“I think people are tired of the bullshit and are ready for the real substance,” says John Osborne, in between sips of a beer at Nashville’s Pinewood Social, overlooking both a scrapyard and the Cumberland River. He and brother T.J., who make up the rootsy duo Brothers Osborne, are holding court on the state of country. It’s a topic on which many are quick to voice an opinion, but few do so as candidly and on the record as the Maryland-born siblings.
After years of being served a platter of infectious but typically vapid hits, fans are anxious to hear songs that mean something, Brothers Osborne contend.
“We went through an era of big hit songs that no one is going to listen to 10 years from now. And we’re about to hit a decade of country that I think is going to be played for a long time. It’s about to hit the same stride it hit in the Nineties,” says T.J., who handles lead vocals opposite his guitarist brother. The band’s debut single, “Rum,” released last year, put a workingman’s twist on the drinking song subgenre and became a Top 30 hit, while new single “Stay a Little Longer” is poised to help effect the change they say is already happening in studios around Nashville. (Watch the duo talk about the song in a video premiering today on Rolling Stone Country.)
The problem with today’s populist hits, they believe, doesn’t lie specifically in “bro country,” hip-hop-influenced country or pop country, but in unoriginal artists who copycat the hot sounds of the day.
“There have been so many people that have followed a trend, [one] started honestly by Florida Georgia Line. That’s genuine. That’s who they are,” John says. “The problem lies in people changing their sound because it worked.
“I’ve always compared it to the early Nineties when hair metal was so huge, and you had these bands like Warrant, who were more about showing off and about the picture than they were about the music,” he continues. “It got to a point where it became so huge, it became a bubble, and the only thing that can happen is that bubble is going to explode. Which it did when Nirvana showed up. That’s what is happening now.”
But country’s impending transition may not come via a singular artist, á la Nirvana, says T.J. Instead, an array of diverse singer-songwriters and bands will lead the charge. They cite Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and Eric Church, with whom they’ll return to the road in April, as examples. This summer, the duo will play amphitheaters with Darius Rucker, Brett Eldredge and A Thousand Horses.
“There are a bunch of artists now. There is a reason to go to this artist’s show and that artist’s show, because they are different from one another,” he says. “It’s not the same regurgitated bullshit.”
With almost four years having gone by since Brothers Osborne recorded their first batch of songs, including early takes of “Rum” and “Stay a Little Longer,” which appeared on last year’s six-song EP, the duo — and their record label EMI Nashville — decided it was time to return to the studio. They booked a session with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) at his East Nashville church-turned-recording facility and set about recutting “Stay a Little Longer.”
The eccentric producer didn’t make it easy on them.
“Jay is one of those guys who knows how to push the right buttons, and some of those buttons piss you off. But it gets a result. Sometimes the most frustrating people you work with are the most beneficial,” says T.J., who recalls looking down from the church’s altar where the band was set up to record to find Joyce munching on popsicles and suggesting left-of-center vocal techniques.
“The places he takes songs are how he naturally feels it. It comes out different, but it comes out honest,” T.J. continues. “To work with someone like Jay, who can bring in a different flavor but still keep the integrity is really a great pairing.”
For John, Joyce helped him reach a new level as a musician.
“At one point, Jay was challenging me as a guitar player so much that we got into a little bit of a heated argument that involved a lot of the F word. I was so rattled by it. I never had anyone do that to me in a studio,” John says. “It’s easy to get complacent and do your thing, and Jay pissed me off, but he was right. He was able to get something out of me that I don’t think anyone else can.”
While Joyce did his job to motivate the band, the brothers also pushed each other. Rolling Stone Country observed their sibling chemistry firsthand when sitting in during the “Stay a Little Longer” session. After T.J., singing with his hands in his pockets and boots off, finishes his first pass, John suggests stretching a particular note. “Soar it,” he instructs, as T.J. tries different variations. “Now let’s do some ad lib shit,” T.J. says, going on to add assorted woos and yeahs. Joyce, meanwhile, stands in a corner, hoodie pulled up over a baseball hat, offering bits of instruction here and there. His two Great Danes, who were previously roaming around the altar, have been banished behind a door for making too much noise.
A few weeks later, Brothers Osborne performed the song at Universal Music Nashville’s annual Country Radio Seminar showcase at the Ryman Auditorium, alongside such heavyweights as Keith Urban and Vince Gill. When they were finished, they received one of only three standing ovations that afternoon from the audience of radio gatekeepers (the others went to Gill and Chris Stapleton).
Both T.J. and John are reluctant to accept praise for their performance. They credit the song — which they cowrote with Shane McAnally — with spurring the crowd to rise.
“That song gives them everything that we are. It starts off and the verses are really emotional and fragile. You don’t want to be alone, you’re making the phone call [to an on-again, off-again lover], taking the trip to the house and then you’re tearing t-shirts off and it’s this electric thing,” T.J. says. “But then, boom, you’re by yourself again: ‘I’m lying here wishing you could stay a little longer.'”
Unlike the happy endings of some contemporary country hits, it doesn’t end with the guy getting the girl. John says that’s the authenticity that has gotten lost in recent years, both in lyrics and in country’s perpetually sunny music videos. When the band filmed its own video for “Rum,” they did so under the cloudy, dreary skies of their hometown.
“Country music has always been honest,” he says. “And, yeah, sometimes the sun is out, but sometimes the sun is not out, and it’s a pain in the ass, and that’s ok. Country music is there for every emotion.”
T.J. agrees and heralds other young singers and songwriters for committing themselves to such an unfiltered depiction of life. Country, he says, is slowly but steadily becoming more concerned with the long view.
“I think artists are finally realizing we can either have this short-lived, sell-our-souls moment, put the song out and have a little flash in the pan, or we can get down to real music,” he says, finishing his drink. “And when country music is real, there is not a genre cooler than it.”