april 2009

Away Out There, Still

By David McGee

Bobby Osborne: Aiming the tunes to hit us right where we live

Bobby Osborne

There's so much history in and around Bobby Osborne that any album bearing his name must be approached with great respect for his achievements and an equal amount of anticipation for what he might spring on an unsuspecting listening public. He and brother Sonny, after all, were pointing the way to the progressive era long before the first guest checked into Louisville's famed Bluegrass Hotel, before a bunch of forward-thinking young bluegrassers banded together as Muleskinner, before the Seldom Scene was ever seen. When Bobby and Sonny dared bring some classical music conceits to the music, via their exhilarating "Bluegrass Concerto" in 1979, Mark O'Connor was 13 years away from composing his first caprice for violin, and Chris Thile, he of the four-part bluegrass-classical fusion "The Blind Leaving The Blind," wasn't even a gleam in his parents' eyes—in fact, his parents weren't even married yet. Which is all by way of saying, a new Bobby Osborne album titled Bluegrass And Beyond commands attention.

No need to sustain the suspense here: the album is a powerful and moving journey through Bobby's history, blending old-time gospel soul ("What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul"), hard driving traditional bluegrass (more than once, but check out how Bobby and his superb Rocky Top X-Press band transform Eddie Rabbit's "Drivin' My Life Away" into a rousing raveup showcase, especially for Glen Duncan's white-hot, speed-of-sound fiddling), country heartbreakers, poignant reminiscences of the past, and, for good measure, one special showcase for his own impeccable mandolin work when he trades high stepping verses with Duncan's fiddle, Matt Despain's dobro and Dana Cupp's banjo on Osborne's own beloved instrumental, "Hyden."

Rhonda Vincent and Bobby Osborne, together again. (Photo by Ted Lehman)

Few have worked the high tenor range as effectively or as influentially as Bobby Osborne, and this album reminds us once again of how affecting and emotional his singing can be. To the Civil War setting of "Shenandoah Wind" he brings a weary, heartfelt reading that summons both the fear and the physical toll of conflict as well as the deep longing for a loved one back home. On "Different Definition of Love" he delivers a stern, direct dressing down to a woman whose heart seems to be in the wrong place, the barely contained irritation in his voice pretty much saying it all about a man who's run out of patience. He's at his best on "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul" and "After The Fire Is Gone." On the former, the husky baritone of Marty Stuart joins Osborne's plaintive tenor in a deep gospel soul reading, slow and restrained, its portentous atmosphere enhanced by Osborne's trilling mandolin runs; halfway through the song morphs into western swing mode with twin fiddles announcing it, and Stuart's wife, one Connie Smith, brings her own urgent high tenor to bear on the proceedings, which now include Glen Duncan adding a baritone and low tenor to the trio parts. A cheating song born of a loveless marriage, "After The Fire Is Gone" endorses the idea of "love is where you find it/when you find no love at home," and this particular bluesy lament features the rare pairing of the Vincent siblings—Rhonda and Darrin—in harmony on its third verse, by which time both Rhonda, in her best aching voice, and Bobby, beautifully pragmatic about the position he's been forced into, have well made the point about the heart wanting what it wants. Cognizant of the feeling that's coming through his singing, Osborne doesn't dazzle with vocal pyrotechnics but rather with the subtle shadings he adds to his clear, ringing tenor and with his nuanced phrasing that adds loads of subtext to a lyric when he stretches out a syllable or hammers on a particular word for effect. Ultimately, Osborne and the members of Rocky Top X-Press do what good bands should do, and that's to serve the song. Never losing sight of the message, these superb musicians make sure their technical facility is put to good use aiming the tunes to hit us right where we live. In and of itself, that seems like a pretty progressive idea right there. 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, 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