“My brother and I don’t really care about trends—what’s hot, what’s not,” John Osborne says over the phone from Nashville. That must make it even sweeter that his duo, the Brothers Osborne, is remarkably hot at the moment: The single “Stay A Little Longer” is a top five hit on the Country Airplay chart, and it recently earned them a Grammy nomination next to country stars like Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley. (Ed note: The song is also at #55 on the Billboard Hot 100). Not bad, especially considering that the Brothers’ debut album, Pawn Shop, doesn’t even arrive until tomorrow.
It’s been a long journey: By John’s math, close to four years, “if you count all the time we’ve been writing for it, recording for it, demo-ing for it.” “Rum,” the first single that netted John and TJ attention (they actually are brothers and hail from Deale, Maryland) came out in March of 2014. An EP followed in September, “Stay A Little Longer” was released as a single the following March. During this period, the duo also toured furiously, often returning to Nashville to record on days off. Last month, they opened for Jon Pardi at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza.
The long gestation period gave them time to recruit an impressive roster of co-writers. Two songs on the album—“Rum” and “Dirt Rich,” which is effectively “Rum 2.0”—sport credits from Barry Dean, who helped write a pair of No. 1’s for Little Big Town. Other writers include Craig Wiseman and Jessi Alexander, who know their way around a smash, and Shane McAnally, whose string of hits is unmatched in Nashville in recent years.
McAnally has a sharp eye for promising newcomers, making his endorsement even more valuable for a young act. He’s already helped shape country’s future through work with Sam Hunt, Kacey Musgraves, and Old Dominion. Their Grammy-nominated “Stay A Little Longer” was a result of the first time McAnally and the Brothers wrote together. “I learned a lot working with him that day,” John remembers. “He stays very present and in the moment; he never lets the songwriting session dwindle. He’s a no-bullshit kind of guy. He’s vocal and honest, but not in a mean and vindictive way. There was a co-writing session going on right next to us, and he went in there and shushed them because they were too loud.”
This is an amusing story, not the least because Pawn Shop has plenty of heft. The duo appended a thunderous outro to the final version of “Stay A Little Longer,” ending with a flinty guitar solo courtesy of John instead of a tidy bridge-chorus. John’s riffs spit and rage again on “It Ain’t My Fault,” bluesy southern rock is peppered liberally through “Down Home,” and the title track is forceful swamp funk. Conspicuously absent from the album is the EP’s sensual ballad, “Love The Lonely Out Of You,” possibly because it’s entirely acoustic. When asked, John says they “didn’t want to sell the fans short by giving them music that they already had.” But for new fans who might not already have the song, it’s a stunning look at the duo’s softer side, and well-worth digging back for.
As frontman, TJ’s voice has its own surprisingly low center of gravity. Though country traditionally values a high nasal register in its male singers, he scrapes the bottom of the barrel; at times, he sounds like a refugee from a ‘90s alt rock band. John knows the Brothers can rough up your ears, and he’s proud of that fact—it played a role in the naming of the album. “There’s a lot of cool aesthetic qualities to the idea of a pawn shop: they’re so grungy, and our music is quite grungy.”
The grunge also comes partially from Jay Joyce, a super-producer in the last few years who is one of few able to put together songs that please fans, radio gatekeepers, and critics alike. Try Eric Church’s “Springsteen,” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” and Thomas Rhett’s “Make Me Wanna,” a disparate, yet well-regarded trio of hits. The Brothers and Eric Church share a manager, who played Joyce some of the duo’s demos. “Jay is notorious for turning down work if he doesn’t really believe it,” John notes, but they made the cut.
The secret to Joyce’s success? “He likes to knock his musicians out of their comfort zones,” John says. “It’s great, but sometimes it can be unsettling–especially when you’re recording your debut record.” In this case, he changed the levels in the Brothers’ headphones when they were recording. Joyce justified this as the best approximation of a live set, telling the duo, “when you’re in a club, and you’re playing a show in front of hundreds of people, it sounds like shit. I want to replicate that energy.”
That implies a certain ragged messiness, but this is not a messy record: Pawn Shop is striking in its clear detail. Hand percussion sputters intermittently underneath the Phil Spector beat of “American Crazy,” adding a texture that’s gone out of fashion in nearly every genre. The guitar strings on “Rum” are startlingly resonant, reverberating aggressively in your ear; and there’s another strange percussive sound here, as if maybe someone is playing a pair of spoons. The muffled bass drum in “Loving Me Back” sounds like it could’ve been piped into the studio from down a well somewhere.
TJ’s voice reaches lower than ever on “Loving Me Back,” but here he has a foil: Lee Ann Womack chips in the high harmony parts. John’s enthusiasm for Womack’s talent is immediate and forceful: “My brother and I think that Lee Ann Womack is one of the best singers that has ever graced country music,” he exclaims. “We bought all her records. ‘Loving Me Back’ is the most country sounding song we have on the record. There’s no better person to sing a country song in our opinion than Lee Ann. She nailed it on the first take. We had her sing it five more times,” John says with a laugh. “Just because we were having so much fun listening to her.”
The Womack connection is something of a surprise–after some time in the crossover spotlight in the early-00s, she has transitioned into a career as a preserver of country tradition, which is not a primary concern on Pawn Shop. But the Brothers are savvy enough to check a lot of boxes. “Loving Me Back” sounds classic, while “American Crazy” and “21 Summer,” deal with standard topics on contemporary country radio (solidarity, first loves).
Country has another tradition involving meaty male duos like Brooks & Dunn, or more recently, Big & Rich. Again, though, the Brothers profess little care for trends, past or present, John declares, “Brooks & Dunn have put out some of the best songs ever, but at the end of the day, we try not to think about it too much. We hope to have a long, outstanding career, but we’re not gonna do that at the cost of changing who we are.”
Pawn Shop is out 1/15 via EMI Nashville. Get it here.
Elias Leight is a music writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.