brothers were the only bluegrass group to have consistent hit records throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In 1970, they were voted Number One Bluegrass Band by the Music City News Award Show and were the first and only band to win this honor for ten consecutive years, until the category was discontinued. In 1973, the Osborne Brothers were the first bluegrass/country group to perform at Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe, Utah. In that same year, they became the first bluegrass group to perform at the White House. To date, the Osborne Brothers have more national chart records than any other bluegrass band in history.

Despite their long and continuing list of accomplishments, the Osborne Brothers are best known for a song they recorded on the B side of their December 25, 1967 recording of “My Favorite Memory.” That song is “Rocky Top,” which sold 85,000 copies within ten days of its release. “Rocky Top” would become the Official Tennessee State Song and the fight song for the University of Tennessee where, in 1985, the Osborne Brothers performed it with the 155 piece UT band before a crowd of 102,000 people. “Rocky Top” is second only to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as the most programmed bluegrass song in history and stands alone as the most frequently recorded bluegrass song of all times.