[27 April 2009]
Bobby Osborne has had quite the career. In 50 years of recording, he’s recorded two state songs (one of which is “Rocky Top”, state song of Tennessee), and been a part of one of bluegrass music’s most influential bands: The Osborne Brothers. When brother and partner Sonny Osbourne retired from the music business in 2005, Bobby made the decision to continue on with his new band, the Rocky Top X-Press. The past four years have seen Osborne and the X-Press release two solid bluegrass albums with roots label Rounder Records: Try A Little Kindness and Bluegrass Memories.
Now they’re back with their third release together: Bluegrass & Beyond, an album bursting at the seams with energy from the very first track, as Osborne crows, “Woman, this heart of mine / Just lives one day at a time / Tomorrow’s a brand new song / And I might be moving on”. These lyrics set the tone for the rest of the album. Osborne and his supporting quintet rip through a dozen tracks in 40 minutes, with energy to spare. For a guy pushing 80, the verve with which Bobby Osborne sings is really rather remarkable. His voice may have become a bit weathered with age, but he sounds as youthful and spirited as he did in the Osborne Brothers’ prime, 45 years ago.
In addition to several originals and a couple traditional gospel numbers, Bluegrass & Beyond boasts a handful of covers, a few of them rather unusual choices for a bluegrass singer. Eddie Rabbitt’s 1980s hit “Driving My Life Away” mimics the pace of the road, with frenetic banjo picking courtesy of Dana Cupp. The Eagles’ “Girl from Yesterday” is now a sweet fiddle-and-dobro ballad.
Osborne’s skillful mandolin playing and high lonesome tenor is the keystone of the album. His bandmates, including Glen Duncan on fiddle and harmony vocals, aren’t too shabby either. But even though Osborne and his Rocky Top X-Press are consummate pickers and entertainers, the guest stars on Bluegrass & Beyond cause them to up their game even more. One of the album’s highlights is the gospel tune “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul”, featuring guest vocals from husband and wife team Marty Stuart and Connie Smith. There’s not a lot that distinguishes this version from any of the numerous other recordings of the bluegrass classic, but it sure is pretty. Hearing Smith and Stuart sing together is a treat, too. Siblings Rhonda and Darrin Vincent provide guest vocals on the Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn classic “After the Fire Is Gone”. (For those of you grossed out by a brother-sister team on this song, rest assured that Darrin only provides tenor harmonies. Thus the two do not actually sing to one another, which would indeed be kind of creepy.)
At 77 years of age, Bobby Osborne has spent approximately two-thirds of his life kicking up a storm in bluegrass music. Bluegrass & Beyond is proof positive that we’re lucky to have him.