On this day in 1967 ……

On December 25, 1967, the Osborne Brothers’ recording of Rocky Top was released.

Recorded on November 16, 1967, Rocky Top was the second of three songs cut during an afternoon session at Bradley’s Barn, Mount Juliet, Tennessee. The other songs recorded were When You Wind Down and My Favorite Memory, which was paired with Rocky Top (Decca 32242).

Bobby (born July 12, 1931) and Sonny Osborne (born October 29, 1937) from Roark, Kentucky, first released some sides on the small Kitty label (1948 / 1951); Bobby linked up with Jimmy Martin (1951) – later (1954) Martin had both brothers on board for a session – Sonny cut three albums released on the Gateway label (early 1950s) and in the summer of 1952 he recorded with Bill Monroe. While working with Harley ‘Red’ Allen, they taped 16 sides over just less than two years, from July 1956 through to February 1958; so by the time that the brothers recorded four sides for MGM in January 1959 they could perhaps be considered veterans.

Rocky Top was first mentioned on the Billboard chart for March 2, 1968, and it peaked at #33 on March 16.

In 1982 Rocky Top was named a Tennessee state song.

The 4-track re-mixes Rocky Top ‘96 (MCA 55274, released on October 1, 1996) peaked at #5 on the Billboard sales chart.

While the Bryants never indicated that Rocky Top, Tennessee, refers to a specific place, some have suggested that a 5,440-foot (1,660 m) barren summit known as Rocky Top – located in the Great Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border – is the best fit, due in large part to its proximity to Gatlinburg, where the song was written. Rocky Top is a sub-peak of Thunderhead Mountain, which overlooks Cades Cove and is traversed by the Appalachian Trail (according to Wikipedia).

The Osborne Brothers joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in 1964 and won the CMA Vocal Group of the Year award in 1971.

In 1994, The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the IBMA’s Hall of Honor.

Sonny retired in 2005, but Bobby continues to perform with his band Rocky Top X-press.

Bobby Osborne reflected recently ….

“I remember loving the melody of the song. The release date was December 25th 1967. We needed one more song to complete a recording session and Mr Bryant pitched the song to my brother and me. We liked it and recorded it the next day.”

In their notes with the Bear Family box set The Osborne Brothers 1956 – 1968, (Neil V Rosenberg and Edward L Stubbs wrote,

On November 16 they were in the studio again, this time with a significant new addition to their sound; the first time since 1960 an electric pedal steel guitar was included, played by one of Nashville’s top studio men, Hal Rugg. He was prominent in the mix on the first song in the session, a remake of the slow trio My Favourite Memory, a country love ballad that they hoped would be their next big hit. Then came the first Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song since they’d joined Decca, an up-tempo piece called Rocky Top. Since the Bryants worked for a competing publishing company, their composition had not been chosen by the Wilburns for the Osbornes. Bulow Bryant called Sonny before the session to tell him he was writing a new song that he thought they could use. Bryant lived nearby, so Sonny walked over to his house and Boudleaux sang the half-completed Rocky Top to him.

Sonny, knowing they were soon going to be rehearsing, called Bobby and asked him to come over and listen. They agreed to do it. But when they got to the session with it, both of the Wilburns objected to their using the song, since they didn’t have the publishing rights. When the Osbornes insisted, Doyle Wilburn walked out of session. At the time they recorded it, Sonny recalls, it was “just another bluegrass song”, the B side of their next single.

Within ten days it had sold 85,000 copies. Sonny Osborne believes it would have gone much higher on the charts had it not been identified with bluegrass. The session closed with When You Wind Down, another R D Staedtler tune which in its banjo work and lyrics had much of the flavor of The Kind of Woman I Got.

Around Christmas Rocky Top and My Favourite Memory were released by Decca (32242). The new single was news in the country music industry. Billboard reported: “The Osborne Brothers have a new release which pulls them even farther from the old Blue Grass tag…. For the first time in nine years of recording Sonny and Bobby utilize a steel guitar on their sessions.” At the beginning of 1968 it was already clear that this new step towards country bluegrass synthesis was popular with country music listeners.

The Osborne Brothers can be seen and heard here in later years singing a version of Rocky Top


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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.