Brothers Osborne: The Cover Story

Written by Annie Reuter
Brothers Osborne: The Cover Story
Brothers Osborne; Photo credit: Alysse Gafkjen

When TJ and John Osborne moved to Nashville they never intended to become a duo. The Deale, Maryland, natives grew up playing music together and once they both relocated to Music City they’d frequently find themselves writing together and sitting in with each other’s bands.

Following a show billed as TJ Osborne at 3rd and Lindsley around 2011, John recalls several people coming up to them and saying they loved what he and his brother were doing. While they weren’t a duo at the time, it laid the groundwork for what would eventually become Brothers Osborne.

“We started being asked, the two of us, to come play events,” John tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “So it wasn’t ever something we consciously did. We did have a conversation at one point where I said, ‘Hey, should we just accept the fact that this is what it is and start calling it that?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ It happened so organically that it seemed like it was always that way.”

The band was built on TJ’s striking low baritone and John’s impressive guitar slinging and their 2016 critically acclaimed debut album, Pawn Shop, proved their staying power. The Jay Joyce-produced project included versatile tracks like No. 1 hit “Stay a Little Longer,” the nostalgic “21 Summer” and the rollicking “It Ain’t My Fault,” all of which they penned themselves.

On April 20, the reigning ACM and CMA Vocal Duo of the Year embarks on their next chapter as a band when they release their sophomore album, Port Saint Joe. An album that takes off where Pawn Shop left off, TJ explains that they worked hard to make sure the music continued the evolution of their band.

…we wanted, from the very first time you hear it, to know that the record is going to be different. – John

“We obviously don’t want this record to completely carbon copy the last,” TJ explains. “We don’t want to lose what it is that makes us who we are.”

While TJ and John wrote a lot for their sophomore release, they decided to do things slightly different this time around and record the album in one sitting. With the plan to bury themselves in the studio, they retreated to Port Saint Joe, a small town on the Florida coast, where they recorded the album at Joyce’s beach house (Visit Port Saint Joe by entering for a chance to win a flyaway to the Florida city HERE).

Hard at work.

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“We wanted it to be a very cohesive body of work, almost in the way that you would have a concept record. The songs lyrically are different, but musically it is one cohesive solid piece where they all run into each other,” TJ says. “In fact, the first four songs on the record literally go into the next song. There’s an interesting end to ‘Shoot Me Straight’ that people have wondered about. It’s almost odd the way it ends but the reason it is that way is because it actually runs into the next song. It may not make a ton of sense now, but when the record’s released it will.”

Both TJ and John agree that lead single “Shoot Me Straight” is the song that best represents them on the 10-track project. While TJ’s voice carries a lot of weight on the track, John’s guitar skills are also at the forefront of the song.

“It really exemplifies who we are as a band, and it shows our strong points very well,” John notes. “It also sums up who we are as a live band. If you come to our shows, it’s a lot of playing, and a lot of jamming, and a lot of improvising and just living in the moment. That song was recorded in the moment. I think that song certainly sums up who we are.”

TJ came up with the opening guitar lick on “Shoot Me Straight” and the song actually started off as a ballad. The brothers wrote it with Lee Thomas Miller, who they previously penned “It Ain’t My Fault” with, and TJ was honest with his co-writers when they finished writing that day.

“I said, ‘Look, this is a great song but ultimately it’s really a waste of everyone’s time,'” TJ recalls. “Especially to a guy like Lee, he wants the songs to be successful or it doesn’t really do much for him. I said, ‘Lee, I don’t think we’re going to perform this song to be bluntly honest with you.’ It was a great song but it was missing something that really caught your ear.”

We will never cease to put ourselves in the hot seat. – TJ

He adds, “My brother mentioned there was a lick that I had been proposing and it wasn’t working on any other songs but we liked the lick. John was like, ‘Let’s toss that on top of this and see if it works.’ We tried it and instantly we were like, ‘That’s it.’ That’s what it needed. It felt like it married each other and they had been together all along. John and I both thought, ‘This is it. This is a song that we will record.'”

They knew “Shoot Me Straight” would be a progressive song to release as a single, but the duo felt the track represented them well and was as an accurate introduction to their new music.

Throughout the making of Port Saint Joe, Brothers Osborne weren’t focused on creating songs that would eventually become radio singles. Instead, they threw out the rules and simply played music that they enjoyed. As a result, there’s plenty of minute-long guitar riffs that highlight John’s expertise.

“I think one of the most detrimental things to creating music is having rules,” TJ reasons. “If we’re walking into the studio and say, ‘This song can only be this long and there’s gotta be a solo in between the second chorus and the third chorus,’ eventually it gets to a point where it all starts sounding the same and it certainly starts losing a lot of the attention you would want around something new. I think in that regard it was, ‘Let’s just play.’ We sat down and shacked up in his house that wasn’t a studio. It was a beach house and we all sat around in the same room with the drums and the bass and we got on the same wavelength.”

