One half of the sibling duo who made “Rocky Top” a perennial Bluegrass favorite has died. Sonny Osborne passed away on Oct. 24 at age 84.

Sonny and his brother, Bobby, 90, were born in Roark, Kentucky, but then moved to Dayton, Ohio, where during their youth they sang and performed throughout Southwestern, Ohio.

Sonny was drafted into the United States Marine Corps in 1952 during the Korean War. Bobby went on to perform with the “Father of Bluegrass Music,” Bill Monroe. Upon his discharge from the military, Sonny joined Bobby to begin performing as a duo on radio stations such as WROL in Knoxville, Tennessee, and WJR in Detroit, Michigan.

The Osbourne Brothers worked with RCA Victor and Jimmy“King of Bluegrass” Martin to record six songs. They returned to Dayton, Ohio, in 1956, after playing on WWVA Jamboree with Martin. They started playing in Dayton-area clubs and replaced their guitarist, Enos Johnson with a new guitarist, Red Allen. They also added a fiddler, Art Stamper.

After cutting eight tracks under the pseudonym Stanley Alpine and with the help of disc jockey friend, Tommy Sutton, the brothers earned a deal with MGM Records. They made their debut in July 1956 with a 45 RPM that proved to be incredibly successful. This recording, “Ruby Are You Mad,” was the first time two banjos were used on a Bluegrass recording.

As a result of their sudden recognition, the Osbourne Brothers became regular performers on WWVA Jamboree in October of 1956. The talented brothers experimented with musical styles, and in addition to Bluegrass success, they made the Country chart with their song “One More” in 1958. They performed the song as a trio with Red Allen singing the lowest part of tenor, while Bobby sang the lead and Sonny sang baritone. The trio would become known for their interchangeable technique with a high lead.

They also recorded songs with their special techniques such as “Blame me,” “Sweethearts Again” and their version of the Carter Family’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.” The Osbournes caused controversary in Bluegrass music when they added electronic and percussion into both live performances and studio work.

They soon signed with Decca Records in August of 1963. A year later the Osbourne Brothers were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. They have remained members for 57 years.

Their best-known hit, “Rocky Top,was released on Christmas day in 1967, selling 85,000 copies in a two-week time frame. “Rocky Top” was chosen as the Tennessee state song in 1982. Their song, Kentucky,” was considered become an official song of the State of Kentucky, but Johnny Cash’s version of “My Old Kentucky Home” was adopted instead.

In 1971 the duo won the CMA for Vocal Group of the Year, and in 1973 the brothers were the first Bluegrass act to perform at the White House. In 1994 the Osbourne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor.

They performed on May 31, 2013, at a rededication ceremony to mark new ownership of The Gatlinburg Inn, the location where Felice and Boudreaux Bryant wrote their sensational hit, “Rocky Top.

Over the years Bobby continued to perform with his band, Rocky Top X-press. The band included Bobby’s three sons. Bobby’s latest video was posted on his personal website, on Jan. 5, 2021. He has collaborated with many Bluegrass and Country music artist such as Vince Gill and Molly Tuttle in recent years.

Sonny, who was born Oct. 29, 1937, is credited with development of a banjo style that allowed Bluegrass music to begin to flourish. He retired in 2005, but he regularly wrote a column for the publication, Bluegrass Today. In fact, his last “Ask Sonny Anything” column was published the week before his death.

“I appreciate the kind words,” he wrote to a fan that week. “It’s always nice to hear someone say they have enjoyed something you did.”

By Sasha Dunavant