‘Rocky Top’ Banjoist Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers Has Died

When it comes to the banjo in bluegrass or anywhere else, aside from maybe Earl Scruggs, nobody else has been heard and enjoyed more than Sonny Osborne of The Osborne Brothers. Both prolific and influential, the Osborne Brothers rendition of the iconic Tennessee State Song “Rocky Top” written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant made many listeners bluegrass fans, with Sonny playing the spirited banjo of the song. Word has come down that Sonny passed away Sunday afternoon, October 24th after suffering a stroke a few days before. He was 84.

Born in Roark, Kentucky October 29, 1937, Sonny was the younger brother of the duo. From an early age the two brothers were performing music, but when Bobby Osborne was drafted into the Marine Corps to serve in the Korean War, Sonny went to work for the Father of Bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe, making him forever an alumnus of the legendary Bluegrass Boys.

After Bobby’s return from the war, the two brothers went to work for the “King” of bluegrass Jimmy Martin, and later moved to Wheeling, West Virginia to become mainstays on the Wheeling Jamboree, which after the Grand Ole Opry, was the oldest country music radio show. After recording some music successfully for Gateway Records, they were later signed to MGM Records, and by the late 50’s, they were considered one of the premier acts in all of bluegrass, known for their spellbinding musicianship, and brother Bobby’s tenor.

Though when you think of the Osborne Brothers, you think of Bobby as the singer first, Sonny contributed the blood harmony lines critical to the band’s sound, and sang lead on certain songs as well. By 1964, they had received an invitation to become members of the Grand Ole Opry—something that wasn’t easy to win in that era since you needed the blessing of Bill Monroe.

The sheer musicianship of the Osborne Brothers won them many fans well beyond the country and bluegrass realm. They helped make bluegrass cool, especially after they released “Rocky Top” on Christmas Day in 1967, and the song enjoyed ubiquitous popularity that is still around today.

As time went on the Osborne Brothers helped bluegrass evolve. Unlike other bluegrass groups, they would play with instrumental amplification as opposed to just into microphones, or would include outright electric instruments, and sometimes drums. This sparked a little controversy in the bluegrass realm, but opened up the music to new audiences. Nearly a decade before Earl Scruggs would make headlines playing an anti-War protest in 1969, the Osborne Brothers played Antioch College in 1960, bringing bluegrass to a younger and different generation.

The Osborne Brothers never lost their respect within the bluegrass community though, and believed bluegrass was for everyone. In 1973, they became the first bluegrass band to perform at the White House when they were invited by Richard Nixon. In 1982, “Rocky Top” was officially named the Tennessee State Song.

The Osborne Brothers were known for other songs as well, including “Up This Hill & Down,” “Ruby Are You Mad,” “Tennessee Hound Dog,” and “Midnight Flyer” written by Paul Craft, which was later recorded by The Eagles on their On The Border album, speaking to the Osborne Brothers influence across popular music. Sonny and Bobby Osborne were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Though the 89-year-old Bobby Osborne is still performing today, and is one of the oldest living country performers, Sonny was forced to retire in 2005 after rotator cuff surgery rendered him unable to play the banjo at peak performance. He remained a mentor in the music though, and wrote a Q&A column for Bluegrass Today, which announced his passing.

Though many may have not known his name, most everyone knows “Rocky Top,” and the sound of Sonny Osborne’s banjo resonates into infinity.

Funeral arrangements for Sonny are pending.

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