Although today, the Osborne Brothers are often recognized as symbols of traditional bluegrass, during much of their recording career, they were some of the most adventurous artists in the bluegrass world. They were using country instruments – electric bass, drums, steel guitar, piano – before pretty much any other group, and often made a concerted effort to appeal to fans of country music as well as their normal bluegrass fan base. Nashville, the final album in a four-part series from Pinecastle chronicling Bobby and Sonny’s career together, serves as fine evidence of this side of their music.
The brothers were in the midst of recording an album for Decca in 1973 when the label became MCA. They ended up leaving, but were allowed to keep seven tracks they had recorded. These seven tracks (unreleased until now) make up the bulk of this album, and might be quite a surprise for listeners who have never delved deep into the Osborne Brothers’ catalog.
Several of the songs here will be familiar to those who have kept up with Bobby’s solo career over the past several years – he has recorded a few of them for his projects with the Rocky Top X-Press. However, instead of the fairly traditional bluegrass style he now plays them in, these cuts are fairly solid 1970s country, loaded with steel guitar and piano courtesy of the legendary Hal Rugg and Hargus “Pig” Robbins, as well as the talents of a number of other prominent Nashville session musicians of the day. It was produced by one of the masters of classic country, Owen Bradley.
Gonna Be Raining When I Die kicks things off with one of the best grooves I’ve heard in a long time. The song sounds straight out of a southern honky tonk, with Bobby’s high lead vocals taking on a bluesy vibe and Sonny offering some – simply put – cool-sounding banjo. On a great album, it’s easily one of the best tracks and should be required listening for any bluegrass music fan. Going Back to the Mountains is another that Bobby has re-recorded recently, and this older version actually sounds fairly similar to his new one, with the exception of some tasteful country instrumentation. Muddy Water, a classic flood story written by Phil Rosenthal and famously recorded by Seldom Scene, has a bit of an eerie feel and fine fiddling from Vassar Clements.
There’s a nice – if very straightforwardly country – version of the Louvin Brothers’ When I Stop Dreaming, and a somewhat grassier cut of another number written by Charlie and Ira, My Baby’s Gone. Though the latter still has quite a bit of steel and piano, Sonny and Bobby’s banjo and mandolin are also prominent, making it sound closer to the classic Osborne Brothers sound.
The seven unreleased Decca tracks are rounded out by two songs written by Jake Landers. The Oak Tree is yet another that Bobby has re-cut in recent years, and here it’s a pleasant country-grass number that reminisces on youth, home, and young love. The harmonies on this song are particularly of note. The Hard Times is another that doesn’t stray too far from what most folks know as the Osborne Brothers’ standard repertoire. The story of a man who heads off to the city and doesn’t find the fortune he was seeking, it features standout harmonies and banjo work.
The final song on the album was recorded more recently, in 1995. It’s a heartfelt version of Roger Miller’s Half a Mind with the notable feature of Sonny playing the guitjo (banjo neck on a dobro body). It does have a different feel than the other songs on the album (particularly thanks to the more standard acoustic instrumentation) but serves as a nice closer that sort of caps off the brothers’ career together.
Unlike some artists who decide to add drums, piano, steel, and other more “country” instruments to their sound, the Osborne Brothers aren’t overpowered by the electric instruments here. The country sounds here are tasteful and fit well with the vocals and “bluegrass” instruments of the brothers. While Nashville is in no way straight ahead, 1-4-5 drive, it’s an excellent slice of early progressive bluegrass. It’s sure to be a treat for listeners, especially longtime Osborne Brothers fans.
For more information on the Nashville project, visit Pinecastle’s website at www.pinecastlemusic.com. The album can be purchased from a variety of online music retailers.