For years, the term “bro country” was an epithet in country music, but Brothers Osborne have managed to turn bro into a not-so-dirty word again. Fans, critics and industry award voters have all taken to the sibling duo’s no-bull mixture of rambunctious Southern rock and traditional balladry, which puts TJ Osborne’s deep voice and brother John’s equally deep guitar excursions on nearly equal footing. A few scant years into their major-label career, they’re already annual shoo-ins for the vocal duo of the year award at both the CMAs and ACMs, and the breadth of their appeal can be seen in their summer gigs, opening a tour for Dierks Bentley and taking time out for a main-stage show at Bonnaroo.
Their show Saturday night at Stagecoach in California was one of the festival’s best received, with the crowd showing plenty of love for songs from their just-released sophomore album, “Port Saint Joe.” Before the festival kicked off, Variety spoke separately with John and TJ about the looseness of the new album, the country peculiarly instantaneous love for the duo, their love for one kind of green stuff (pot) over another (money), and why they’re not afraid to speak up with the occasional liberal thought in a format widely seen as conservative.
Variety: You have a pot song on both of your albums — “Green Pastures” on the first one and “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” on the follow-up. So we’re thinking that the 4/20 release date for this new album wasn’t coincidental.
John Osborne: It is actually a 100% coincidence. We were supposed to release it on 4/27, which is my birthday. When you’re a newer artist, your release date gets pushed around, because they have a lot of big artists that they’re trying to put out at certain times, and it’s a big pain in the ass, and we get it. Usually they’re pushing us back a month or two, and that’s where it gets frustrating. But the label said, “Well, we actually want to put it out a week early.” Then it clicked: Oh my God, that’s 4/20 – that could not have been better. My brother and I have certainly dabbled in the world of 4/20 a few times in our life. And we’re huge advocates for the legalization or at least decriminalization of marijuana, especially when it comes to medicinal purposes. And also, it’s just fun, you know – I mean, come on, right?
You may have trouble convincing other people that it was a coincidence, but we believe you.
John: I know. I swear to God. I almost wish that it wasn’t coincidence, because it makes us look like we had this grand plan. It makes us look more intelligent than we actually are. And on the album the song “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” is four minutes and 20 seconds long. We didn’t know until the next day. We recorded it and then our engineer Jason Hall was like, “Y’all, come here look at this,” and he showed us the track length. I was like: That is unbelievable. And all these things are coincidence — or divine intervention, whatever you want to call it.
TJ Osborne: There’s some cosmic country serendipity going on.
It seems like you’re part of a country generation that is either supportive, whereas it might have been a little more outlaw 15 years ago. The Zac Brown Band had a big pot song.
John: Yeah, I think the marijuana stigma is going up in smoke. There’s your songwriter double entendre for you. Certain things were taboo for so long, but no one had a good reason for it. And how we’ve criminalized marijuana in the past has been because of bogus information, and we’re privy to a wealth of information now. And also when people think marijuana, they think Bob Marley or Willie Nelson, these iconic, very loving figures…. No one should be ashamed to talk about it. And we’re going to write songs about it, because we have enough songs about drinking. Why don’t we have songs about smoking pot?
You recorded your first album in a church. This time, you worked in a house in Port Saint Joe, the beach town that provided the title of the album. Did the sand suit you more?
TJ: I think they both have their pros and cons. But I can say definitely prefer the beach. [Laughs] … It was, just let’s play music because it’s fun, and it was really easy to do that in the house. It felt like jamming with our friends. Sometimes, proper studios can get really stiff and it feels like you’re at work, because that a lot of ‘em don’t even have any windows, so this was the opposite. I mean, it was really sunny. Hell, half the time I was recording with sunglasses on because it was so damn bright.
A lot of it is very live-sounding.
TJ: That’s because it is. [Laughs]
It feels like, among a younger audience, you are one of the most beloved acts in country. But not based off radio hits. You’re already the shoo-in to win the duo award at every country awards show. People just have a good feeling about you, the way they feel good about your friends Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church.
TJ: We’ve thought about that. With the CMA award, we’ve had probably the least radio success of any of the artists in the category, and certainly going into the ACMs this year, it was Tim and Faith and FGL (Florida Georgia Line) and Dan + Shay and LoCash, acts that have had several number ones, or more. All I can think is we’re taking a lot of risks at all times and people are happy to see [that]. There are a lot of little tricks you can do with songs to try to get your flight up the charts, but we’ve really stayed true to who we were. So in that regard, we knew going into this record that we had to, more than ever, not try to compromise who we are, or to think, “I need a big universal smash ballad” or a hit party song or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a string of No. 1 songs, but at the same time, I think there’s a lot more going on out there than just radio success.
John: We’re not trying to sell anyone anything, and there’s nothing salesman-y about [out music]. You mentioned Maren, Kacey and Eric. We’re all friends and we love and respect each other, because we admire each other’s fearlessness to be ourselves. With or without our success, our music would still sound the same. And I think that is attractive to people. I don’t want to put anyone else down by saying what I’m saying. But there’s a lot of fear of authenticity because with that can come blowback. I don’t necessarily condemn anyone for having a fear of being themselves, because this business can be terrifying at times. My brother and I are lucky that we have each other to fall back [on] when things get tough.
You’re from Maryland, but a lot of people probably assume you guys are Southerners. Is there a commonality between where you grew up and the Mid-South?
John: It’s funny because growing up on the east coast in Maryland, no one would claim us. We moved to Nashville and everyone’s calling us Yankees, when geographically where we are is still south of the Mason-Dixon line — but close enough to where we’ve accepted that the war ended a long time ago. [Laughs.] But if you go north, like to Pennsylvania or New York, they’ll look down on us and say we’re a bunch of rednecks in Maryland. It was kind of a strange way of growing up.
You guys have a social conscience and aren’t afraid to talk about hot-button topics that don’t always put you in line with the stereotype or reality of a largely right-leaning country fan base.
John: We come from a very blue-collar, red part of the country, and we were like the lonely liberals in that town. But the thing is, we were best friends with all of these people. We still are. A lot of our family we have political differences with, but we love them and we would take a bullet for them. But we also want to show people that are like that that we come from the same place as you. We come from the same socio-economic upbringing. This is how we feel, and we were brought up to speak our minds, be honest and transparent … and you can take it or leave it.
You’ve even spoken up about gun control, which is a subject nearly all mainstream country musicians are afraid to go anywhere near.
TJ: It’s really interesting that the NRA has so much power, and they’re only 5 million people or however many are there, and somehow they get to pave the way for how over 300 million people have to go about living their lives. So I guess in that part it does get into the arena of politics, with lobbying and all of that, which is kind of the antithesis of democracy. But anyhow, we talk about it often, because even though ultimately people are listening to music to forget about politics, at the same time you think, man, I feel like a bit of a sellout for just keeping my mouth shut.
John: Our intentions are always pure. It’s never to divide anyone. It’s never to poke the hornet’s nest. It’s just to remind people that you can stay awake, or wake up, and it’s okay to speak, as long as it has a positive outcome.
When it comes to fans that might give you a hard time on these positions, it seems like the power of a guitar solo or a party song might break down some of those divisions pretty quickly.
John: I hope so, because we’re doing a lot of those. [Laughs]