HITS Daily Double


John and TJ Osborne don’t look like your typical polished Nashville dudes. Organic and slightly scruffy, they have an authenticity that comes from years of playing whatever gigs they could find and writing songs with anyone who felt right. These days, the Q Prime/Jon Peets-managed duo include Travis Meadows among their co-writers, and Grammy noms, Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Duo of the Year trophies among their laurels.

Brothers Osborne defy almost any label or tag you try to put on them. Equally comfortable at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza as they are at CMA Music Fest or Stagecoach, the pair—like label mates Chris Stapleton, Sam Hunt and Eric Church—are cutting their own path. Strong guitar playing, smart lyrical takes on partying, love and being young, and TJ’s deep baritone define the Deale, Md.-raised brothers on the low-riding “It Ain’t My Fault,” the yearning/enticing “Stay A Little Longer” and now the fun “Slow Your Roll.”

If Pawn Shop was a patchy quilt of this and that, all deep hooks and good playing, the brand-new Port St. Joe (EMI Nashville)—named for the Florida town where the project was recorded—manages the same diversity but maintains a cohesion that makes this an album in the classic sense. By design, by default or by musicianship, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s kind of insane the roll you guys are on.
John Osborne: We’re so used to being underdogs our entire lives—new kids in town, playing sports—we’ve never prepped a speech, or thought about it. It’s a huge honor (to win all those awards). We feel a little bit of responsibility—it’s not a slew of #1s, it’s more about us being true to who we are.

Does that add any pressure?
TJ Osborne: You try not to think about that stuff.

John: But we did, you know. You try not to feed into it so you lose what made people vote for you. We’d spent years woodshedding, being true to the craft (of songwriting) and integrity of the genre. People, I think, felt that.

So you took your talents to the very blue-collar Port St. Joe.
John: Recording requires a lot of concentration. There’s a delicate balance because you don’t wanna overthink; you wanna be yourself. Getting to that zone, it’s hard to find. Once you’re there, you wanna stay there. In Nashville, there are errands to run… You get studio brain, and your mind almost doesn’t want to go there even when you’re hanging out with friends.

TJ: And we were in this beautiful beach community, like looking at the Chesapeake Bay , where it’s paradise. Except the people who live there, they work, so they don’t think in those terms. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: hard working blue collar Americans, going out and doing their daily 9-to-5. For them, it’s where they live, not how—and it felt like we were right in the heart of where our fans are.

Not that it was “work”; you just honed in on applying yourself.
TJ: Nobody knew what we were in [producer Jay Joyce’s house] doing. People said to us ‘Oh, you have a bunch of beach songs.’ Not really. We have some waves, so you have the flavor of where we made this record, but that’s not the same.

This record really has the feel of an album.
TJ: The thing I’m most proud of is the first four songs all run together. People who hear “Shoot Me Straight” on the radio think the first single ends kind of odd; they keep bringing it up. But it’s because on the record, one song goes right into the next, and the next. And the beauty of Jay is he knows how to do that. This song in this key to this song makes no sense with the keys, but Jay’s gift is knowing how to put things that don’t fit together in really unlikely ways. He hears ways to make stuff work, and it makes everything more interesting.

Also, being an anchor of the rock band Iodine, he gets the idea of guitars as a voice.
John: [Laughing] More success doesn’t mean more money, more notoriety, more stuff but—for me—more guitar. To me, that’s what success is all about. And it’s a very self-serving thing, because I just love playing the guitar so much. We really write songs, and craft them to what we do. So I’m gonna make sure there are places in the songs to do that.

TJ: Crafting a guitar solo is like lyrics. It’s very challenging: how it moves, what it communicates. The rhythms and the notes actually work like words. So (John’s playing) really is important to our music.

John: It’s a voice, for sure. TJ’s an amazing singer. As a guitar player, I sing that way. It’s how you speak without words, expressing your emotions. It can be very effective. It’s a very Nashville thing to write that three minute thing that can get on radio. We’re all so addicted to it. We’re guilty, too. But there are so many more ways to do this, to connect with people.

That’s fascinating.
TJ: There are a lot of country music fans who really love music. My brother and I are two of them, and I think a lot of other people feel that way. People are starved for real music, and they don’t care about the genre, or whatever you call it. These are people who love Willie Nelson and The Allman Brothers.

John: Let’s not lose sight of the fact there are people who are paying attention, who are really smart—and they want a little more. I didn’t know there were genres for a large part of my life. I was probably in high school before I knew George Strait was in a genre, or what Lynyrd Skynrd was.

TJ: And it’s funny: the ones who’re trying to be cool are just as bad as the ones worrying about being on country radio. You can go to isolation if you want to be that “pure,” but you’re not doing anything to change the genre. For us, it’s about trying to connect and having people come together.

John: I don’t know why you’d exclude anyone?! Screw you country radio? Beyond Chris Stapleton, who’s an anomaly with Saturday Night Live and selling out arenas, Country radio is part of it.

"People are starved for real music, and they don’t care about the genre, or whatever you call it. These are people who love Willie Nelson and The Allman Brothers."

TJ: Why does having a song on Country radio mean you don’t have any credibility? Maybe people think that, but why can’t you make good music, and be on the radio? You have to decide you’re willing to go that slightly longer route, but what’s the music mean to you? When I hear a song, every artist, even the listeners feel it, and think, “This is a hit?” You can’t believe it. A complete dog turd. We’ve never done the stuff that gets you easy success at radio. We’ve watched new artists blow by us, and next thing we know, we’re out opening for them.

John: For us, we’ve been in town for a while, written a lot of songs, been in the studio a lot, played on the road, and that was the only way we could do this. Our allegiance was to the music. It would’ve been cool 10 years ago, and hopefully, it will be cool in twenty years.

TJ: In my 60s, I don’t want to make excuses. Or have regrets about something we cut. Partying songs work live, and love’s one of those things where so much has been written. So, how do you find another, maybe better way to say it? A unique way to say it, but for real. We love to play music, but we really love the craft of the song. Then, when you hear a song like that, you think, ‘Wow! This will move the needle.” For me, it’s more than moving the needle. Kacey Musgraves’ record will the stand the test of time. Is it candy? No, but it feels good. The ones that really last, when you first hear them, you’re not sure. Then, a few listens in, you can’t stop listening. Not too sweet or rich, they’re constant. Like Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, which is still #1 on iTunes.