Spotlight: Brothers Osborne
Are Brothers Osborne really a “country” band? They certainly fit the mold, at least on paper. Guitarist John is known to rock a Fender Telecaster and a cowboy hat; singer T.J. croons in a velvety baritone with a slight drawl; and their plainspoken yet deceptively clever lyrics often explore signature country subjects like hangovers of the head and the heart. But no amount of CMA awards can obscure the truth: Like their kindred spirits Eric Church and Sturgill Simpson, these dudes are too crafty and too sonically adventurous to fit neatly in the genre’s generic confines.
“My brother and I grew up listening to everything,” John recalls of their childhood in the small town of Deale, Md. “We would listen to our dad’s book of 200 CDs—the ones where you would turn the pages. There was everything from classic country to old blues, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, old rock records like Skynyrd and ZZ Top—he even had Mariah Carey in there. He listened to everything. When we make music, we’re pulling from such a wide range of influences from over the years. Country has taken on a classic-rock vibe lately, but rock-and-roll is an approach and philosophy more than a sound.”
John moved to country capital Nashville in 2002, and the younger T.J. followed two years later. They hustled their way into whatever gigs they could grab: John worked as a studio guitarist and performed with his own band, KingBilly, and T.J. played as a solo artist. Their career shifted into a new gear after they joined forces, though they were patient about landing their breakout hit. In a market saturated with clichéd fads like the “bro-country” movement, in which songs often sound more like Budweiser jingles, the siblings were deter- mined to keep their integrity.
“There’s a style of songwriting now, where it’s like people are trying to do the country singer-songwriter checklist,” John says. T.J. agrees. “There’s an interesting thing where it’s like trying to tell someone that you’re country,” he says. “If you’re so country, then why do you have to tell anyone? They should just know.” T.J. adds that he’s confident that their years in Nashville have, ironically, helped them avoid those creative traps.
“We’ve been in Nashville for a long time, and we’ve gotten to see a lot of the trends that have come and gone,” he says. “Early on, I was so eager to get my first break. Not that I would have done anything to have success, but I certainly would have compromised. Being here for a long time and getting seasoned in the music scene, you realize it’s not worth sabotaging all the groundwork we’ve laid in order to have some splash. Some people have been like, ‘This song is a hit, and if it’s a hit, we’ve gotta record it.’ I gotta be honest: John and I have written a lot of songs that we confidently felt would be huge hits on radio, but we didn’t record them because we knew it was the opposite of what we were ultimately trying to do. Time will tell, but I want Port Saint Joe [their second LP] to be one of those records that someone plays 20 years from now.”
To accomplish that lofty task, the pair decamped in the album’s titular Florida beach town for two weeks of sessions with producer/collaborator Jay Joyce. Their approach was two-fold: maintain a raw, unpolished edge while allow- ing themselves to experiment. The result is a joyride from swampy blues-funk (“Shoot Me Straight”) to vintage soul (“Slow Your Roll”) to folky balladry (“While You Still Can”), all unified by their keen story- telling and dazzling, unpredictable arrangements. “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” nestles into a sumptuous shuffle drum groove; “Drank Like Hank” morphs midway through into a deep-fried half-time break with full-blown slap-bass. These are the sort of colorful, eyebrow-raising details you rarely hear in modern rock, let alone modern country.
“We live in an interesting time because the lines between genres are fading,” John says, reflecting on their own tough- to-pigeonhole style. “We were very genre-centric people for a long time because that’s how we found music. If you went to a music store, you had a brand of music you listened to, so you’d go to the rock section or the country section or the hip-hop section. Now, you have access to so much music at your fingertips that you just start scrolling and you end up going down these rabbit holes—you start with Brothers Osborne, but then you end up with a Delta Spirit record, then a David Bowie record, then an Allison Krauss & Union Station album. It’s easier to have that sonic journey now.”
This article originally appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.