Broth­ers Os­borne

Re­silience and hard work has got coun­try rock duo Broth­ers Os­borne where they are to­day. Theirs is a story of pay­ing dues, de­ter­mi­na­tion and good ol’-fash­ioned true grit.

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Polly Glass Pho­tos: James Shar­rock

Re­silience, hard work, de­ter­mi­na­tion and good ol’-fash­ioned true grit has got the coun­try rock duo where they are to­day.

Coun­tri­fied rock has been hav­ing a mo­ment in the UK. Well, for ‘mo­ment’, read ‘sev­eral years’, as any­one with half an eye on bands such as Black­berry Smoke, The Cadil­lac Three, A Thou­sand Horses and so on will at­test. Many peo­ple have em­braced this lat­ter-day wave of coun­try cheer, in part be­cause it picks up from where beloved artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the All­man Broth­ers left off, and in part be­cause we don’t have a USA-style deep-rooted coun­try scene of our own.

Of all the ‘new­com­ers’, Broth­ers Os­borne – two ac­tual broth­ers from a small fish­ing town in Mary­land, now based in Nashville – have en­joyed one of the speed­i­est rises. Their first trip to the UK was to sup­port The Cadil­lac Three at Lon­don’s Fo­rum last year on the back of their 2016 al­bum Pawn Shop (which in­cludes pop­u­lar YouTube hit Ain’t My Fault). The venue was packed out.

Tonight they’re head­lin­ing a sold-out show at Lon­don’s Koko and in Novem­ber they’ll re­turn to the Fo­rum as head­lin­ers. In to­day’s rock mar­ket, that’s fast work, which they hope will tackle the out­dated but still com­mon no­tion that coun­try mu­sic is all corny and/or pop-glossed schmaltz.

“To me, Hank Wil­liams Se­nior or Way­lon Jen­nings per­son­ify rock’n’roll as much as any­one,” says singer TJ Os­borne. “There’s no bull­shit. They’re just guys that come out, sing their songs.

They’re not try­ing to be cute or funny or to ap­pease a cer­tain group. That’s some­thing that we try to do. Nowa­days it’s kinda break­ing the mould in the States, so it’s taken us some time to get some suc­cess do­ing it that way there. I guess what we found in the UK is that peo­ple don’t wanna see the cookie-cut­ter artist.”

De­spite three Grammy nom­i­na­tions Broth­ers Os­borne’s pro­gres­sion in the UK has been faster than at home in the US.

“His­tor­i­cally, Lon­don has shown the world what great mu­sic is time and time again,” adds the el­der Os­borne, gui­tarist John. “The United States didn’t re­ally give a shit about blues mu­sic un­til the UK made us privy to it; it was in our own back­yard, and we had no idea it was even there."

We’re catch­ing up over beers in a swanky, vel­vetlined ho­tel bar in cen­tral Lon­don – a change of scene for two guys who un­til re­cently were dead broke. Chat­ti­est brother John, 36, laughs heartily through a shrub-like beard. With his ga­tor-skin boots and enor­mous stet­son, he could be an ex­tra from a clas­sic western movie. TJ, beard-free and three years younger, is friendly but a lit­tle more guarded. Both of them are very tall and stur­dily built – guys who wouldn’t refuse man­ual labour.

Af­ter years of ingest­ing other peo­ple’s mu­sic and cut­ting their teeth as mu­si­cians (first in Deale, Mary­land, then in Nashville when they each turned 18), they now make their own brand of cow­boy boot-stomp­ing mu­sic, with the dis­torted swag­ger and snarl of a proper rock’n’roll band. TJ brings the deep bari­tone, John the im­pres­sive riffs and chops. If Johnny Cash stum­bled into the Grand Ole Opry, and ended up jam­ming rock songs with a hot lo­cal ses­sion band – over a few whisky dou­bles – it might have sounded like this.

Where pre­vi­ous al­bum Pawn Shop was a dis­parate and frag­mented col­lec­tion of ideas, lat­est record Port Saint Joe is more co­he­sive, made in two weeks at pro­ducer Jay Joyce’s se­cluded beach house, in a small pocket of Florida from which it takes its name. Notes of Ste­vie Ray Vaughan, Lit­tle Feat, the All­mans and even Steely Dan mix with clas­sic, sung-on-the-porch coun­try tones, much of it more brood­ing and jammed out than pre­vi­ously.

“We set up our gear and for two weeks made mu­sic,” John ex­plains. “Just nat­u­rally, son­i­cally we were all in the same head-space. I mean, to record some­thing over a year, a lot of things can hap­pen, a lot of things can change – your play­ing, your writ­ing, your life… – but that two weeks was a snap­shot of who we were at that time.”

Their daily rou­tine there paints a rather bliss­ful pic­ture. Hav­ing risen around 10.30am, cooked break­fast, watched the waves and strolled down the beach to Joyce’s house a few min­utes walk from their own base, the Os­bornes and their band would start jam­ming. Lunch would be lasagne, burg­ers or craw­fish cooked by Jay’s brother Tommy, af­ter which they’d crack open some beers and start track­ing songs, work­ing on ar­range­ments un­til din­ner. “Then we’d go back in and maybe do some over­dubs on a song from the pre­vi­ous day,” John says. ‘Then at night when the sun’s gone down we’d all stop and drink beer, smoke joints and lis­ten to mu­sic for about four hours. Then

“There’s a lot of as­pects of coun­try that peo­ple didn’t know ex­isted be­cause they never gave it a chance.” TJ Os­borne

we’d walk back down to the beach house and go to sleep. It was in­cred­i­ble, and I never want to make mu­sic any other way!”

