TJ Osborne doesn’t want to think about how well Brothers Osborne’s single “Stay a Little Longer” is performing on the charts. Seated in a vintage high back chair to the left of his brother John in a nondescript East Nashville storefront owned by their manager, the duo’s deep-voiced lead singer figures he’s probably better off keeping his head down and working.
“We try not to pay attention to anything else that’s going on because ultimately we can’t really do much to control it,” explains TJ. “The more we’re conscious of all that stuff, the more I think it tends to drive you crazy. Same thing with our single. If we’re at 22 and we’re struggling, it starts to distract me and I start doing things that are uncharacteristic of what I would really do — trying to figure what it is to fix when really all I gotta do is just keep going forward.”
TJ and John will probably have little choice in the matter, considering that their Grammy-nominated single “Stay a Little Longer” is well past 22 and inside the Top 5 as Brothers Osborne prepare for the January 15th release of their debut album Pawn Shop. The long-awaited collection combines a handful of recordings from earlier sessions with newer ones overseen by Jay Joyce (Eric Church) and seasons the brothers’ thumping country-rock with a decidedly blue-collar flavor.
That much should be apparent from the video for Brothers Osborne’s earlier single “Rum” (included on Pawn Shop), where TJ and John eschew the typical summer party scenery for the humble dockside bar and gray skies of their Deale, Maryland, hometown. Weathered fishermen trawl for crabs in the bay and the guys knock back shots while buddies give heroic lip-sync performances of the song, which extolls the virtues of appreciating what one has in the present. There’s something remarkably (and refreshingly) ordinary about the clip, standing in stark contrast to the rustic opulence often found in country videos.
For all its ostensible connections to the common man, country music sometimes has a wide gulf between its very wealthy celebrity performers and its diverse audience. Brothers Osborne, on the other hand, seem not that far removed from working class life — a couple of plumbers’ sons who figured out how to make a little money through music and welcomed the chance do something other than skilled labor.
“We didn’t have a lot as kids,” says John, the long-haired, ginger-bearded half of the pair. “But our families were always having a good time — laughing, carrying on, drinking beer. We couldn’t afford to go to the ocean, so we just ran around with a garden hose and we just made the best of it. That’s who we are. We didn’t come from much but we had the best time possible.”
Their father — a fan of classic rock and classic country alike — insisted they learn enough songs to play four-hour sets when they first began giving public performances. The bar from the “Rum” video — Happy Harbor — is where the two had their first paying gigs as teenagers.
“We’d play on their dock bar,” recalls TJ. “Our dad was really adamant about playing these four-hour [long] sets. Because that’s what they did in downtown Nashville. They play four hours and there’s no breaks.”
“Then — two hours into it — he would be out drinking beer while we kept playing,” interrupts John, laughing. “So the four-hour rule did not apply to him.”
As with “Rum,” Pawn Shop frequently deals with the aspirational concerns of working-class people — funky album opener “Dirt Rich” sets a scene of a disorderly, less-than-pristine home and says, “learn to live with it and like it just the way it is.” The slide-guitar-assisted title track puts a lens on both sides of the pawn industry: sometimes people in dire straits need cash to pay the bills and others are more than happy to take those items home for cheap. TJ and John wrote the quirky tune with Sean McConnell and their publisher couldn’t think of anyone else who could pull it off.
“[We said] ‘Perfect, we’ll do it!'” says John.
“We’re taking it. It’s our song now,” adds TJ. “If there’s no other artists you know that could do this song, then it is ours.”
More than just a novel song topic, “Pawn Shop” speaks to an experience the Osbornes and numerous other musicians know all too well: having to make the terrible choice between selling an instrument or making rent.
“John and I have been on both ends of pawn shops,” says TJ. “We’ve hocked guitars and we’ve bought guitars from pawn shops. It’s one thing selling another guitar to buy a cooler guitar…”
“But selling it because you can’t afford to keep the lights on, that’s pretty disheartening,” chimes in John.
“It’s like, shit, I just sold a guitar to get to zero,” TJ concludes with a hearty laugh.
Elsewhere, Pawn Shop concerns itself with matters of the heart. Lee Ann Womack stops by to add gorgeous harmonies to the aching waltz “Loving Me Back,” and the nostalgic “21 Summer” evokes the parting of clouds years after a stormy relationship’s conclusion.
“If we’re gonna talk about smoking weed, then let’s talk about it, let’s not hint at it.”
Breakout hit “Stay a Little Longer” pulses with a similar urgency, thanks to the interplay of TJ’s sensual delivery and John’s explosive three-minute guitar solo at the end. The radio version trims some of the fretwork, but the six-minute album version goes for broke.
“Because of them shortening the songs on the radio and everyone wants to write singles, you forget that you’re actually still allowed to create works of art longer than three minutes,” explains John, who says producer Joyce provoked him to a state of anger before tracking the ferocious solo.
TJ notes that John’s guitar work is just as much a part of the duo’s sound as his voice, a notion that’s underscored in “Stay.” “That’ s a really unusual thing to happen and is really specific to us,” he says. “But we had to reinforce that John’s a really good guitar player. This isn’t just a guy holding a guitar and swirling around onstage — he can really fucking play.”
That outspoken nature of the Osbornes quickly reveals itself in person as well as in song, and in spite of their serene work ethic they’re also not afraid to say what’s on their minds. Nearly a year ago, John told Rolling Stone Country that people “were tired of the bullshit” in country music and ready to hear something real.
“Crazy-ass Donald Trump is a prime example of why people want to just see someone be real,” says TJ. “I mean, he’s crazier than shit, but the fact that people actually know where he’s coming from is attractive to people.”
“It’s not attractive to me,” counters John.
“It’s not attractive to me but I think people are going to find it popular,” clarifies TJ.
Likewise, Pawn Shop doesn’t shy from exploring a subject that would have been taboo and grounds for excommunication just 10 years ago but today is gaining in popularity. “Greener Pastures,” with its danceable outlaw backbeat, cleverly positions the medicinal power of marijuana as a cure for the relationship blues but doesn’t cower behind a weak euphemism.
“We’re like, let’s go all the way,” says TJ of the song, which he and John wrote with Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd. “Let’s just say it. If we’re gonna smoke weed and we’re gonna talk about smoking weed, then let’s talk about it, let’s not hint at it.”
“It’s getting to the point where weed’s just like drinking a beer,” adds John. “It’s weird how for decades, people were putting it in the same group as heroin or cocaine and it’s like, trust me, it’s nothing like those things.”
The Osbornes double down with album closer “It Ain’t My Fault,” which churns like Van Halen’s cover of “You Really Got Me” backed by a gospel choir. It’s about a guy who breaks bad one evening and doesn’t feel the least bit sorry for the havoc he wreaks.
The same could be said for TJ and John’s self-assured approach to making music. While the success of “Stay” certainly looks like it may vault them into another level of stardom, they don’t want to get hung up on it. If they don’t rocket to the top, they’ll likely get right back to work and keep playing — even if it’s back at the Happy Harbor like they did at their first paying gigs.
“We probably put like 40 bucks in our pocket, but to a person that just wants to play music and you’re 14 years old or whatever, that’s amazing. What a feeling,” recalls John. “It’s like, I got to play music for four hours, which I would have done for free, and you’re giving me money? That’s like the greatest thing ever. That’s why I don’t understand a musician that has a shitty attitude. You’re getting to play music. You should be thankful that you’re getting to do that.”