A lingering void in the bluegrass library is set to be filled by music journalist Bill Conger, who is working with Bobby Osborne to complete an autobiography of his life in the music business. Only recently have book publishers begun to recognize the market for such works, as evidenced by biographies of Ralph Stanley, The Stanley Brothers, and Ricky Skaggs.
Like his contemporary, Ralph Stanley, Osborne came up in the music world long before the comforts of air-conditioned buses traveling on interstate highways, and multiple bluegrass festivals occurring most weekends across the country. Making a living playing hillbilly music in the 1950s generally meant working a live radio show most mornings, followed by public appearances in the evenings somewhere within the range of your home station’s reach. As each region was depleted of performance opportunities, artists would move to another station and start the process again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Six years older than his brother Sonny, Bobby had worked with a number of early bluegrass bands before Sonny went to play with Bill Monroe at age 13. The brothers joined as a team when Bobby returned from fighting in Korea in 1953, and started working with Jimmy Martin on the radio. They joined up next with Red Allen, with whom they recorded one of their classic numbers, Once More, with Bobby singing the high lead that would become his trademark.
The Osborne Brothers had quite a star turn in the ’60s and ’70s, seeing their singles soar on the country charts and finding themselves part of package tours where they were the sole bluegrass act. They continued to perform together until 2005 when shoulder problems prevented Sonny from playing the banjo, and he retired.
Conger, who has written for years about music for a variety of top publications, and has a pair of non-musical books to his credit, tells us that he sort of stumbled onto the idea for an Osborne bio.
“I was doing research for an article on Bobby Osborne after he started with his own band, Rocky Top Xpress. Somewhere during that I remember looking to see if there was a biography of the Osborne Brothers. It seemed like at that time there were biographies on other legends of bluegrass like Bill Monroe, of course, Ralph Stanley, etc. Where was the one for the Osborne Brothers? They were an instrumental part of the early development of bluegrass. They were kind of rebels of the music, experimenting and taking chances with the traditional bluegrass, but their gutsiness paid off in the long run.
I’ve never written a biography. When I worked in television as a feature producer for shows on The Nashville Network and Country Music Television, I always had the desire to work on programs that had the longer form explorations of artists like The Life and Times of series, etc. That didn’t happen for me. I did write several obituaries on country stars to have in the can in case of their deaths. It was sad to think about, but at the same time I wanted to do their careers justice.
I’m sad to see that there aren’t more biographies out there on bluegrass artists. I know it’s a niche genre so sales may not be as great as with other mainstream music, but I think it’s crucial for music journalists to have a record of artists like the Osborne Brothers. To me, Bobby and Sonny deserve more than a few paragraphs in the history books. I hope others will also be instilled with this desire to record bluegrass artists’ careers. In some cases, it’s too late to talk with them directly, but the stories can still be told.
I have written a couple of other books. I wrote the self-published inspirational book, Rejoice in the Lord Always: The Jeff Hillman Story, and a pictorial history in the Arcadia Publishing series, Images of America: Mount Juliet.”
This project is moving slowly, as Conger now works in education, relegating writing and bluegrass to his spare time, but he is determined to see it through. To this point, Bill is working from recorded interviews with Osborne.
“I have had several conversations with Bobby. I’ve talked with his sons. I would like to speak with other key players in his life, musicians, family members, etc. I haven’t approached Sonny yet. I know he’s retired from the business, so I’m not sure if he wants to devote the time to contribute. I would LOVE to have his thoughts too.
Although most of Bobby’s career was with the Osborne Brothers, he continues to have a career now, and he had several interesting chapters in his life prior to the days with Sonny. Of course, Sonny had his own early days of professional work with others too.”
As anyone who knows him can attest, Bobby Osborne is a brilliant storyteller, with a down home manner and a straightforward delivery. If Conger can capture that as effectively as Eddie Dean did with Ralph Stanley, we will have another must-have classic on our hands.
Godspeed, Bill Conger.