Brothers Osborne worked to find songs that complimented each other best on Port Saint Joe. They’re well aware that some tracks won’t be released as singles but including them on the project was a way to tie the music together. Already familiar with their producer’s mindset as Joyce was at the helm of their critically acclaimed debut, John says this time around they were more relaxed when it came to recording and they didn’t adhere to a formula.

“On this record, I guess the fact that we were at the beach, no one was over-analyzing anything, over-syncing it. We were all just relaxed,” John admits. “I think that’s when some of the best art is made, when you’re just being yourself and not over-analyzing it. We were having fun, we were enjoying ourselves. We were being creative and we weren’t worried about anything other than making music that we’re proud of.”

The album spans a broad spectrum of sounds and musical influences. While writing the country waltz “Tequila Again,” Brothers Osborne envisioned Willie Nelson cutting the tune for Red Headed Stranger. Additionally, “A Little Bit Trouble” evokes an old R&B and soul flavor, one of the many sounds they grew up listening to. Meanwhile, on opening track “Slow Your Roll,” ocean waves from the Gulf of Mexico can be heard at the song’s start as they took a microphone to the beach to record.

This is happening

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“We wanted people to know that this was recorded at a remote location and we wanted, from the very first time you hear it, to know that the record is going to be different,” John explains.

This versatility can be heard on their commanding single “Shoot Me Straight,” which includes a captivating guitar interlude at the close of the song that ties into the nostalgic “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You).” Later, on the bluesy “Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” Brothers Osborne sing of how their vices and Willie Nelson help them get through a difficult breakup. “When it all goes to hell the only thing I believe in is weed, whiskey and Willie,” they sing.

While Brothers Osborne are well known for bringing the guitar slinging on rock fueled songs, their sensitive side is also showcased throughout Port Saint Joe. Songs like the ode to lifetime love, “Pushing Up Daisies,” and powerful album closer “While You Still Can,” penned with Travis Meadows, strike a chord.

“I love the chords, the solo section goes into another really cool moment, and lyrically I’m really proud of that song,” John says of “Pushing Up Daisies.” “To write a love song is something that we do every day and it’s hard to write one that’s a new approach [and] a different way to say it. I feel like we found a really cool way of saying that you would love someone forever.”

Both TJ and John say “While You Still Can” also holds special meaning. A timeless song, the ballad has TJ singing of the importance of making amends with old friends, talking with your mom on the phone, and living each day like it could be your last.

“Time slips through your fingers just like sand / ‘Cause everything you thought would last forever never lasts forever like you planned / Don’t let your now become a never so take life by the hands while you still can,” they sing.

We don’t want to lose what it is that makes us who we are. – TJ

“That’s a song that when I sing it, it definitely makes me emotional. I tried to think when I was singing that and writing that, it’s almost like I’m singing it to my younger self. I think the older I get, the more that that’s going to ring true. Especially when I get into my 50s and 60s and I’m looking back on my 20s and how old I felt then and how much I didn’t take advantage of my time. It’s still hard to remember,” TJ reflects. “We get caught up in our future and we don’t take interest in the now. I think that’s something I certainly need to remind myself. The most resonant lines in there to me are appreciating your parents because eventually, at some point in time, they’re not going to be there anymore.”

John agrees with his brother’s sentiment, adding that we need to remind ourselves to take care of the things we can while our loved ones are still living. They played the song at Route 91 Harvest Festival and two days after they performed at the festival in Las Vegas, a man opened fire on the crowd killing 58 people and injuring hundreds of other country fans.

“The song definitely has a lot more meaning to me now and hopefully it has more meaning to TJ and Travis as well. It’s a song that you write, and you think you know what it means, and then you don’t realize it until later that it means a lot more,” John shares.

Brothers Osborne would go on to perform a special tribute to the victims of Route 91 Harvest at the 2018 Grammy Awards with Eric Church and Maren Morris, and John recalls the moment being very emotional.

“I got really choked up during soundcheck because behind us, they had a video wall with lanterns and all the people’s names that had passed from those tragedies. That was the moment where I couldn’t pull myself together,” John admits. “I feel proud that we could represent the genre in the way that we did and hopefully bring some sort of healing to people. At the end of the day, it is our job and duty to make people feel better and to try to help heal people. The fans make our dreams come true every day, and we deserve to give back to them.”

Brothers Osborne never shy away from speaking their mind and standing up for injustice, whether it be about politics or gun control. TJ says that he and his brother didn’t have a voice for so long and now that they have a platform to speak out, they make a conscious decision to do so.

“It’s our fans who have given us our voice . . . a lot of our fans probably hope that because they have invested so much [in us] that we would be the ones that speak up for them,” TJ notes. “Sometimes for us, it’s about right and wrong and unfortunately these days right and wrong is so intertwined in politics that it’s really frustrating. We’ll continue to keep our foot on both lanes. We will never cease to put ourselves in the hot seat.”