Bluegrass giant Bobby Osborne passes

Another major figure in the development of bluegrass music has left us. Bobby Osborne, singer, mandolinist, and one half of the trendsetting and hit-making Osborne Brothers, has died today. He was 91 years of age.

From the time he started performing as a member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers in 1949, through many years with brother Sonny, and finishing his career with his own Rocky Top XPress, Bobby Osborne represented the highest caliber of bluegrass music, and music business professionalism.

As he was still recording and performing actively, that adds up to nearly 75 years as a bluegrass entertainer. In fact, though Bill Monroe did have his Blue Grass Boys when Osborne joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, the concept of a musical form called bluegrass was still some years away when Bobby first appeared on the scene.

His high, clear tenor voice was the most memorable aspect of his sound, but he was also highly regarded as a mandolinist. Lead playing on mandolin had not been common, at least not in the way Monroe pursued in the 1940s and beyond, and Bobby took an approach quite different from Bill’s. Based on his fondness for the fiddle and fiddle playing, he played in a more scalar fashion, in the first and second position primarily, as would a fiddler, where Monroe’s style employed closed chord shapes.

The Osborne Brothers was Bobby’s home from the time he returned from service in the Marine Corps in 1954, until Sonny retired in 2005 following rotator cuff surgery. Though they started off partnered with Jimmy Martin, with whom they cut classic tracks like 20/20 Vision and Chalk Up Another One, which was followed by an ill-fated association with Red Allen, the brothers gradually turned their show into something that could be featured on more country-oriented package shows in the 1950s.

Their radio hits included now standard songs like Ruby, Rocky Top, Up This Hill and Down, Making Plans, Once More, Midnight Flyer, Kentucky, Tennessee Hound Dog, and many others. It has been reasonably suggested that people who may know only one or two bluegrass numbers have likely heard Bobby sing. The later association with Rocky Top by the University of Tennessee football program has kept the song alive for succeeding generations.

In 2017, Compass Records released Original, a new album from Bobby Osborne, matched up in the studio with a slew of bluegrass all stars, for a truly memorable final recording under his name.

Sonny died in October of 2021 after suffering a stroke. Fans recall Sonny as the more bombastic personality, and Bobby as the more restrained brother, both on stage and off.

With The Osborne Brothers, Bobby is a member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame. A twin mandolin album with C.J. Lewandowski is still yet to be released.

At this point we have very little information about Bobby’s passing, but will update as further details emerge.

His death leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of every bluegrass fan, and we aren’t likely to see his kind again.

R.I.P., Bobby Osborne.

UPDATE 6/28 – Funeral arrangements have been announced as follow:

Visitation at the Crestview Funeral Home in Gallatin, TN on July 5 from noon to 7:00 p.m. Funeral services will be held at Crestview on July 6 at 11:00 a.m.

The general public are welcome to attend.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.