Osborne told us yesterday that he has spent more than 70 of his 89 years as a professional bluegrass performer, during which time he played as a member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, before launching a partnership with his brother, Sonny, which was to last from 1953 until Sonny retired in 2005. Since that time he has continued on as a solo artist making records and touring the country in the shadow of his 90th birthday.
For this new release, Alison Brown at Compass asked Bobby if he would like to record Haggard’s White Line Fever, a song from Hag’s Mama Tried album in 1968. The original had a leisurely, creeping kind of beat, with the ’60s cement truck bass, but Alison had envisioned it sped up and grassed up for Bobby’s arrangement.
The Osbornes had recorded several Haggard songs over the years, including Fighting’ Side Of Me, Some Of Shelly’s Blues, and Today I Started Living You Again, but Bobby had never tried singing White Line Fever until this session was coming up.
“When Alison mentioned this song to me, I went on the internet to listen to how Merle did it. I tried singing it a few times and it suited me just fine. Then Alison showed me how she wanted to do it, adding the bluegrass swing, and I told her, ‘I don’t think I can sing it like that.’ But she said, ‘Sure you can,’ so I went in to do it.”
Haggard had been a fan of The Osborne Brothers, and a friend as well. Bobby said they became acquainted when they opened for him some months in a row.
“We worked with Hag for a couple of years. He went on a two year tour of dates all over the country. His agency set it up so that we did all of his shows. I got to know him really well. He was an alright guy, Merle Haggard.”
Brown booked in a superstar lineup of pickers to support Bobby for this session – Sierra Hull on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Trey Hensley on guitar, Todd Phillips on bass, with Alison on banjo. Tim O’Brien came in to sing harmony with Hensley.
But she said that something was missing in the song, something lacking in the lyrics. So she reached out to her old friend, Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco fame, and asked if he could help out.
“Garry and I know Jeff from his Uncle Tupelo days – we did a bunch of shows with them in the early ’90s when we were playing with Michelle Shocked’s band. We had the idea to do a bluegrass version of White Line Fever but, the way Merle Haggard wrote and recorded it, the structure felt incomplete. So we reached out to Jeff to see if he could write a second verse especially for Bobby, and he came up with the perfect handful of lines. We knew Jeff would be a great call for this because of his love of traditional/roots music, and because of his history of doing these kinds of collaborations on both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s unfinished songs.”
Once the tracking was finished, Compass put together a music video incorporating live video from the studio with photos of Bobby from childhood through his many years in the music business. The result is simply priceless.
Osborne told us that he was very happy with how this track turned out, and he gave most of the credit to Alison Brown. He also explained how they came to work together.
“Alison is one of the greatest people that I’ve ever met. She is 100% all the time. She and Garry both.
I had run into Pete Rowan at Telluride some time ago. He was recording with Compass, and asked if I would come sing on his new record. I went to the sessions and saw Jesse McReynolds and a whole bunch of guys there. Then I found out it was Alison’s studio.
I asked her if she might want to do a record on me. She said let me think on it a bit, but she called back and said, ‘sure!'”
When we asked how much longer he plans to tour and record, Osborne wasn’t willing to give a time frame.
“I’m 89 – soon be 90, and I still love it. I’ve got a good fall coming up. I ain’t gonna quit until the man upstairs takes me.
I’m so thankful that I can still sing pretty good. A lot of guys have their voice go away as they get older, but mine has hung right in there with me. I’m so thankful for that.”
So are we, Bobby. So are we.