So far, so dreamy. Yet along­side their beer­drinkin’ good times and blue-col­lar roots, the Os­borne broth­ers are markedly more lib­eral than a lot of their coun­tri­fied peers. They’ve spo­ken out about gun con­trol, mar­i­juana and gay rights (the video for their 2016 song Stay A Lit­tle Longer fea­tured a gay cou­ple). And peo­ple seem to have no­ticed: ear­lier this year a tax bill in Min­nesota was named af­ter Ain’t My Fault.

“What we hear a lot is: ‘Mu­si­cians should stay out of pol­i­tics, shut up and play!’” John sighs. “And then you have a politi­cian us­ing your song to pro­mote his po­lit­i­cal agenda. Like: ‘What about the other way, ass­hole?’ You can’t have it one way and not the other. I think it’s hi­lar­i­ous that a politi­cian is bla­tantly ad­mit­ting that no politi­cians can take ac­count­abil­ity for any­thing.”

To un­der­stand Broth­ers Os­borne in 2018, you have to go back to Deale, Mary­land in the 80s and 90s. The mid­dle two of five broth­ers and sis­ters (with a hair­dresser mother and plumber fa­ther), John and TJ had a hard-up but happy child­hood.

“We grew up in a very hum­ble house­hold,” John re­calls. “We lived in a du­plex, and TJ and I shared bunk beds un­til I grad­u­ated high school. There were days we’d come home and the elec­tric­ity was turned off, be­cause it was tough to make ends meet. Our dad al­ways saw the best in ev­ery­thing. It would turn into a game; when we were kids it was like: ‘Hey, we get to play hide and seek in the dark! It’s fun!’”

From an early age they were help­ing their fa­ther at work, crawl­ing un­der houses on plumb­ing jobs, dig­ging trenches and swing­ing jack­ham­mers. As teenagers they also played in his band, Deuce

And A Quar­ter, per­form­ing to lo­cal au­di­ences of trades­men, fam­i­lies, and brawl­ing drunks.

John: “He [our dad] went to Nashville and would play four-hour shifts on Broad­way. He adopted the phi­los­o­phy of: ‘You play for four hours, you don’t take a break, cos if you take a break, peo­ple will leave’. He was break­ing all sorts of child labour laws, but we loved it!”

“That’s where we got our first bug for per­form­ing,” TJ con­tin­ues, “step­ping up and singing a song and ev­ery­one goes crazy, or pass­ing

“What we hear a lot is: ‘Mu­si­cians should stay out of pol­i­tics, shut up and play!’” John Os­borne

round the tip jar and say­ing: ‘Dad these peo­ple are show­ing up to a bar to lis­ten to mu­sic.’”

This re­silient, work-your-ass-off back­ground was good train­ing for years of hard slog in Nashville. Hav­ing moved there at the be­gin­ning of the 00s, the broth­ers spent more than a decade pay­ing their dues and steadily build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion. For John, this meant hon­ing his gui­tar chops by tak­ing ev­ery side­man gig go­ing, which led to him be­ing in coun­try rock­ers King Billy.

“I said yes to pretty much ev­ery­thing, un­less it in­volved read­ing jazz charts,” he says. “For years I never said the word ‘no’. I’d spend seventy dol­lars on gas, drive to a hun­dred-dol­lar gig, only to come home with thirty bucks, and I’d spend thirty bucks on beer while I was there so I’d come home broke. But it was a blast and it was all about con­stantly work­ing for some­thing much big­ger.”

TJ, mean­while, worked a stint at Gib­son Gui­tars and sang on demos, along­side writ­ing his own ma­te­rial. Just as he was about to quit, he got a gig.

“I was about to move back home,” he re­mem­bers, “and I got a gig play­ing up­right bass for Ale­cia Nu­gent. It was the first time I got to play the Grand Ole Opry and tour in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

Things started mov­ing even faster when he and John signed a pub­lish­ing deal in 2011.

John: “You hear about peo­ple who say: ‘I’ve been in town for six months and it’s not work­ing out.’ And it’s like, you need to stick around and work harder. Stick around and get bet­ter at what you do, and go wait ta­bles and go bust your ass like ev­ery­one else and fig­ure out how to make it work. If you can stick it out through that part, that’s a big step that a lot of peo­ple don’t take.”

“I think that’s re­ally one of the big­gest things that got us to where we are,” TJ muses. “We just didn’t quit, we didn’t stop.”

“We knew early on that we didn’t wanna be plumbers,” says John.“So we worked hard to en­sure that we weren’t go­ing to be plumbers for the rest of our lives.”

“Al­though at the end of the day it’s also al­lowed us the free­dom in what we’re do­ing,” TJ adds. “I mean, I much pre­fer what I’m do­ing now to plumb­ing, but I could eas­ily do that too – I’ve done it. We grew up with hard work and we’re not afraid of hav­ing that type of life. John and I re­ally scraped by un­til re­cently and we had a great time. So not hav­ing any­thing doesn’t scare me, and it has af­forded us free­dom in the cre­ative world.”

TJ and (left) John Os­borne: drawn to the bright lights of the the coun­try.

“Shots!” The broth­ers and friends cel­e­brate in time-honoured style.

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