L-R: Bob Osborne (bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Trey Hensley (guitar), Alison Brown (banjo/producer), Arthur Hancock (songwriter), Bobby Osborne, Sierra Hull (mandolin, vocals), Gordon Hammond (engineer), Todd Phillips (bass). Photo credit: Stacie Huckaba
About the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and the Frank Jaklitsch Trio.
Even prior to his groundbreaking role alongside younger brother Sonny in The Osborne Brothers, Bobby Osborne was bending the rules. A singer first and a picker second, Osborne called country music (with an Ernest Tubb obsession and work in combos like Lonesome Pine Fiddlers) home before bluegrass, and later helped bring rock elements in to the sounds of both genres.
Today, at 85, Osborne is still making music and still searching for new sounds. He is currently recording an as-yet-untitled album, slated for March release on Compass Records, with label head and banjoist extraordinaire Alison Brown producing.
Even more different than the songs Brown is selecting for Osborne is the way the disc is being made. In addition to a grant from the Freshgrass Foundation, Osborne, with guidance from Compass, is crowdfunding the project through PledgeMusic (in a campaign with benefits ranging from simple downloads and signature string packages to individual Skype lessons and a private concert with Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press).
Brown is assembling an all-star cast for the album. Young Grammy nominated star Sierra Hull, in particular, is handling much of the mandolin work, including a few twin breaks with her forebear. Also on board for early sessions, Brown has rounded up guitar whiz Trey Hensley, Dobro man Rob Ickes and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan. More high profile pickers will follow, Brown promises, as the project moves along.
Early tracking has focused on a few tunes nodding to Osborne's heritage, including Darrell Scott's "Kentucky Morning" and Arthur Hancock, Sr.'s "Country Boy," as well as a reinvention of Paint Your Wagon's "They Call The Wind Mariah" and the Bee Gees' "I've Gotta Get a Message to You."
Having begun his performing career in 1949, Osborne has been through virtually every era of the modern music business. Admitting that he was initially unaware of crowdfunding, he has come to terms with it as just one more way to get his music across to fans. He's used to adapting—don't forget that this is the banjo-loving guitarist who turned to mandolin solely because Jimmy Martin didn't need another dreadnaught in the band.
For more on Osborne's mandolin work, visit his 2011 chat with Mandolin Cafe.
What was the genesis of this project?
Alison Brown: In 2013, I was in the studio producing The Old School for Peter Rowan. Bobby came in for the session and he was just singing and playing so great that I started talking to him about doing something. He hadn't made a record in awhile, and it just seemed like one that really needed to be made. He still has a lot to say musically. We worked really hard to find a way that would make the idea make sense economically, since Bobby isn’t a heavily touring artist, and this project aligned with the goals of the Freshgrass Foundation, which allowed us to tap into the grant program. Once we put all those pieces together, it was something that Bobby was enthusiastic about from the start.
What is the Compass/Freshgrass connection?
Alison Brown: We've sponsored the festival almost since its inception.
And what interested Freshgrass in the project?
Alison Brown: I think we made a good case for Bobby being a legacy artist with something to say, and the crowdfunding opportunities that exist nowadays created a vehicle for triggering the 'matching' aspect of the grant. They felt like it would be a shame for him to get away without making one more record. Bobby's 85, so he may not have that many more records in him. They're all about supporting the music, and fan engagement, so they wanted to get involved with making it happen.
This album is also being crowd funded through PledgeMusic. How do you feel about that?
Bobby Osborne: That was Alison's idea. I really didn't know how it worked. I wasn't familiar with it and had never been part of it before. So, I didn't understand it at first, but it finally soaked in and I just went along with them on it.
Photo credit: Stacie Huckaba
There have been so many changes in the music industry of late. Is it difficult for you and your generation of fans to adapt?
Bobby Osborne: Well, I guess it's OK for the people that can understand and adjust themselves to what's going on. The whole world is moving so fast, a lot of people can hardly keep up with it, including me. Everything has to change, though, and as each new generation comes along, new things develop. It's hard for me to adjust that fast, but you know the generation before mine wasn't used to anything like what we have today. I just have to go along with what's going on.
It used to be that I could do this business, but it's gotten ahead of me. My idea now is that as long as I can hang in there with Alison and (husband and business partner) Garry West and people like that, and as long as I can sing, I'm going to keep going. They understand how it works.
Why did you decide to crowdfund, it seems like a stretch for Osborne's fan base?
Alison Brown: Probably for the same reason that we needed to seek out other creative ideas for making the economics work. It's really hard to sell records right now. The whole model for selling records has changed, especially as things shift further away from retail towards digital. It changes the way you get your money back when you fund a record, so labels are funding fewer records and there are more hybrid deals and pledge funding, which is a component of how we're making this work. We work with developing artists who utilize crowdfunding so we thought why shouldn't a first generation grasser have the same vehicles supporting him? It wasn't for lack of wanting to make a record with someone like Bobby, but if an artist isn't out there actively touring its really hard for the label to make it all work.
