Sarah Osborne’s tousled tresses roll in auburn waves above a pair of blue eyes that seem to just know things, and her ivory smile is either pure or patronizing, as if more will be revealed.
As of last July, she is the newest third addition to the Charleston, S.C.-based old-time music trio, the South Carolina Broadcasters. Having blundered upon the Broadcasters by chance – or perhaps by fate, depending on your theology – Osborne, 19, caught her break during a Broadcasters show in Kernersville, when Ivy Sheppard, the band’s fiddle player, noted Osborne’s spirited singing from stage.
“She invited me up on stage to sing one of the songs with them and, I don’t know, we kind of clicked,” Osborne says. “Our voices just melded together.”
A few hours later, Osborne received a phone call from married Ivy and David Sheppard, requesting that she join them on a radio show. Soon she found herself the youngest member of the Broadcasters by dint of what she calls “serendipitous miracle,” and performing what’s know as old-time music.
Old-time music is the genre that bluegrass music and variations of folk, such as Americana, emerged to shape in their later incarnations. With inextricable ties to the antebellum South, and with roots tracing back to slave ships, old-time music is, well, old. Which means for all intents and purposes, the Broadcasters are a cover band, though they write their own material as well. Their sources range from the Carter Family (“Can’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore”) and Roy Acuff and Hank Williams (“When God Dips His Love in My Heart”) to Civil War songs, many of which are in the public domain.
Such anachronism works with the Broadcasters’ aesthetic to inform their traditional fiddle rhythms, unraveling alongside scattering harmonies, alternating with layered vocals, and scathing like one imagines salvation must sound. The result reconciles a history beneath the soil of a deep musical lineage with nouveau sensibility: “rowdy gospel,” as Osborne calls it over a late dinner in the William Peace University dining hall, where she is a sophomore.
“A lot of the gospel songs that we sing, all of the gospel songs we sing, are either old hymns or made famous by early country music singers, and they’re just good singing songs,” Osborne says, defending any religious connotations she fears might obscure the music. “They’ve got really great harmony parts, and we do so many three-part harmony songs that gospel music just fits right in with. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s just powerful music, and when David, Ivy and I are singing these songs, so many of the chords and harmony lines really resonate and are just so powerful.”
It’s all tenuous territory and runs the risk of sounding overly nostalgic or insufferably maudlin – not to mention egotistical. Yet it prevails, thanks to an ingenuity of spirit and authenticity that belies ironic pretentions and sarcasm. The Broadcasters bridge their cross-generational gaps by course of talent – shared, divided, rehashed and revised – impelling some sort of experiential collision: through aching and dismay, transcendence and hope, noise and silence, body and soul, their interpretations seem to suggest that we are together, all of us, Southern children going forward at top volume.
“This music transcends time; it transcends any gender, age, any type of stereotype,” Osborne says. “If you take anything away from this, I want you to know that this music transcends time. Like I keep saying, it is so inclusive and it’s a wonderful thing. I feel so alive when I’m on stage with David and Ivy and we’re playing this music.”