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.
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 In today’s rock market, that’s fast work, which they hope will tackle the outdated but still common notion that country music is all corny and/or pop-glossed schmaltz.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.