The history of popular music is littered with bands of brothers who, to put it mildly, had trouble getting along. (See: Oasis, the Kinks, the Everly Brothers, the Black Crowes, et al.) But John and T.J. Osborne — the country duo known as Brothers Osborne — are proof that sibling revelry is as effective a musical inspiration as sibling rivalry.
Last week, fresh off adding to a burgeoning trophy collection with two wins at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Maryland-bred duo released their second album, Port Saint Joe.
The record follows up their hit-spawning 2016 debut, Pawn Shop (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “Stay a Little Longer”), but features a more expansive sonic landscape. At 38 minutes, Port Saint Joe — named for the beach town in which they recorded it, at producer Jay Joyce’s house — manages to be a sprawling yet succinct affair that moves seamlessly from full-tilt country rock to poignant balladry.
We chatted with John (he of the grease-fire guitar solos and bearded visage) and younger brother T.J. (clean shaven and fronting the group with a beguiling baritone laced with a hint of grit) about Port Saint Joe and the musical conversation they’ve been having since they were kids, sharing bunk beds and dreaming of the future they are now living. (We spoke with them separately, and John joked, “I promise you [our answers will] either be exactly the same or polar opposite.” Unsurprisingly, they were exactly the same.)
When it comes to music, the Osbornes appreciate every color in the rainbow, from the Allman Brothers Band to Ariana Grande, from Dr. John to Bruno Mars.
“We listened to everything growing up. We listen to everything now,” says John, 35, ticking off Nashville radio stations that span pop, indie rock, country, Americana, R&B, talk, and news. That musical voraciousness is evident on the album, where the flavors include slinky Southern soul, hard-rock stomp, and cheeky New Orleans breeziness, all served up in an unmistakably country wrapper.
“Early in our career, John and I were really worried about the perception of our music, as I’m sure everyone is when they first start off,” says T.J., 33. “We were like, ‘What is our sound? Who are we?’ I think it’s just something that probably is ever-evolving in an artist. Certainly us. In this particular project, every song, they change vastly. There’s ‘Weed, Whiskey and Willie,’ that’s just a really stone-cold country song. And then songs that rock, like ‘Shoot Me Straight,’ and songs that are a little bit more psychedelic, like ‘A Little Bit Trouble.’ In an odd way, the more we bounced around stylistically from song to song, the more we started to really hear us. The sound of the way I sing and the way John plays guitar is kind of the constant in all of that.”
“I think when you put them altogether,” says John of the disparate tracks, “they all start to talk to each other.”
Conversation, not competition
Or the reason the band works, according to both Osbornes: They’ve always wanted to do their respective thing musically.
“One of the reasons John and I don’t often compete with one another is that I don’t really care to play solos and he doesn’t really care to be a lead singer, so it just works,” says T.J. “I love playing rhythm guitar while John’s wailing, playing solos. I find it extremely enjoyable.”
Guitar solos and radio edits
Speaking of those solos, anyone who has seen the band live knows that John stretches out even further, without having to worry about radio editing out his flights of fancy. “It actually doesn’t drive me crazy at all, for a couple reasons,” says John of the current edit of “Shoot Me Straight,” which excises his entire solo. “One, I understand why they’re doing that. Aside from [our songs] being long and having long guitar solos, it’s hard to climb the charts on radio to begin with. So I’m down to do whatever makes it easier. And also, the most important thing is the song. The solo is there to enhance and to service the song. And, I know this sounds political, but I really do mean this, I wouldn’t want more air time taken up for me so my ego could be stroked on radio and maybe be taking away from another artist, especially a new artist, that needs that slot on radio. So we don’t need to take up all the airtime. It genuinely doesn’t bother me at all. We’re just grateful that we get played on the radio to begin with.”
The perfect is the enemy of the good
Although they may only be audible to John Osborne, he says there are several “mistakes” on Port Saint Joe, but producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) insisted on their inclusion, which made him the ideal collaborator.
“I know how to operate Pro Tools and record and all that stuff,” says John. “But if you would’ve just left me in a room by myself, I would have perfected everything, and that would have sucked all the cool out of it, and all the rock & roll. All of the joy and live excitement.” For instance, the band recorded the blistering “Shoot Me Straight” in a very loose, live environment. “We tracked that when we’d had a few beers and smoked a couple joints at the end of the night, and we had friends in the studio and we were just kind of jamming, and Jay was like, ‘That’s the take. You performed it like a band. You performed it live. It was a performance, not just a recording,’” recalls John. It took some convincing, but he’s glad the album reflects the flaws. “I’ve finally gotten to the point where I love the mistakes. But for months, it was hard to listen to it because it’s vulnerable.”
When asked to name some of their favorite familial forebears, the brothers cite myriad groups, including the Louvin Brothers, the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, and their all-time heroes, the Allman Brothers Band. But they have a special appreciation for the longevity of AC/DC, led by schoolboy-suited lead guitarist Angus and his late brother, the hugely influential rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young. “No mater what record they put out, they maintained a sound,” says John. “It’s fine to adapt. But it’s the most rock & roll thing ever to continue to do your thing despite the trends and still sell out arenas and stadiums.”
Take a listen to Port Saint Joe above (but be forewarned some lyrics are NSFW).