STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Bobby Osborne has a lot to celebrate. The bluegrass musician turns 86 years old today. He recently released a new album. And later this month, he will mark the 50th anniversary of the song that became the Osborne Brothers' signature, "Rocky Top." Jewly Hight of our member station WPLN took a drive with Osborne down memory lane.
BOBBY OSBORNE: If I get on the street, I'll know the house and everything.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Bobby Osborne is trying to find his way back to the lakeside home where he first heard "Rocky Top."
OSBORNE: I think this was a big field when I moved here.
HIGHT: This Nashville suburb's been transformed by half a century's worth of development.
OSBORNE: And Johnny Cash lived here. And he lived at a way (unintelligible), but he was right on the lake.
HIGHT: GPS guides us off a busy road and into a serene neighborhood.
OSBORNE: This is the street, I guess. But it - they lived at a dead end. It's probably not there no more.
HIGHT: The house once belonged to the legendary songwriting couple Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. It's still there, but the dead end has become a cul-de-sac.
HIGHT: Osborne stares out the car window, reminiscing about the afternoon that Boudleaux sat in an easy chair and strummed through an unfinished song he thought the brothers might like.
OSBORNE: Boudleaux had a kind of a low voice. And he would sing it like this, (singing) wish that I was on old rocky top, down into (unintelligible) hills. He sang the words to it slow and played it...
HIGHT: Slower and lower.
OSBORNE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
HIGHT: The Osborne Brothers came up with a different way of doing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKY TOP")
DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Wish that I was on old Rocky Top down in the Tennessee hills. Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top. Ain't no telephone bills.
HIGHT: Their record label paired "Rocky Top" with a ballad and released the two-sided single on Christmas Day, 1967. The slower song got all the airplay until a well-known Nashville DJ decided to flip the record over.
OSBORNE: And just minutes after he played that, his switchboard lit right up. People calling in wanting to hear it again.
HIGHT: The song got so popular, audiences would demand to hear it multiple times in a single concert. Bobby and Sonny Osborne grew up in rural Kentucky then in Dayton, Ohio, when the family migrated north. Bobby was the older of the two and took to music first, mimicking the cavernous singing of Ernest Tubb.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING THE FLOOR OVER YOU")
ERNEST TUBB: You left me, and you went away. You said that you'd be back in just a day.
OSBORNE: When I was about 16, I think, my voice just all of a sudden it just changed overnight. And I didn't want that. I wanted to stay, like, low like Earnest Tubb. But it just changed and went up to the pitch where it's at now.
HIGHT: Osborne gave up his honky-tonk dreams and shifted his focus to the high, lonesome singing and fleet picking he heard Bill Monroe And His Bluegrass Boys playing on the radio. Soon enough, he was sharing the stage with bluegrass pioneers Jimmy Martin and The Stanley Brothers. But when Bobby Osborne teamed up with his own brother, they were determined to set their music apart.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE MORE")
OSBORNE BROTHERS: (Singing) Once more to be with you, dear, just for tonight to hold you tight.
HIGHT: They started by trying a different approach to harmonizing. Everyone else sandwiched lead vocals between tenor and baritone parts. But while driving home from a gig, Bobby Osborne toyed with singing the melody on top.
OSBORNE: We knew then we had caught onto something we had never heard before. So we got the guitar out of the trunk and found out what key we was in. We sang that song all the way home so we would not forget that type of harmony.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE MORE")
OSBORNE BROTHERS: (Singing) Forget the past. This hurt can't last. Oh, I don't want it to keep us apart.
HIGHT: The Osbornes also experimented instrumentally. They were one of the only bluegrass groups playing arenas alongside loud country bands during the 1960s and '70s. And they adapted by expanding their string band sound to include electric guitars and drums. They freely drew material from country, pop and rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE HURTS")
OSBORNE BROTHERS: (Singing) Love hurts. Love scars. Love wounds and mars any heart not tough nor strong enough.
HIGHT: Over time, the brothers only grew more open to trying new things. After "Rocky Top" was embraced as an unofficial fight song by the University of Tennessee, they did a club remix for the college crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKY TOP")
PARTON: (Singing) Wish that I was on old Rocky Top. Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top.
HIGHT: Sonny Osborne eventually retired from performing, and Bobby reinvented himself as a solo act when he was in his early 70s. Osborne is long past the point when plenty of other singers lower the keys of their songs to accommodate their aging voices. He's still singing just as high. His secret...
OSBORNE: I think drugs and alcohol and smoking.
HIGHT: You mean not doing those things.
OSBORNE: Not (laughter) yeah. Oh, if I'd been doing that, I couldn't have carried a tune in a water bucket, I don't guess.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST IN CASE")
OSBORNE: (Singing) Just in case you ever change your mind. If you suddenly decide to give me one more try. I'll be waning in the wanes just looking for a sign just in case you change your mind.
HIGHT: Osborne's voice impressed 26-year-old mandolinist Sierra Hull, one of many guest performers on his latest album.
SIERRA HULL: Yeah. Well, it's totally exciting to hear somebody that still has that kind of force with their vocal chops at 80 years old. I mean, I think that would be the dream for most any of us if we can even just do it at all, let alone do it at that level.
HIGHT: The album's producer, Alison Brown, had Osborne tackle everything from classic country songs to Broadway tunes to hits by Elvis and the Bee Gees.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOTTA GET A MESSAGE TO YOU")
OSBORNE: (Singing) I just gotta get a message to you. Hold on, hold on. One more hour and my life will be through. Hold on, hold on.
ALISON BROWN: There was nothing I could suggest that he wouldn't consider. And if it wasn't right, he said so. And Bobby has always been an innovator. And his wide openness to trying anything is still very much a part of his musical spirit and genius, I think.
HIGHT: It's clear that Bobby Osborne enjoys being a bridge between past and present.
OSBORNE: People ask me now, when are you going to quit? Why, they asked the wrong guy 'cause I don't intend to quit. But, I mean, as long as I can do what I'm doing now - and if I get to where I can't sing or can't play or can't think good or whatever, you know, when - I might have to. But I ain't going to quit until then.
HIGHT: Besides making his own music, Osborne travels back to Kentucky every week to teach a college mandolin course in the same building where his dad once taught grade school. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY BOY")
OSBORNE: (Singing) Country boy going fishing.
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