Osborne Brothers

Country Roads

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Bluegrass purists who are still in revolt over what Bobby Osborne and his brother Sonny Osborne decided to do back in the early '70s would probably be grateful this album is so short, but to others the brevity may seem to be a main factor in the project not quite reaching musical nirvana. A genius idea is there all right, a musical conceit based solely on the pure physical properties of sound: bluegrass harmonizing in what seems to be approximating the soprano range can be heard above just about anything, so why limit the genre to those wimpy acoustic instruments? The Osborne Brothers brought in drums, electric guitar, pedal steel, and a horn section, not to mention background singers. Participants in these sessions were not credited, maybe because there wouldn't be room on the back cover to show the bearded brother's groovy bandana if all the musicians' names were listed.

The album's title signified more in the early '70s than just the desire to set a rural mood: this was the era of John Denver and covering one of his most famous songs ever was surely a grand commercial move for a bluegrass band. Artistically and philosophically, it could be looked at as three steps backward, like an authentic old-time musician deciding to play "Tom Dooley" the way the Kingston Trio did it. Nonetheless, from the perspective of the audience that loves Denver, this was a brilliant cover version, nearly always mentioned when Denver devotees dish the domain of discs duplicating the dude's ditties.

It has already been established that some bluegrass purists reacted with fright not only to the Denver tribute, but to the presence of so many loud combo instruments on what is supposed to be a picking record. But like the left wing meeting the right on certain political issues, the instrumental arrangements that define what was sometimes called progressive bluegrass come pretty darn close to the sound of mainstream country. In fact, the type of purely bluegrass or Appalachian singing and harmonizing the brothers do completely predicts the craze for this type of approach, which would nearly dominate the country scene in the new millennium.

While basking in the grandeur of being ahead of their time, the Osborne Brothers also deserve credit for some wise repertoire choices in this program. While not every tune is a masterpiece, several of the pieces easily make up for "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Worth a mention are "Sometimes You Just Can't Win," written by the interesting hillbilly performer Smokey Stover, "Oh, the Pain of Loving You" from the superb if tortured team of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, and one of Ernest Tubb's most laconic songs, "Tomorrow Never Comes." Bobby Osborne turns in some songwriting of his own here, reaching for symbolic imagery within the human condition with titles such as "Tears Are No Stranger" and "Tunnel of Your Mind."

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