Legendary bluegrass musician Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, with his brother Bobby, were the first to record Boudleaux and Felice Bryant’s song “Rocky Top” in 1967.
Photo: Sonny Osborne, right, and brother Bobby (Photo from The Rural Blog)
Legendary bluegrass musician Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers – whose blazing banjo was the first to play “Rocky Top” on record – died Sunday at age 84.
Osborne’s death was confirmed by Alison Brown, whose label Compass Records is home to Osborne’s brother and former bandmate Bobby Osborne. The news was first shared on Bluegrass Today, where Sonny Osborne contributed a regular column.
Hailing from Southeastern Kentucky, Osborne and his older brother, singer/mandolinist Bobby Osborne, formed the duo Osborne Brothers in 1953. Over the next 52 years, they’d build a bluegrass legacy that included membership in the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
The duo was perhaps best known as the act that introduced “Rocky Top” to the world. Recorded and released in 1967, the song became a sports anthem for the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and was made one of Tennessee’s official state songs in 1982.
“Rocky Top” was written by legendary songwriter couple Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who were Osborne’s friends and neighbors.
“It was a throw-in song,” Sonny Osborne told The Tennessean in 2017. “We were really looking for a ballad because they stayed on the charts longer.”
And “Rocky Top” became a hit well beyond the borders of Tennessee.
“At one time we would open the show with it and then play it again at the end,” Osborne recalled. “It was phenomenal, that song. We went to Japan, Sweden, Germany — you’d go anywhere and they’d know ‘Rocky Top.’ It put our name out in front. And it stayed there a long time.”
Osborne received his first banjo as a sixth grade student, and soon revealed himself to be a prodigy. Within three years, he was performing and recording with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.
Upon his brother’s return from the Korean War in 1953, the Osborne Brothers officially formed. In their early years, they accompanied other singers, including mentor Jimmy Martin, and released more than a dozen singles on MGM Records, often with bluegrass singer Red Allen.
The duo hit a new stride in 1963, when they made their debut on the Grand Ole Opry. That same year, they signed a contract with Decca Records. Along with “Rocky Top,” they found success with singles such as “Ruby Are You Mad” and “Tennessee Hound Dog.”
Osborne was an innovative force in bluegrass, helping popularizing double banjos, six-string banjo and banjo/guitar hybrids. The Osborne Brothers boldly integrated electric guitars and drums into their recordings, and crossed over into new frontiers for a bluegrass act. In 1971, the duo won the CMA Award for Vocal Group of the Year, and became the first bluegrass act to perform at the White House in 1973.
Sonny Osborne continued to perform alongside his brother until 2005, when shoulder surgery affected his ability to play the banjo. Still, he continued to keep in contact with his fans and admirers through his regular “Ask Sonny Anything” column in Bluegrass Today, which published his latest installment on Friday.
“I appreciate the kind words,” he wrote to a fan last week. “It’s always nice to hear someone say they have enjoyed something you did.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
It’s football time in Tennessee and soon, every inch of Neyland Stadium will be filled with the sounds of UT’s Pride of the Southland Band leading 100,000 fans in “Rocky Top.”
It was written 50 years ago as a diversion, recorded as a “throw-in song” and became an anthem for an entire state.
“Rocky Top” was penned by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the husband and wife duo behind classics like “Bye Bye, Love” and “Love Hurts,” while holed up in Room 388 of the Gatlinburg Inn.
“They were writing an album for Archie Campbell called ‘The Golden Years’ and Mom felt as though she were aging dramatically with every old age song they wrote,” said Del Bryant, one of the couple’s two sons. “She said, ‘Boudleaux, let’s do a mountain song, a bluegrass song, anything else.”
“Rocky Top” was written in about 10 minutes.
Not long after, bluegrass brother act the Osborne Brothers were going into the studio. “Back in those days, you tried to get four songs within three hours,” said Bobby Osborne. “We had three and we were looking for one more song.”
Sonny Osborne called on his friend and neighbor Boudleaux Bryant and came back with “Rocky Top.”
“It was a throw-in song,” said Sonny Osborne. “We were really looking for a ballad because they stayed on the charts longer.”
During their sessions at Owen Bradley’s studio in Mt. Juliet, the Osborne Brothers recorded a ballad called “My Favorite Memory.” When the record came out on Christmas Day, 1967, “My Favorite Memory” was the A-side and “Rocky Top” was the B-side, said Sonny Osborne.
UT band director: ‘I’ve seen it turn games around’
In early 1968, the Osbornes visited disc jockey Ralph Emery’s show on WSM and brought their new 45 with them.
“I played (‘My Favorite Memory’) and said, ‘Let’s turn it over and try the other side,’ “ Emery remembered. “When the banjo came on and the harmonies came on, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great record.’ ”
Emery continued to play “Rocky Top” on his show and other DJs followed his lead. It peaked at No. 33 on the country charts, and quickly became a staple of the Osborne Brothers’ live performances. “At one time we would open the show with it and then play it again at the end,” said Sonny Osborne. “It was phenomenal, that song. We went to Japan, Sweden, Germany — you’d go anywhere and they’d know ‘Rocky Top.’ It put our name out in front. And it stayed there a long time.”
Other artists began recording it, including Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Dinah Shore and Lynn Anderson, who had a hit with it in 1970.
The University of Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band first played the song during halftime of a 1972 game against Alabama. The crowd liked it so much that the band started playing it during games. It’s the school’s unofficial fight song, pumping up players and fans alike.
“I’ve seen it turn games around,” said Donald Ryder, Director of Bands at UT. “That song will make Neyland Stadium really rock.”
It’s a band tradition, Ryder added, for a senior trombone player to keep track of how often the marching band plays “Rocky Top” each season. In 2016, they played it 438 times. And yet, “It’s never gotten old for me. I still get goosebumps.”
“Rocky Top” is the rare song that becomes more popular with each passing year. Children in the Volunteer State learn it alongside their ABCs and it gets played at weddings and funerals. In 1982, Tennessee adopted it as one of its state songs, and three years ago, the small town of Lake City changed its name to Rocky Top in an attempt to increase tourism.
‘Like a dream’
Sonny Osborne retired in 2005 after shoulder surgery affected his ability to play the banjo, but fans still reach out about “Rocky Top.” Just last month, a woman in California sent him a handmade sign decorated with the lyrics “Rocky Top…home sweet home to me.”
At 85, Bobby Osborne is still making music. He put out a stellar new album, “Original,” earlier this year, and still performs live. One song is always on his set list. “If I’m at the Opry and I have two songs (to play), one of them will be ‘Rocky Top.’ And if I just do one song in the segment, that one will be ‘Rocky Top.’”
He’s sung it thousands of times, at bluegrass festivals, symphony halls and the 50-yard line at Neyland Stadium, but he still gets emotional when thinking about the song’s impact: “It’s the greatest feeling there ever was… I never dreamed in my whole lifetime that I’d ever be a part of something like that. Still, it’s kind of like a dream that happened and I was a part of it.”
Boudleaux and Felice Bryant died in 1987 and 2003, respectively, having lived to see their 10-minute song become an integral part of Tennessee culture.
“It’s a song for all occasions if you’re a fan of Tennessee, a fan of UT, a fan of bluegrass or a fan of what the song stands for: a more simplistic life,” said Del Bryant. “Who would ever think that would become an anthem, and a phenomenon? My folks certainly didn’t.”
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