The Osborne Brothers

Bobby and Sonny Osborne were born in Hyden, Kentucky and raised outside of Dayton, Ohio. Bobby learned he had a natural ability on the guitar when he started playing in bands as a teenager, and Sonny followed suit a few years later on the banjo. Starting in 1949, Bobby had a few stints with radio stations and artists such as Larry Richardson, Jimmy Martin, and the Stanley Brothers, but his musical career was put on hold in 1952 when he was drafted into the army. Sonny went on to play with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, even working a little with Decca Records, and upon Bobby’s return the duo formed their official band, the Osborne Brothers.

Through the 1950s, the Osborne Brothers had success working with Jimmy Martin and at radio stations in Knoxville and Wheeling. In 1956, Red Allen joined and the band signed with MGM Records, allowing them to tour and gain a faithful audience. Their hit ‘Once More’ became a hit on the 1958 country charts, and that success pushed the Osborne Brothers into the mainstream.

For the next few years, the band members changed but Bobby and Sonny remained constant. They were the first bluegrass group to perform on a college campus in 1960 at Antioch College, which symbolized a shift to a new and younger audience. Upon signing with Decca Records in 1963, the band pushed the limits of the genre and began producing new sounds with piano, steel guitar, electric instruments, and drums. This allowed them to be more accessible to a wider audience, and the Osborne Brothers experienced great success over the next couple decades – even if they had angered the Bluegrass purists with their experimentation. By the 1980s, the Osborne Brothers had returned to a more traditional sound and stuck to that in their performances through the mid-90s, over forty years after their formation. They are still recognized as one of the most innovative Bluegrass bands of their time, and acclaimed for gaining a wider audience and pushing their music to new directions.

The video below shows a performance of one of the Osborne Brother’s most famous hits, ‘Rocky Top’. Although they stick to a mostly traditional Bluegrass sound here (check out the electric bass), it is easy to tell from the visual aspects of the performance (sorry for the low quality) that the band was striving for a unique, modern look. They may be a little flashy, but I personally really like the gold jackets:

‘Rocky Top’ was declared an official song of Tennessee by the state’s General Assembly in 1982. Another track by the Osbornes, ‘Kentucky’, was also adopted as an official song of their home state.

The song below was one I included because it was my first encounter with the Osborne Brothers, and remains to be one of my favorite tracks.

Osborne Brothers Artist Biography, Steven Thomas Erlewine

“The Osborne Brothers–Getting it Off” Neil Rosenberg, The Bluegrass Reader edited by Thomas Goldsmith.

Samantha Bumgarner

Samantha Biddix was born in Jackson County, North Carolina in 1878 and grew up in the hills southeast of Asheville. Her father, Has Biddix, was a well-known local fiddler who was at first unsupportive of her interest in music, and then later grew to encourage her talents on both the fiddle and banjo. The first banjo she used was “a gourd with cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax,” until the age of fifteen, when her father bought her her first real banjo.

In her early twenties, Samantha married Carse Bumgarner, who right away supported her musical career and bought her her first fiddle. Sadly, all of her instruments burned in a house fire shortly after her marriage, leaving Bumgarner with no means of music-making or income. Struggling to get back on her feet, she bought a “ten-cent banjo” and entered a picking competition in Canton, NC; to no surprise, she won, and then continued to win several following competitions as well.

When she was 37, Bumgarner had built enough regional acclaim to be invited by Columbia Phonograph Company to travel with her friend and fellow musician Eva Smathers Davis up to New York to record her music.

Original Columbia recording for ‘Big-Eyed Rabbit’, the first release of the ten tracks recorded at the New York studio.

The Bumgarner-Davis visit to Columbia Records in April of 1924 was one of the first times traditional string band music was ever recorded (especially banjo music), let alone by two female musicians. The video below is one of the original 1924 recordings, and in this song, Bumgarner performs both vocals and banjo, whereas on some of the other tracks she only fiddled or sang.

Though the records were hugely successful, neither Davis nor Bumgarner ever returned for additional recording or received critical acclaim. Bumgarner finished out her career continuing to perform and annually attend Bascom Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville (where she also routinely won the clogging competition). She died in 1960, and in her obituary she was recognized for her influence on mountain music, her inspiration to young women musicians, and as one of the “region’s most colorful and picturesque individuals.”