It’s weird to think that Brothers Osborne are just now releasing their debut full-length; the time has felt right so many times over the last few years. The duo, which consists of brothers TJ and John, saw their first success at country radio with singles “Let’s Go There” and “Rum,” respectively released in 2013 and 2014. Now riding high with “Stay a Little Longer,” their first Top 10 on the country charts and, now, their first Grammy nomination, it’s starting to feel like they waited just long enough.
“We’ve tried to rush things. We’ve been red in the face about things that didn’t go our way,” says John, who plays guitar in the duo, when Paste sat with the brothers in Nashville last month. “But it’s taken a while to get here, and I think it’s for a reason. I think the album we made now versus the album we would’ve a year ago is a lot different.”
The guys partially credit this good timing with the climate at country radio beyond the success of their latest single. With a wider scope of sounds hitting the airwaves, country’s rising stars heading into the new year each bear a more unique sound than any of their predecessors in the past few years. The band name-checks artists like Old Dominion and Cam, noting that releasing their debut now, when country finally seems to breaking out of this homogenous dudes-n-trucks phase, puts them miles ahead of where they’d be if Pawn Shop had come out even one or two years ago.
“Our music didn’t really stand a chance against what was already on the radio because it was so left of center,” says TJ. “If we’d put Pawn Shop out a year ago, it might have just gotten swallowed up. Now that we’re putting it out now, the timing feels absolutely perfect. The waiting is always the hardest part.”
That’s not to say they’ve spent much—or any—time just waiting around in the last couple of years. Even when they’re onto something good, TJ and John have been known to tweak things until they’re just right: take “Stay A Little Longer,” the catchy single that earned the duo a Grammy nod. They’d had the song in their arsenal for years when it came time to ready the track for radio, but they wanted it to better represent the ways they’d evolved as a band. Enter Jay Joyce, the producer behind tourmate Eric Church’s hard-rocking country sound. He got into the studio and turned the track on its head, encouraging John to show off his virtuoso-level guitar picking in a lengthy solo.
“John and I have really strong opinions, and we wanted someone to kind of help elevate us and bring us to another level,” says TJ of Joyce, who would go on to produce the whole of Pawn Shop. “It’s hard sometimes, if someone’s telling you something you don’t want to hear, to take that see merit. It takes someone like Jay. He’s a guy who’s had not just success, but success producing records that I like.”
The album’s title track is a prime example of Brothers Osborne’s gritty flair, complete with plenty of guitar licks and TJ’s low vocals. Lyrically, too, the guys say the song is a good place to begin describing the record as a whole: what musician hasn’t spent some time in a pawn shop?
“Selling something at a pawn shop is tough, you know? To get rid of a guitar just to pay for bills is definitely a hard pill to swallow,” says John. “If you look at our record, or records, it’s like as a collection of songs we’ve got our own Brothers Osborne pawn shop. It runs the gamut of styles that we have to offer.”
One of the songs that showcases this versatility is “Loving Me Back,” a number written with Casey Beathard (whose credits can be found on No. 1s like Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song” and Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink”). The song is easily one of the more classic country songs on the album, a quality that is only magnified by the addition of Lee Ann Womack on a duet.
“We grew up listening to country as much as anything. For all the naysayers out there who say [our music’s] not country? Well, we can do country. We love country. This is it,” says TJ. “And just to sit there and see a legend of Lee Ann’s quality sitting there singing on the song was crazy. I mean, it really came to life.”
For all their reverence towards country’s traditions, they are hardly beholden to its traditional audience. The brothers are outspoken—almost brash—about the things they care about, and the idea of censoring themselves or tailoring their art not to cause a stir doesn’t seem like something that would ever cross their minds. The music video for “Stay A Little Longer,” for example, prominently features gay couples alongside straight ones being affectionate with one another and barreling down the same path towards reckless love.
“We are all equal in the trials of tribulations of love,” TJ says. “We thought, ‘Let’s do this right.’ We really couldn’t pick one couple. It isn’t about one couple. It’s about my story, it’s about John’s story, it’s about yours. It’s about everyone’s.”
That kind of openness hasn’t always been widely embraced by the stereotypically ultra-conservative country followers—songs like Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” have had issues in the genre for even mistaken gay innuendo—but John and TJ say that, for the most part, those stereotypes about closed-minded country fans are dated.
“The stereotypes always come from years past. They aren’t created overnight,” says John. “The genre of country music and country music listeners have evolved into a more open-minded thing, a more open-minded philosophy. Country music is the biggest genre of music at the moment; they’re selling more tickets, they’re selling more records. It’s massive. And that has a lot to do with a diverse group of people listening to the genre.”
As Brothers Osborne and their like-minded group of new Nashville begin to rise in the charts, they’re ushering in a new brand of artistry that is informed by convention, but strong and confident enough to form new traditions, too. And if the future of country is as meticulously crafted and as confidently released as the fare Brothers Osborne have crafted, we’re in for a hell of a renaissance.