january 2011

Bobby Osborne: On Memories, locomotivatin’ and reflecting

Play On, Mr. Osborne

By David McGee

Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press
Rural Rhythm
Released: November 2010

Subtitled “Celebrating Bobby’s 60th Anniversary as a Professional Entertainer,” bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne’s new Rural Rhythm CD pretty much explains why he’s been doing his thing at an exceedingly high level for more than a half century. Osborne and his Rocky Top X-Press make their efforts as writers, players and singer sound ridiculously effortless, the surest sign of having spent thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of hours devoted to mastering their chosen musical genre—and each and every one of them will tell you they’re only beginning to figure it out. So humble are these fellows that they’ll likely as not tell you they had to bring in Russell Moore, Audie Blaylock, Ronnie McCoury, David Grisman, Sammy Shelor, David Harvey, Glen Duncan, Emory Gordy Jr. and Takeharu Kunimoto to get them over the hump (well, maybe so in the case of Kunimoto, who plays the ancient Japanese three-stringed Shamisen on the lively workin’ man/mean woman blues he co-wrote with Osborne, “Up This Hill and Down”). Now, if they make that case with Patty Loveless, believe ‘em, because no one sings like Patty Loveless, who adds those indelible, keening mountain harmonies of hers to Osborne’s quintessential bluegrass heartbreaker, “Memories,” and slices and dices the listener’s heart with the ache she brings to her solo turns (a tip of the hat on this track, too, to Mike Toppins, whose plaintive steel work is a thing of beauty).

The classic: Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press, ‘Ruby,’ ’ at the 43rd Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, IN, June 20, 2009

That Osborne and his mates do fine on their own, thank you, is evident on more than a few number: try on for size “Ruby,” another Osborne classic, during which the X-Press gets locomotivatin’ down the tracks with impunity, working up a head of steam behind the aggressive banjo plunking of Toppins and the wailing fiddles of Glen Duncan, as Osborne works the higher end of his vocal range for all it’s worth. Try the beautiful Osborne lament for a lost love, “Memories from Yesterday,” with its plaintive vocal harmonies, crying fiddles, Toppins’ sputtering, emotional banjo punctuations (along with his subtly applied steel guitar weeping in the shadows) and Tim Graves’s expressive dobro soloing. Not least of all, dig how they tear into the Boudleaux & Felice Bryant evergreen that the Osborne Brothers translated into not merely a bluegrass classic but an American classic—we speak of “Rocky Top,” of course, the song that can’t be played too much, that never gets old, that exudes happiness, a joy for life and a love of home every time a band strikes it up, and here the band strikes it up with a blazing fury designed to get the cloggers in the crowd moving at a record pace.

The classic: Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press, ‘Rocky Top,’ at the 43rd Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, IN, June 20, 2009

Which is not to suggest that Audie Blaylock’s distinctive buoyant fiddling isn’t welcome on “With a Pain In My Heart,” a Blaylock-Osborne co-write chronicling the enduring agony of unrequited love but executed with a brisk rhythm at odds with the gloomy scenario described in the lyrics. Grisman, McCoury, Duncan and Harvey join the fray on two numbers—Osborne’s eight-minutes-plus instrumental honoring his inspiration, Mr. Bill Monroe, in “Man From Rosine,” which gives each guest a shot at nodding to the master with a solo, an opportunity McCoury in particular takes full advantage of with a tasty, atmospheric soliloquy rich in feeling and texture. The qualities of feeling and texture come into dramatic play on another Osborne instrumental of near eight-minute length, the ruminative “Bobby Van Waltz,” thoughtful, tender and, thanks to Duncan’s soaring, heartfelt fiddle solo, shaded with romantic yearning. Which is not to dismiss the beautiful expressiveness of the mandolin and steel guitar solos, both serving to elevate a humble waltz into a moving statement of affection and intimacy.

It may be too optimistic to wish he has another 60 years left in him, but there is nothing on Memories to indicate Bobby Osborne is slowing down or losing his touch. So play on, Mr. Osborne. Do play on.

Bobby Osborne’s Memories is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024