Is this the new normal for the recording industry?
Alison Brown: Crowdfunding is certainly a way that DIY artists are getting records done. There are cases with our artists, for example, where we have 50/50 deals, which is basically a profit sharing arrangement with the artist. Basically, all the money that comes in, we take expenses off the top and split the net receipts 50/50. In those cases, usually, the artist comes in with a completed disc. So artists then own the record and they are licensing it to us for a term, and that's how we split the revenue. The label is bringing the expertise, staff and the infrastructure and the artist is bringing the master. In some of those cases, we're working with artists who have crowdfunded the project; sometimes we're helping the messaging on the crowdfunding campaign. So is that the new normal? I'm not even sure what normal is. It certainly is a way that records are being funded these days.
How has the digital world affected Compass?
Alison Brown: The whole landscape has changed tremendously since Compass started in the 90s, when physical retail was the only way people sold records. We shifted from being able to ship out enough records to recoup a budget, to iTunes selling music 70 cents at a time, which is the label's share of a download. Now, with streaming replacing that—or at least coming in in a big way—a label will get half a penny per stream. So, think about how long it might take to recoup an album budget at that rate. It's hard. I think the demographic for bluegrass tends to be late adopters of technology, so they're later to the download party and to the streaming party, but they're moving in that direction.
It just becomes more and more challenging, and you're forced to think as creatively as you can to figure out ways to get these kinds of records done. In Bobby's case, the album's coming together very strong and it would be a shame for him to get away without making another one. He's just a lovely person. Even at his age, the spirit of innovation and envelope-pushing that I really see as being something that the Osborne Brothers pioneered—remember, they came before Newgrass and they were doing some really creative outside-the-box things—is still there. Bobby still has that spirit.
Alison Brown and Recording Engineer Gordon Hammond
Photo credit: Meredith DiMenna
How is it working in the studio with Alison, as a friend and as a producer?
Bobby Osborne: It's really right. It's really cozy. She doesn't put any pressure on anybody, the players or the singers. It just goes along as smooth as you would expect it to. She has all the comforts anybody could want to record an album with and she knows what to do— how to run the board, how to pick the material, everything that's going on. That helps out a lot. I'm very comfortable with the experience.
She's got an idea how certain songs should sound like. She hears things that other people don't hear. For each of the songs we've done so far, she knew how she wanted it to sound and who to get. She'll ask me questions about the songs, but I just made up my mind to follow her lead. When I first started making records you had one shot at it. If you didn't make it good, everybody had to go back and do the same thing over and over again. Now you can slice it up here and there and make a great record. It's easier to do now. There's a lot to be said for how you can record now.
What is the goal of this release?
Alison Brown: Re-launching a career isn't so much the goal as giving Bobby the opportunity to make another musical statement. Even more importantly, I think it's to give the musical community a chance to rally around him, and to have its opportunity to play with him. For all these guys—Trey, Rob, Stuart, Sierra and myself included—we just realized that we were in the presence of a master and a really important legacy artist for this music that we love so much.
Everybody involved totally gets it. Our music would be really different if Bobby Osborne, and the Osborne Brothers, hadn't been there blazing a path. Bluegrass would be different. To have the privilege of playing with someone like that, it's just a real gift to us that he's doing this. I view this record as a chance to let a lot of us honor Bobby. It's kind of selfish in a way, but I want to give other pickers the chance as well. I've got a list!
You've always considered yourself a singer first, how much mandolin will you be playing?
Bobby Osborne: So far, I've just worked on one song. As we get into it I'll probably work on some more.
Bobby sounds renewed, but I wonder if the wider bluegrass world is still aware of him as a creative force.
Alison Brown: He's just thrilled to be in the studio making a record. I don't think Bobby thought he would ever have another opportunity to do that. As a producer, I've suggested all kinds of things and he's just wide open to trying anything. That's amazing. As people grow older, they tend to grow more conservative, but that doesn't seem to be the case with Bobby at all.
Maybe that's one of the reasons I was drawn to this project. Most people only think of Bobby Osborne when they think of the Osborne Brothers, and I feel like he has done some very significant and important things as a solo artist, too. I don't feel his creativity ended with the Osborne Brothers. I hope that this project will give his solo career a higher profile.
Your final thoughts on this continuing experience?
Bobby Osborne: I'm looking for a newer sound on this CD. I'm looking for a sound that the people are going for out there today. My singing will be the same; that won't change. The songs are what will change. I've got some different material now. Of course, the idea of using studio musicians, my brother and I did that, and that separated us from any bluegrass that there was out there, including Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and all of them. We used studio musicians along with what we carried on the road with us. It worked out, and those guys were such good players on electric instruments and drums. We even used the Nashville symphony. We used anything that would make us different. We didn't want to sound like nobody else. And that's the way I want to be on this CD, too.