Known for decades to his legion of fans as “Bashful Brother Oswald,” Beecher “Pete” Kirby died Thursday (Oct. 17) at his home near Nashville following a lengthy illness. The Grand Ole Opry star and longtime member of Roy Acuff’s legendary Smoky Mountain Boys was 90 years old.
Os, as he was affectionately known to his friends and fellow musicians, joined Acuff’s troupe in January 1939 and helped to define the sound of Acuff’s music in the 1940s and 1950s with his wailing Dobro and open-throated tenor singing. Following Acuff’s death, Os became a full-fledged member of the Grand Ole Opry in his own right -- at age 84 -- in 1995 and continued to work the show until declining health forced him into retirement in 1999.
It is impossible to imagine Acuff’s music without Os’ distinctive Dobro work on songs including “Wreck on the Highway,” “Precious Jewel,” “The Wabash Cannonball,” “Fireball Mail” and “The Great Speckled Bird.” Virtually every Dobro player from Josh Graves to Jerry Douglas owe some of their respective styles to that of Os’ pioneering work on the instrument.
Douglas paid tribute Thursday after being named Dobro player of the year at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards in Louisville. “All these Dobro players are right,” Douglas said. “This is the hardest instrument to master. But you know what? Truly, none of us have mastered it yet. The only two guys I know who ever mastered this instrument are Josh Graves and the late Oswald Kirby.
Oswald was born Dec. 11, 1911, in Sevierville, located in Eastern Tennessee. Growing up in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Os, one of 11 children, was exposed to music at a young age. His father taught at shape-note singing schools and played the guitar, fiddle and banjo. By the time Os reached his teens, he too, was playing the banjo at local square dances while also holding down a day job at the Appalachian Cotton Mill in nearby Knoxville.
In 1929 Os set out for Detroit in hopes of finding a job in the automotive industry, but the Great Depression quelled all hopes of landing such a position. The move north, however, was not in vain, for Os landed a job on radio station WFDF. It was there that he acquired his first Dobro -- to meet the station’s manager demands -- to capitalize on the then-popular musical trend -- that of Hawaiian music. Os expanded his musical repertoire to include that instrument and by the time he returned home to East Tennessee in the mid-1930s, he had become quite adept at the instrument and was able to find work in a series of bands, including an early configuration of Acuff’s Crazy Tennesseans.
After Acuff was hired by the Opry in 1938, he reformed his group -- renamed the Smoky Mountain Boys -- and recruited Os into his organization. Until Acuff’s death in 1992, Os was a mainstay in the group, both as a musician and comedian, and was the sole constant in the band and on Acuff’s recordings for more than 50 years.
In the early 1960s, Os embarked on his own recording career including the Starday release, Bashful Brother Oswald in 1962 and the 1972 Brother Oswald album on Rounder Records. Os was a featured artist on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 watershed album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, that also featured Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Norman Blake and Merle Travis.
After the now-defunct Opryland theme park opened its doors, Os and fellow Smoky Mountain Boy guitarist Charlie Collins were among the featured performers in the park, playing down-home rustic numbers to the delight of the park’s visitors.
In the 1990s, Os recorded a pair of albums Carry Me Back and Heart Songs, Hymns and Friends. Both albums featured performances by guest artists and included among them Country Music Hall of Famer George Jones. Os also published his memoirs, That’s the Truth If I Ever Told It, in which he reflected upon his career as a member of Acuff’s band and included anecdotes about many of his Opry co-stars.
Opry member Ricky Skaggs noted, “Oswald was just one of those sweet guys that you’d meet in the hallway at the Opry and always come up to shake his hand. Musically, he’s a legend. He played a Dobro when no one else in country music was playing it. He inspired Josh Graves that inspired Mike Auldridge that inspired Jerry Douglas that inspired everybody else to play the Dobro.”
Patty Loveless, also an Opry member, said she was just 15 when she first met Os during an appearance on the Wilburn Brothers’ TV show. “He was just a gentle soul, a funny man,” Loveless said. “He could make you laugh and almost bring you to tears.” Loveless described him as a grandfatherly figure, adding, “Brother Oswald kind of reminded me a lot of my family back home [in rural Kentucky]. He was a special person. It’s a great loss.”
Os’ wife of nearly 50 years, Lola, died in 1981, and he married Euneta Phillips, who survives him, in 1983. He is also survived by a son, Billy Kirby. A daughter, Linda, preceded him in death.
Funeral services are set for 2 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 19) at Forest Lawn Funeral Home and Memorial Gardens in the Nashville suburb of Goodlettsville, Tenn.