When Brothers Osborne snapped Florida Georgia Line’s three-year run as Vocal Duo of the Year at the 2016 CMA Awards, it was a pivotal moment in country music. The Deale, Maryland, sibling duo of singer TJ Osborne and guitarist John Osborne represented a return to the rootsy side of the genre, while bro-country kings FGL were the epitome of slick and polished radio country. Now the once underdog Brothers Osborne have the chance to three-peat at this year’s CMA Awards, airing live November 14th on ABC.
“All genres of music get to be repetitious after a while,” says the bearded John, 36, sitting next to his younger brother in an East Nashville cocktail bar. “And sometimes a bomb needs to be detonated.”
Brothers Osborne, along with other country game-changers like Chris Stapleton and Ashley McBryde, are setting off explosions throughout the format with a mix of old-school country and guitar-forward rock. The Osbornes’ latest album, Port Saint Joe, overseen by rock-minded producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church), is a breath of fresh air for a genre still unwilling to make a clean break from its homogenized recent past.
“We can’t be anything other than ourselves,” says TJ, 33, “Whether that gets us into trouble sometimes or if that’s our charm, I don’t know.”
Their against-the-grain approach has certainly earned them a passionate fan base, one more eager to hear stompers like “It Ain’t My Fault” and the outsized “Shoot Me Straight” — a fierce seven-minute jam — live in concert than any country radio-approved hit. Their latest single is the delicate ballad “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You).”
“More people respond to ‘It Ain’t My Fault’ than to the Number One we had, ‘Stay a Little Longer,'” says TJ. “The [industry] just wants to put their signs up on Music Row, and put out ads and brag around town, but everyone outside the bubble of Nashville has no clue what song went Number One.”
But it’s not just what Brothers Osborne are singing that has fans paying attention. Unlike their mainstream country peers, the working-class Osbornes aren’t afraid to voice their political and social beliefs. While they have a hard “no politics” rule onstage, they headlined a September fundraiser for Democratic Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean (who lost to Republican Bill Lee in the November midterms) and often take swipes at President Trump on Twitter. (Their video for “Shoot Me Straight” lampooned Trump’s “Space Force” initiative.)
“People act like we don’t already know that it stands to hurt us,” says John. “‘Watch what you say, people are gonna stop buying your records!’ Yeah, we know that, dickhead. But we’re still choosing to say something. I hope that some people, even if they hate our music, find us being ourselves refreshing.”
“It’s about right and wrong,” says TJ, “and sometimes we speak up when someone is wrong.”
Musically, however, the Osbornes generally view country music as being on the right path — even if they express surprise that acts with a more classic sound aren’t gaining traction.
“We had high hopes that country would change back to organic sounds and classic American songwriting,” says John, citing the popularity of Chris Stapleton. “There certainly is an element of that, but the antithesis to that is still very strong at the moment.”
Case in point, their chief competition in the Vocal Duo of the Year race at the CMA Awards: Dan + Shay. The “Tequila” hitmakers have a pop-friendly vibe and mass crossover appeal, especially on streaming services.
“They’re true to who they are and their sound, and they’re not trying to be anything else,” says John. “If [they win], I’d be over the moon for them.”
For TJ, awards shows are only worth watching if they’re unpredictable. “Same thing with music,” he says. “If the music is predictable, who the hell wants to listen to it?”
John laughs. “Surprisingly, a lot more people than you would hope for.”