I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the mania unfold that is March Madness over the past week, as has so much of the nation. After Cincinnati’s down-to-the-wire victory over Florida State last night, the state of Ohio secured four teams in the tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. This is quite an impressive feat, and, as an Ohio boy myself, I can’t help but brag about the Buckeye state every once and a while.
To celebrate this great achievement, I decided to chose an album by two of the Ohio Valley’s greatest musical icons: Bobby and Sonny Osborne. Although born in the hills of Kentucky, the Osborne brothers grew up near Dayton, OH, and it is there were they began their musical careers.
In 1969, the Osborne Brothers released their second LP for Decca Records, and it is one that features some of their most overlooked tunes. Up To Date And Down To Earth peaked at #27 on the Billboard Country charts, which makes it the Osbornes’ highest ranking album on the country charts.
The album kicks off with a barnburner of a tune in Son of a Sawmill Man. Co-written by Bobby and songwriting legend, Pete Goble, it’s one that gets stuck in your head right away. It is blazing fast, and Sonny’s picking is outstanding, with the rhythm section on this track deserving special mention. The track plows straight ahead with such tenacity, you almost feel tired by the time it’s over. Taking a breather after this one is recommended.
The album’s title perfect describes the music; Up To Date And Down To Earth is exactly what it is. The Osborne Brothers’ signature “countrygrass” sound was just that. The core of the band was straight ahead bluegrass (“Down To Earth”), while the addition of electric instruments were key in Sonny and Bobby’s ability to crossover into mainstream country (being “Up To Date.”) The songs on this album also reflect the Up To Date And Down To Earth dichotomy. The material is a balance between established standards and new material.
One of the classics which makes an appearance is the Hank Williams standard, You Win Again. As one of the most recognizable artists of all time in any form of music, covering a Hank Williams song puts you in the situation where if it’s not as good as the original, it’s clear for all to see. Also, due to the public’s general familiarity with Hank’s songs, an original interpretation is hard to pull off. The Osborne Brothers solved both of these issues with a fresh arrangement, using a vocal trio where Williams sang solo on the chorus. They turned a Hank Sr. song into an Osborne Brothers’ song, which is quite a feat. Bobby’s vocals are masterful, showing restraint while still sounding powerful. He takes the high lead on the choruses, textbook Osborne Brothers, which is key in the group’s transformation of this chestnut.
Cindy Walker gets a hat-tip from the Osborne Brothers here as well. Walker was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, and is a charter member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. She wrote such country classics as Cherokee Maiden (Bob Wills), Distant Drums (Jim Reeves), I Don’t Care (Ricky Skaggs), and You Don’t Know Me (Eddy Arnold, Ray Charles, Elvis).
On Up To Date And Down To Earth, the Osbornes do Cindy’s Flyin’ South. This is such a fun song. It makes you wanna get up and dance! Innovative as always, Sonny’s banjo playing carries the song right along, demanding your attention. Even though this recording is over forty years old, Sonny’s picking sounds just as inventive today as it did back then. The banjo introduction to this song gets me every time. Just when you think you know where he’s headed, he takes you for a left turn and throws in a few of those bluesy licks no one had ever heard before and it blows your mind! I know I’m not the only one who has experienced a “Sonny Osborne moment,” and this is one of my favorite.
Another traditional favorite on this album is their take on one of everyone’s favorites: Nine Pound Hammer. The drums on this track are very tasteful. It really bolsters the beat and was a great decision. This a very “countrygrass” recording of the song, complete with electric instruments and keys, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s still got Sonny Osborne eating up his banjo throughout the whole thing and Bobby’s sky high lead vocals. What’s not to love!?
One of my favorite Osborne Brothers originals on this album is A Working Man, which strikes me as one of their most overlooked songs. As the title suggests, it is a great working man’s anthem, expressing with plight of the man who works hard to put bread on the table for his woman, mixing work and pleasure. A catchy song executed with rock solid musicianship, mixed with strong, tight-knit harmonies makes for a very memorable performance.
Up To Date And Down To Earth features many other great songs such as Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Will You Visit Me On Sundays, and Where Does The Good Times Go.
The complete track listing follows:
Son Of A Sawmill Man
This is a great sampling of the Osborne Brothers minus songs everyone has heard a million times. It features many deeper, lesser known cuts which are just as strong as the hits. I see The Osborne Brothers as one of the greatest bluegrass groups of all time, and this album exemplifies all of the reasons why. A great record all around, I highly recommend it from the pride of Dayton, OH.
Unfortunately, this album is not available on iTunes, Amazon Music, or even compact disc. All of the tracks are found on Disc 1 of the Bear Family Box set The Osborne Brothers 1968-1974, the second of the Osborne Brothers’ sets on the label. Bear Family Records is based in Germany, so the sets can be slightly expensive, but are worth every penny! With over one hundred tracks and an LP-sized book filled with extensive essays, great pictures, and liner notes covering the Osbornes career during this period, this is a must-have for any bluegrass fan.
The Osborne Brothers 1968-1974 can be ordered from the Classic Country Connection or County Sales. You may also find copies of Up To Date And Down To Earth on LP at used record stores which carry country/bluegrass music.