The bluegrass world has a way of bringing people together. And bluegrass musicians are some of the most accessible people around. At least, that’s what C.J. Lewandowski found when he befriended one of his musical idols, the legendary Bobby Osborne.
“I’m originally from Missouri,” says C.J. “I first met Bobby in 2004 when my best friend’s grandfather took us to see him at the Cross Country Trail Ride Bluegrass Festival in Eminence, Missouri. His brother, Sonny, was still playing with him. It’s a big-budget festival that has been going on since the 1960s, and the Osbornes always played there.”
C.J. was learning how to play the mandolin then, and he recalls that the Osbornes arrived in a big Eagle bus. “I knew the director, and he took me backstage, where I casually chatted with Bobby. It was so exciting for me.”
The festival shut down in 2006, the year Bobby bought an MCI bus and started “The Rocky Top X-press.” C.J. saw Bobby perform in other places. “He was a huge musical idle of mine. I first got to know him around 2011 when I went down to take lessons from him. We hit it off, and I was delighted.”
C.J. attended the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music in Hyden, Missouri, but after a few months, he realized it wasn’t for him. “I wanted to play.” The big changing point for C.J. was when he bought a 1927 Gibson F-5 Fern mandolin in 2019. “Bobby played a 1926 Gibson, and he was interested in seeing mine. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Now 91 years old, C.J. says Bobby loves to text on his iPhone and is very knowledgeable on the computer. “He is amazing. We text or talk frequently. I told Bobby that the first time I saw him, he had a glitter strap. He said he had it at home somewhere, and if he could find it, he would send it to me. I came in from being on the road, and a package from Bobby was waiting for me. He sent me the strap, and now it is on display in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.”
After Covid, Bobby was anxious about getting out in public. “I know that he is very competitive, and he wanted to get back out there,” says C.J. “He was concerned that if he didn’t, he would become obsolete.” At about the same time, C.J. was visiting Bobby, and they started talking about Bobby’s bus. “He said he and his wife were tired of paying insurance on a bus they didn’t use anymore, and he gave it to me,” recalls C.J. “I was blown away. I offered to pay for it, but Bobby wouldn’t have it. I told him he could use it anytime he wanted.”
The 1989 MCI forty-foot bus started life as a passenger coach. Marty Raybon bought the bus and started to convert it, then Tim Dillmon took the bus on trade. “Tim had a bus leasing company in Nashville called Music City Coach. The bus Bobby was supposed to take was locked up for repairs, and he saw an old red bus sitting on the lot. He said he’d take it. Joe Madden revamped the front end and built a ‘star suite’ in the back, a custom room built just for Bobby.” C.J. named the bus Ruby. “It needs new tires and a few other things, but overall I can’t believe how good it drives. I recently stayed in it at SPBGMA, which was very comfortable.”
In the meantime, C.J. spoke with Bobby Osborne, Jr. (known as Boj) and asked if all was OK with Bobby. “He said that Bobby needed to be out playing.” Bobby began playing at the American Legion in Nashville, which has become a hipster venue, which has been an outstanding experience for him. “I spent a week in Palm Springs at Keith Barnacastle’s home, and we talked about doing a solo project. I told Keith I wanted Bobby to play on a song on my next album. I believe now it’s going to be more than that.”
Turnberry Records announced recently that “an album is currently in the works between bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne and C.J. Lewandowski, founding member and mandolin player of the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.” The original idea was to record a few songs with Bobby to sprinkle throughout other albums over the next few years. The talk soon evolved into a full-on collaborative album.
“We called Bobby, who was immediately on board,” says C.J. “We are super excited about it. Quite a few songs have been picked out for the project. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys will be involved, as will Winn, Robby, and Boj Osborne. We are also talking to several bluegrass legends to come on board.”
If all goes as planned, a new album will be out, and a new generation of Bobby Osborne fans will be able to hear his talent. “He is still as relevant as ever,” says C.J. “I want to give people an opportunity to hear him well into the future.”