David Royko Psy.D

david@davidroyko.com

Bluegrass Unlimited
June 1996

CD Review

By David Royko

Highlight Review

OSBORNE BROTHERS
1968-1974


Bear Family BCD 15748
(Boxed set, 4 CDs)

DISC ONE: I'll Never Love Another/I'll Go Steppin' Too/Will You Be Lovin' Another Man/I'll Never Shed Another Tear/My Little Girl In Tennessee/Molly And Tenbrooks/Drivin' Nails In My Coffin/World Of Forgotten People/Cut The Cornbread, Mama/If I Could Count On You/I Bowed On My Knees And Cried Holy/Steal Away And Pray/Will You Meet Me Over Yonder/Where We'll Never Grow Old/Medals For Mother/Hide Me O Blest Rock Of Ages/I Pray My Way Out Of Trouble/How Great Thou Art/What A Friend We Have In Jesus/Jesus Sure Changed Me/Light At The River/That Was Yesterday/A Working Man/Banjo Ringing Saturday Night/Thanks For All The Yesterdays/Midnight Angel/Son Of A Sawmill Man/No Good Son Of A Gun

DISC TWO: There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight/You Win Again/Blue Moon Of Kentucky/Where Does The Good Times Go/Put It Off Until Tomorrow/Flyin' South/Will You Visit Me On Sundays/Nine Pound Hammer/When The Grass Grows Over Me/Tennessee Hound Dog/Somebody's Back In Town/Beneath Still Waters/Ruby Are You Mad/Siempre/Searching For Yesterday/Listening To The Rain/Georgia Piney Woods/The Fightin' Side Of Me/Let Me Be The First To Know/Windy City/Kawliga/My Sweet Love Ain't Around/Your Running Wild/My Old Kentucky Home (Turpentine And Dandelion Wine)/Tennessee Stud/My Heart Would Know/Muddy Bottom

DISC THREE: Color Me Lonely/take Me Home Country Roads/Tears Are No Strangers/Oh, The Pain Of Loving You/Unfaithful One/Ballad Of Forty Dollars/Tomorrow Never Comes/Sometimes You Just Can't Win/Shelly's Winter Love/I Wonder Why You Said Goodbye/Tunnel Of Your Mind/Eight More Miles To Louisville/Love Lifted Me/Stand Beside Me, Behind Me/Miss You Mississippi/Teardrops Will Kiss The Morning Dew/Long Lanky Woman/Knoxville Girl/Wash My Face In The Morning Dew/Love's Gonna Live Here/Today I Started Loving You Again/Arkansas/Fireball Mail/Midnight Flyer/How Long Does It Take (To Be A Stranger)/Blue Heartache

DISC 4: Wabash Cannonball/Try Me One More Time/Back To The Country Roads/The Condition Of Samuel Wilder's Will/Tears/You're Heavy On My Mind/Checkin' Her Over/Lizzie Lou/Side Saddle/High On A Hilltop/Sledd Ridin'/Walk Softly On The Bridges/The 7th Of December/Fastest Grass Alive/Bluegrass Melodies/We're Holding On (To What We Used To Be)/Heartache Looking For A Home/M.A. Special/I'm Not That Good At Goodbye/Grandpa John/Little Trouble/A Born Ramblin' Man/Here Today And Gone Tomorrow/El Randa/In Case You Ever Change Your Mind/Don't Let The Smokey Mountain Smoke Get In Your Eyes/Summertime Is Past And Gone/Highway Headin' South


    On more than one occasion, Sam Bush, the musical revolutionary who for 18 years lead the New Grass Revival, has said something to the effect of "Don't blame me for inventing newgrass music. Pin that one on the Osborne Brothers." What he meant is illustrated by this boxed set from Bear Family, which picks up where the earlier Bear set devoted to the Osbornes [1956-1968] left off, which means hot on the heels of their mega hit, "Rocky Top."

    To continue the New Grass Revival parallel, NGR broke into mainstream top-40 country radio in the late-1980s, and without dumping the banjo. However, the Osbornes were a charting presence for many years, including the years covered by this set, and though NGR had Bela Fleck's banjo on their singles, it was virtually buried in the mix, while Sonny Osborne's banjo on the Osborne Brothers' singles was right up in your face. To the Osbornes, the banjo was not considered a liability to hide, but one of their defining features.

    So is this music that would appeal to the New Grass-style devotees out there? Maybe, maybe not. NGR broke the mold by mixing large chunks of rock, jazz, reggae, and funk into their sound, taking on a hip, counter culture stance born of their late-'60s/early '70s milieu. Viewed for many years as outcasts, they were shunned by traditional bluegrassers for their sound and attitude, and ignored by jazz and rock followers who saw mandolins and banjos as alien to their sensibilities. On the other hand, the Osbornes sought precisely the opposite. Wanting to be embraced by the masses, they incorporated less of the rock and more Nashville country of the day into their sound. It worked.

