TJ Osborne was just settling into his seat on a recent flight to Milwaukee with his brother John when a fan recognized the duo and asked for a picture. “Are you guys famous or something?” a woman seated nearby asked TJ.
“Maybe in some circles we are,” he replied, offering the name of the siblings’ band when her curiosity got the better of her.
“Nuh-uh!” she said. “Brothers Osborne wouldn’t fly Southwest.”
Recounting the story on this March Monday night over whiskey and burgers at Nashville’s cocktail bar/bowling alley hybrid Pinewood Social, TJ and John Osborne can’t help but laugh. While apparently aware of the duo’s music, the uninformed fan couldn’t have been more off-base about Brothers Osborne’s far-from-bougie ethos. Despite an increasing amount of success – including being named ACM Vocal Duo of the Year for a second time on Sunday – the brothers can’t shake the practical way of life they learned growing up in a blue-collar family in Deale, Maryland. When John decided to splurge on a “new” car, he bought a KIA at Carmax. Both brothers recently oversaw the remodeling of a home they own in Nashville and plan to rent as an AirBnb.
That same working-class mentality has also empowered them to speak their minds about a range of polarizing issues, from gun violence to racial injustice. Their Twitter account is equally entertaining and informed, bolstered by a give-no-fucks attitude toward those who warn they may endanger their career because of their beliefs.
“I feel like it’s our duty. We came from nothing, so if saying how we feel and wanting to force some positive change in the world means that everything we’ve worked for is gone and we go back to nothing? That’s fine,” says John, sporting a well-worn Cadillac Three T-shirt. “If we were born with a silver spoon in our mouth, that’d be terrifying, but we’ve spent most of our lives there. We can do that. We’ll make a living somehow. We’ll play music.”
The Osbornes are seemingly always playing. Well before they signed with EMI Nashville, they worked as hired guns, sometimes in situations that didn’t quite live up to their own artistic ideals (“There have been times where I was like, ‘I am mortified that I am having to play this song onstage in front of people,'” says John). When they’re not on tour – they’ll open Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain Tour this summer – they can be found onstage at benefit shows around Nashville, including one for late singer Jessi Zazu last July. On their new album Port Saint Joe, out Friday, they never let up, stretching out even further as players and cementing their status as a band essential to the vitality of today’s country music.
The follow-up to 2016’s Pawn Shop, the record is an adventure in musicianship, showcasing guitarist John’s intricate, crackling guitar solos and singer TJ’s baritone vocals and slip-sliding cadence. While the album is as relaxed as the Florida beachside town from which it takes its name and where it was recorded – the sound of lapping waves open the LP – it’s also a more focused body of work than Pawn Shop. That LP was recorded in spurts in between tour dates. Port Saint Joe is the product of hunkering down at producer Jay Joyce’s Gulf Coast home with 20 songs, hammering out arrangements and emerging with a track list.
“We rented a house five or six houses down from Jay, and we’d walk the beach to his house. We played whatever we were in the mood for and just showed up whenever,” TJ says.
“If there’s one thing Jay Joyce hates, it’s comfort zones,” adds John. “The fact that we went to this beach house in Florida was the ultimate non-comfort zone. You’re staring at the Gulf of Mexico and it’s paradise, but it’s not built to record in. But we loved it. We never felt like we were in a studio or like we started recording, but before we knew it, we had a whole record done.”
Port Saint Joe is a concise, 10-song effort, clocking in at a determined 38 minutes. “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)” is a stunner of a love song about how one transforms after meeting their person. “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” is an appreciation of the country holy trinity that would be a surefire radio hit if not for a pot reference in its title. And “Tequila Again,” which uses the titular spirit as a metaphor for a tumultuous relationship, sounds like an unreleased track from Waylon & Willie.
But it’s “A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright” that is the Osbornes at their most playful. A funky soul vamp, the standout features John strumming an intro that recalls Jean Knight’s 1971 hit “Mr. Big Stuff,” and a perfectly flawed double vocal from TJ.
“That’s two entire takes that are playing at the same time, one on the left and one on the right,” he says. At the end of one take, he flubs the lyrics. “You can hear me go, ‘ah shit,’ but they kept going,” TJ says. “Jay said, ‘That’s a take.’ He would not let me fix it. It’s one of my favorite moments on the record.”
The LP’s lead single “Shoot Me Straight” veers into heavy rock territory, featuring a blistering solo from John that stretches the song to nearly seven minutes. Their record label’s CEO Mike Dungan laughed – “obviously you are” – when the Osbornes offered to cut an edit for radio. Otherwise, the brothers say, the label has allowed them to preserve and foster the rock-forward sound that first put them on EMI’s radar.
“You know when you start dating a girl and she dates you cause you’re super cool and a renegade and you have a cool jacket and say what’s on your mind?” asks John. “But a year in she wants that part of you to change. There’s an element of that with some people’s relationships with record labels. [They sign an artist] because of something cool and quirky and then try to take that part out of it because monetarily it doesn’t make sense. We never experienced that. And they know as well as we do that we’re not going to fucking listen anyway.”
“We’re all about peace and love and understanding, but we will kick the shit out of you if you threaten us.” -John Osborne
Chalk it up to that Deale, Maryland, workingman’s stubbornness, the same trait that makes them such unwavering defenders of the little guy. Like those old Charles Atlas ads about “The Insult That Made a Man Out of a Mac,” the Osbornes are the guys who would deck the bully kicking sand in your face.
“If we’re sitting in a room and there is a guy over there treating the little person like shit, we’re going to go over and tell him to stop doing that. That’s just who we are. Our mother, her best friend [in school] was a boy and he got picked on, and she used to beat up [the bullies],” says John, incredulously recalling how someone on Twitter once told them that if they wanted their opinion on politics, they’d pummel it out of them. “I’d like to see you try. We’re all about peace and love and understanding, but we will kick the shit out of you if you threaten us like that.”
But such talk isn’t false machismo or tough-guy posturing. Rather, Brothers Osborne are a throwback to a time when country music wasn’t afraid to take a stand and be a voice for those lacking one. And with Port Saint Joe, they continue to make waves in a genre that, of late, seems to prefer playing it safe.
“The thing about country music that has always made it so awesome is that it’s always been a bunch of singers who told the truth and stood up for people,” says TJ. “The worst thing you can be as an artist is a sellout, and being quiet feels like you’re doing that.”
“There is nothing worse than someone who says nothing,” says John. “At least speak your mind and say something that you believe in. And if it makes someone threaten to burn our albums in the middle of a parking lot, then so fucking be it.”