In 2019, Brothers Osborne released a document of their live show, culling several tracks from a series of Ryman Auditorium performances from earlier that same year. It showed off the CMA-winning duo’s comfort and skill with slow-burning balladry and jam-friendly noodling alike, further cementing the reputation they’d been building as top-tier live entertainers — equal parts intuitive and hard-hitting.
They wanted to bring that energy into the studio with them as they went to work on their third album, the follow-up to 2018’s superb Port Saint Joe. That album and its predecessor, Pawn Shop, had some certifiable bangers, but Port Saint Joe was heavy on ballads. This time, they focused on creating something that would explode out of speakers, especially onstage. Working once again with producer Jay Joyce, they entered his East Nashville studio and emerged with a collection of loud, outsized songs meant to be played live. They called it Skeletons.
“I’m very proud of [Port Saint Joe], but it’s not full of a bunch of songs that would probably work in an arena or an amphitheater,” TJ Osborne says on a phone call in late September. “We wanted to have a record that would work really well in larger rooms, as we were looking to go into those next year. We’re probably slowing that process down a little bit now with Covid.”
“Let’s record something that’s really fun and exciting to listen to, and most importantly, let’s record an album of songs we can play live,” his brother John Osborne explains on a separate call. “I feel like we did that to the best of our ability, but the whole irony being that all of our shows got canceled.”
This year, as we are all painfully aware, upended plans for everyone, but Brothers Osborne were beset by interruptions before the pandemic even set in. John developed tinnitus, TJ had to deal with salmonella poisoning, and a tornado ripped through East Nashville just a couple blocks away from their producer’s studio. The album was delayed on more than one occasion.
“It really was a test of will for some reason,” TJ says. “I don’t really know why, entirely. I’m a person who tends to believe things happen for a reason, and I don’t know the reason for that happening. We had many, many times where we able to step away from the project and come in and re-approach it or rerecord a song or decide a song we had recorded was one we didn’t want on the album.”
All that time to think about it was apparently useful, because Skeletons is a big, celebratory blast of amped-up country-rock. It’ll be perfect for big stages someday, and in the meantime, it’s just dandy for soundtracking socially distanced gatherings at home.
“It’s really not a party record, but should hopefully evoke that emotion,” TJ says. “The hard part is, we’ll have to wait and see if we have done that.” (Fans can get a taste of what the live experience will be like Friday night at 7 p.m. during the duo’s album release party.)
In addition to capturing the visceral thrill of their concerts with Skeletons, TJ and John decided to try some things they’d never before attempted on record.
With his skillful B-bending and wild, at-times jazzy runs, John is the duo’s resident guitar hero. On Skeletons, he takes the lead on the instrumental “Muskrat Greene,” a furious guitar workout that ranges from twanged-out chicken-pickin’ to pysch-rock to lightning-quick scales. The track’s name nods to a character from the Osbornes’ Deale, Maryland, hometown who once set a world record for shucking and eating the most oysters in three minutes.
“He was apparently a bit of a local legend,” John says, “a big ol’ beer-drinkin’, southern Maryland, waterman redneck.”
“Muskrat Greene” is part of a two-song suite that concludes with “Dead Man’s Curve,” a supercharged two-minute scorcher that comes in on tempo and in the same key. A warning about messing with a woman with two six-foot-four brothers, it includes a callback to a similar line in the towering duo’s “Shoot Me Straight.”
“I’m pretty confident that section of music is gonna be awesome live,” TJ says. “I think it’s really, really gonna slay.”
The album’s first single “All Night” also had a touch of something new, bringing in a raunchy baritone guitar to split the difference between Dwight Yoakam’s cowpunk sizzle and ZZ Top’s electrified boogie. And on “I’m Not for Everyone,” TJ’s familiar voice is momentarily replaced by that of John, who sings lead for a verse.
“I always loved when artists did that,” John says. “If you listen to a Stevie Wonder song and he’ll bring in another singer, or Prince would do that. And Alabama would do stuff like that. When it gets back to the lead vocalist, it’s a great transition.”
In the vein of past Brothers Osborne songs like “Weed, Whiskey, & Willie” and “Loving Me Back,” there are also plentiful nods to the grand tradition of country music from which they sprung. The title track is brawny, chest-thumping country in the manner of Waylon Jennings, while the album closes out with a lone, mostly acoustic number called “Old Man’s Boots” that looks to the Osbornes’ upbringing. In the drinking song “Back on the Bottle” — co-written by Hayes Carll — they expertly switch between differing time signatures and tempos with hard rock, country funk, and swaying barroom waltz.
“There’s a lot of variety in that one little song,” TJ says. “Unless you really sat down and dissected it, you might take it at face value for being a throwback country song, which is what we wanted it to be. We didn’t want it to sound overly complex or overthought, even though it’s probably more complex than someone would realize at first listen.”
“I feel like that’s [our] most Haggard-sounding song to date,” John adds, “but it still sounds like us playing on it.”
Offstage, Brothers Osborne have been among the few politically outspoken country performers in the mainstream, voicing their support for numerous progressive causes. (They recently spent four minutes talking about gun reform for a Now This News video.) TJ and John don’t directly address the broken state of the U.S. on Skeletons — not that they’re required to — but they do offer a pair of meditations on getting along. “Lighten Up” addresses simmering outrage and imagines a world where we can all come together in a harmonious cloud of weed smoke and whiskey fumes. “Hatin’ Somebody,” on the other hand, cooks up a loose, jammy groove to deal with bigotry and the imperative to find ways of coexisting. “Hatin’ somebody ain’t never got nobody nowhere,” TJ sings.
“Really, we need to just sit down and have a reasonable conversation,” John says, “and realize that we’re just people just floating around on this rock, blasting through the universe at a speed that our brains can’t even conceive, and we won’t even be around here for very long and maybe we should take it down a notch.”
That’s a difficult thing to do in 2020, when everyone’s constantly on edge and everything feels unrelentingly dire. Concerts used to be a reliable reprieve from our crises, but now we’re left with less-than-fulfilling livestreams and memories of what used to be. With Skeletons, however, Brothers Osborne succeed in providing fans a much needed rock & roll release.
“Hopefully when they put our record on it’ll transport them to somewhere where they’ll feel like they’re watching a live show,” John says. “If it does that, then I feel like we hit the mark.”