“The MOB is on its way!” is what Don Rigsby of the Rambling Rooks had promised when they left the stage. He was talking to an excited crowd of onlookers at the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC) in Bowling Green this past Saturday night, January 26.
That’s right, friends, there’s a new MOB in town, although this particular mob actually carries fiddles in their fiddle cases, and the murderous ways of Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone have been replaced by the high lonesome voices of Bobby Osborne and Del McCoury. This MOB is the Masters of Bluegrass, which also includes J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks and Jerry McCoury, and the debut performance of the band made for a night of music and memories not soon forgotten.
This night had been long in coming, many months in fact. Those fortunate enough to be in attendance at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s awards show in September had been given a peek at what was to come when the quintet appeared briefly on stage. Since then, anticipation has been running high for people anxious to see and hear just how these icons, all lauded and at the very top of the bluegrass ladder of success, were going to put together a show.
What a show it was! Other than a rather painful introduction for Bobby Osborne, who was introduced as “Bobby Osmond,” it was everything the waiting crowd had hoped for. Not yet polished and with a few first-show jitters and missteps that the crowd loved – and over which the band laughed at themselves – the men played and sang well, told amusing stories and entertained their audience like the pros that they are. It was clear that the Masters weren’t going to take themselves too seriously, and they didn’t want their fans to, either.
Kicking off with My Blue Ridge Mountain Home, the group settled into their set, comprised of mostly songs from the first generation of bluegrass heroes. They went right into I’m Waiting to Hear You Call Me Darling from Flatt & Scruggs before Osborne took a moment to welcome everyone to the show and say that “we hope you like everything we do.”
It’s wasn’t difficult. The two tenor voices of Osborne and Del McCoury handled both lead and harmony vocals in turn as the song required, creating imaginative harmonies that you don’t often hear because there are rarely two voices in one band that can hit those high notes. If you’re wondering if Crowe might get a little rusty now that he’s officially “retired,” well, he sure doesn’t sound retired!
Although Bobby Hicks has been off the road for nearly a decade after 50 years riding upon it, he hasn’t lost his touch on the fiddle. Whether whittling Orange Blossom Special at breakneck speed or moaning with double-stops and a long bow on Bill Monroe’s Cheyenne, he’s still in the game. Osborne lent sturdy and capable mandolin to the ensemble and stunned the audience of believers with that well-recognized tenor. Jerry McCoury plucked his bass high and strong, thumping out the perfect foundation on which the others could build their music.
In a show like this, with players like this, there are bound to be many special moments, and nobody was disappointed. Hicks is noted for being one of the finest bluegrass fiddle players to ever pick up a bow, and the reasons are still obvious. Beyond the technique of playing the instrument, he can evoke emotion out of both his fiddle and his listeners in almost a transcendent way, sweetly, elegantly, movingly.
Bobby Osborne explained that he was proud of the fact that Flatt & Scruggs had recorded a song that he had written, the very famous Pain in My Heart, and the Masters did justice to their own version. Del McCoury had ‘em squealing in their seats on Don’t Stop the Music when he hit the high note on the refrain, “My pocKETS are empty, I spent my last dime…” in his amazing, Del McCoury way.
Jerry McCoury stepped to the microphone twice, to sing Give Me Your Address From Heaven and Roll On Buddy. Written by the Wilburn Brothers, Del McCoury had actually recorded the original Bill Monroe release of Roll On Buddy with Big Mon in the early ‘60’s. When the Masters sang Monroe’s No One But My Darlin’, it was a look back to when Bobby Hicks spent time as a Blue Grass Boy in the mid-‘50’s, and appeared on the original recording of that song.
Being in Kentucky and all, it was no bombshell that the song that received the most enthusiastic response of the night was Blue Moon of Kentucky. At the end of the tune, after the clapping, cheering and toe-tapping had died down, Osborne said, “If I knew you was gonna like it that much, I would have sung it a bit better than that!”
“December 31, 1954,” announced Hicks, remembering the exact date of the recording session he played with Monroe on the now-iconic instrumental, Cheyenne. Watching and listening to him play with such flair and vitality, it seemed impossible that this could be the same fiddle player that laid down the original track nearly 60 years ago. Although he will be 80 this year, there is no sign of age or wear in his talent.
Certainly, the Osborne Brothers’ Rocky Top was intended to be a highlight of the show, but when it was finished, after a long build-up by Bobby Osborne, the quintet looked at each other with uncertainty. Osborne finally came to the mike.
“This is a first for us and for you,” he chuckled. “We’ve known about this [tour] for a few weeks, but we fiddled around and didn’t do a lot of rehearsing,” he added, as the audience got in on the joke. Crowe chimed in, “We rehearsed for 15 minutes and ate for three hours.” Del McCoury got things back in gear and the band joined in to play I Wonder Where You Are Tonight by Johnny Bond before the set finished with the Osborne Brothers’ Ruby, one of the most inspired performances of the night.
Nobody even bothered to leave the stage for the audience to call for an encore; instead, the Rambling Rooks came back out, and the concert closed with everybody either singing or taking an instrumental break on Nine Pound Hammer. In the end, there were smiles everywhere – on the stage and in the seats. If, as Longfellow said, “music is the universal language of mankind,” then the Masters of Bluegrass pulled off a triumph in Bowling Green, for the message was received – loud and clear.