Bluegrass Pioneer and 'Rocky Top' Singer Bobby Osborne Was Shot in the Head in Korean War

Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press performing at the Grand Ole Opry in 2007.

Even those who aren’t fans of bluegrass music likely know a little about Rocky Top, Tennessee. They probably know that corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top, because the dirt’s too rocky. By far.

The reason for that is Sonny and Bobby Osborne, founding members of the legendary Osborne Brothers bluegrass band, who helped bring bluegrass into mainstream America. With songs like “Rocky Top” and “Roll Muddy River,” they continuously pioneered the art form since the 1950s.

Lead singer and mandolinist Bobby Osborne died June 27, 2023, at age 91, the last of the duo and one of the last of bluegrass’ first generation. He was also a Purple Heart recipient who was wounded in Korea.

Kentucky-born Bobby Osborne, the older of the two brothers, began his professional music career as a teen in the late 1940s. His family moved to Dayton, Ohio, when he was 9. At 18, he struck off to West Virginia with his brother Sonny. The pair formed the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and were soon joined by their sister, Louise, for their first album in 1951.

But before the Osborne Brothers made it big, Bobby Osborne would get drafted by the Marine Corps. First sworn into the military in 1951, he had a choice: the Army or the Marine Corps. They told him the soldiers would be sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, for training while the Marines would go to Camp Pendleton, California. Bobby chose the Corps so he could see Southern California and avoid “freezing my butt off.” He would serve in Korea for two years.

“If it hadn’t been so cold, I probably would have died there,” Osborne told Podcast host Tom Power.

One night, he and some fellow Marines were sent on a “fox hunt,” a mission to capture an enemy prisoner. They had to climb an enemy-held hill and infiltrate their position in the middle of the night. By the time Osborne reached the top of the hill, the enemy had opened up on them with small arms and mortars. They jumped into a ten-foot trench and cleared it, but when they climbed out, Bobby didn’t realize he’d been hit.

“By the time I got to the top of the trenchline, it felt like someone just poured warm water all over,” he said. “I couldn’t see, it was dark.”

Bobby Osborne had been shot in the head. He then passed out while still on the enemy hill.

“The battle was over when I come to,” he said. “My helmet was gone… it was so cold, I touched my head, it was like someone threw dirt in my face.”

Everyone else had gone and daylight was coming. Osborne got up and walked down the hill, where he encountered a young Marine who was missing a hand. Osborne asked him if he could walk, eventually convincing the boy to hobble out of the area with him. They soon found themselves lost in a place they couldn’t remember from the night before.

“The only thing that saved us was a tank that had a searchlight on it,” Osborne said. “I knew where that was and we started walking toward it.”

It took so long for Osborne and his fellow Marine to get home that Osborne’s family was informed he was missing in action. Three telegrams were sent back home, with the last one informing his family that he was not missing, he was wounded.

After the war, Osborne moved to Detroit, where he started a project with his brother Sonny and guitarist Jimmy Martin. When that fell through, Red Allen joined the band. It was with Allen that the Osborne Brothers (along with Allen, bassist Ernie Newton and fiddlers Tommy Jackson and Art Stamper) were signed to MGM Records in 1956 and recorded their first single for the label: "Ruby Are You Mad?"

From there, they brought their version of bluegrass to college campuses, radio stations (sometimes playing Elvis Presley covers) and even the Nixon White House. They were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Sonny Osborne retired from making music in 2005, and he died in 2021. Bobby Osborne remained a player at the Grand Ole Opry with his band, the Rocky Top X-Press, right up until his death. He was the oldest standing member of the Opry.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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