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Renowned Austin pianist Riley Osbourn dies at 73

Peter Blackstock
Riley Osbourn was one of Austin's most prolific pianists for five decades.

Austin pianist Riley Osbourn, who recorded and toured with dozens of local and national acts including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Marcia Ball, Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen across a five-decade career, died Tuesday at a hospice facility in Fredericksburg after an extended illness. He was 73.

Osbourn spent 10 years touring with Shepherd, returning to the road after a bout with throat cancer in 2007. Complications from the condition required surgeries on his jaw in 2016 that led to a stroke, but he battled back and continued to play music in his final years.

Born Jan. 29, 1947, in San Antonio and raised in Fredericksburg, Osbourn was adopted by parents who were cousins to World War II admiral Chester Nimitz, a Fredericksburg native. Osbourn’s wife, Bev Shaw, said Tuesday that Nimitz gifted the young Osbourn with a saddle during a visit to Fredericksburg in the 1950s.

Classically trained on piano from age 8, Osbourn made Texas’ All-State Band in high school, playing euphonium. In 1966, he moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas after a year at Texas A&I in Kingsville on a jazz scholarship as a trumpet player. He pursued several subjects at UT but stopped short of graduating, largely because he quickly became an in-demand musician.

Osbourn, who also played guitar and wrote songs, got hired to play keyboards with B.W. Stevenson, a rising star in Austin’s early-1970s progressive country scene. He made the first of many appearances on “Austin City Limits” with Stevenson, playing the first-ever taping before the show opted to go with a Willie Nelson taping as its official pilot episode. When the program celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014, Osbourn was part of the house band.

Renowned Austin producer and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines, who’d hired Osbourn for recording sessions since the 1970s, called him “an amazing piano player. His knowledge of different chord voicings was a big plus in the studio. He always made every song sound better.

“Riley could play every style, from Professor Longhair to Dr. John to Al Strickland to Bruce Hornsby to Floyd Cramer to Thelonious Monk. … Somewhere amongst all those styles, he created his own ‘Riley’ style.”

Fellow Austin pianist Stefano Intelisano recalled in a social media post that upon moving to Austin, he frequently caught Osbourn’s gigs with the Antone’s Blue Monday band. “He was one of the best at boogie-style piano and anything (on a) B3 organ, yet loved to talk passionately about Eric Satie and Claude Debussy,” Intelisano wrote. “And it was a great music lesson every time.”

Osbourn and Shaw met when she was recording some of her songs at Arlyn Studios in 1991 and Osbourn was one of the session musicians. They were friends for many years before their first date at Austin’s Iron Works Barbecue in the mid-late 1990s. They married in 2009.

She recalls the attention he paid to the lyrics at that Arlyn session. “He always wanted to know what the song was about so he would know how to play it, because he wanted to get into the message,” she said. “I was really impressed by that.”

Osbourn’s list of recording credits is extensive. He played on albums by Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Ray Benson, Terri Hendrix, Steven Fromholz, Jesse Dayton, Darden Smith, Sue Foley, W.C. Clark, Storyville, Double Trouble, Stephen Bruton, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Monte Warden, Sara Hickman, Los Lonely Boys, Toni Price, Lavelle White, Omar & the Howlers, Reckless Kelly, Doyle Bramhall, Nick Curran, Bob Livingston, Chris Smither, Paul Glasse and many others. He also was a member of the 1970s Austin band Balcones Fault.

“At some point,” Maines said, “I will gather up every CD I have that he played on, and that’s a bunch, and have a Riley Osbourn listening party with just me and a good set of headphones. He was a fine human being and a great friend. I’ll miss him.”

No funeral service is scheduled, but a celebration of his life will be held at a later date, Shaw said. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations in his memory to the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers, or the charity of your choice.

Riley Osbourn, right edge, was among the Austin musicians who backed Jeff Bridges and others at the 40th-anniversary celebration of the "Austin City Limits" TV show in 2014.