    The Osbornes found a huge audience by blending bluegrass with pianos, steel guitars, drums, and in some cases, even string sections (the schmaltzy kind, not the Bill Monroe triple fiddle kind), and though a bluegrass purist might listen to these tracks and say, "Hey, all that other stuff keeps this from being real bluegrass," a country listener would probably think he was having a true bluegrass encounter, since the mandolin and banjo are so primary.

    But of course, what really made the Osbornes successful was their amazing vocals, with Bobby leading their tightly arranged high harmony trio. And no matter which side of the fence one lived, that sound was hard to resist, and is present on most of the 109 tracks, recorded for Decca/MCA between 1968-1974, collected here.

    By now, most readers know what a Bear Family set means: comprehensive coverage of a specific period in a group's or artist's career, chronological presentation, excellent sound, good notes and session documentation, interesting photos, an oversized booklet (in this case, 24 pages) housed in an LP-sized box, and that's what one gets with this set.

    Those who own the first Osborne set should know that by this point the Brothers were wholly committed to their country-grass sound, with fewer tunes drawn from traditional bluegrass sources. And while the first set features a healthy dose of instrumentals, this set has far fewer. There also seems to be even more slow songs, which again emphasizes their commercial goals, but also showcases the vocals effectively.

    Ironically, the first disc begins in a very traditional mode, so much so that Lester Flatt, hearing one of these songs on a car radio, reportedly mistook it for one of his classic recordings with Scruggs. This 1968 session had no drummer present, making it unique for this period. Present for this session was guest fiddler Jimmy Buchanan, who adds some extra heat, in particular with his Benny Martin-flavored lightning fast descending 16th note figures on "I'll Go Steppin' Too."

    Beginning with the next session, pianist Pig Robbins, steel player Hal Rugg, and electric guitarist Leon Rhodes are omnipresent, and one of the reasons that the grass/country graft stands up so well today is because they are expert players that could produce arousing solos when called upon. It is interesting to consider that these two initial sessions were made for an album that was designed to show both their bluegrass and country radio sides, which presaged David Grisman's 1980s album with dawgrass on one side and dawgjazz on the other. Once again, the Osbornes were leading the way.

    Next, the Osbornes fulfilled a bluegrass obligation by recording a gospel album, and the results are truly inspiring, not surprising considering the voices involved. The following sessions introduced electric bassist/mandolinist Ronnie Reno to an Osborne fold that already included Dale Sledd's guitar and vocals. Reno makes his presence felt on an absolutely burning "Banjo Ringing Saturday Night," where his and Bobby's twin mandolins take center stage. From the same June 1968 session comes a driving "Son Of A Sawmill Man" that displays how seamlessly the Osbornes could combine acoustic and electric instruments.

    These discs are plump with Osborne classics, such as "Flyin' South," from April 1969, a session that also included "Nine Pound Hammer," which could have come from an Area Code 615 album, with its distinctive use of drums. The following session produced another classic, "Tennessee Hound Dog," complete with late '60s "dynamite, uptight, outasight" vocabulary. The next session included yet another waxing of "Ruby Are You Mad," and if not quite as fiery as their first, it moves at an even faster pace, and of course, Bobby's voice is wondrous.

    The next several sessions find some unusual repertoire, from Merle Haggard's scathing anti-hippy "The Fightin' Side Of Me" to Randy Newman's wry "My Old Kentucky Home." Also from this period came "Windy City," yet another Osborne staple with vocals as stunning as the string section is wretched.

    The next several sessions (we're up to 1971 now) saw frequent covers of Earnest Tubb songs, something the Osbornes are still doing, these days for Pinecastle. Osborne evergreens like "Arkansas" and "Midnight Flyer" were also recorded at this time.

    The remaining sessions brought in guests such as fiddler Vassar Clements, harmonica player Charlie McCoy, and clawhammer banjo player Mark Jones, listed in order of how significantly they added to their respective sessions, with Clements being a huge asset. His soloing and back-up work on "Side Saddle," "Sledd Ridin'," "Fastest Grass Alive," "Bluegrass Melodies," and Bobby's instrumental new acoustic masterpiece (before anyone ever heard the term "new acoustic music"), "The 7th Of December," works magic alongside Sonny's creative banjo work and Bobby's always intriguing mandolin soloing.

    In the end, what the Osborne Brothers produced was unique and tons of fun, but was it always bluegrass? Twenty or thirty years ago, that question probably seemed more important than today, with all of the changes that have occurred since then, in large part goosed along by the Osbornes themselves. Nowadays, the most appropriate answer might take the form of a shoulder shrug. Whether it is true bluegrass will depend on who you ask, but regardless of definition, what this set contains is some exceptional music, performed by outstanding singers and players, which is all that will matter to those who will enjoy it the most.

(Bear Family, P.O. Box 1154, D-27727, Hamburg, Germany) DR