Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but it seems like this year is shaping up to be one of the best years for country music in a while. Between the lazily grouped yet critically adored real country trifecta of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton and the surge of support for fiery female voices to get some play in Nashville’s notorious boys’ club, country has that critical something that makes music more appealing and valuable to people: It has the feeling of a movement. I’ve harped on the “real country” versus pop country dichotomy plenty of times before, but if you actually think, as GQ does, that “real country music died with the 1970s” may I direct you toward Donnie Fritts’s 2015 release Oh My Goodness—a top 10 country album by this critic’s estimation–and a brand new record from a man who actually was putting out excellent country music in the 70s, too. He’s not the only one, either.
The rhetorical laziness boggles the mind! I’m a huge fan of all three of the guys being touted here, but using them as a wedge against their compatriots is offensive to those of us actually living and breathing inside of this genre. And there’s a lot of us. Of course, this kind of rhetoric is just another way for arbiters of the authentic to cloak their underlying pop hatred in fashionable smugness, and doesn’t speak to the truth of what’s going on in country music in any meaningful way. A duo who does that, though, is the Brothers Osborne. GQ goes on to sweepingly generalize the rest of country music as “a genre that’s the musical equivalent of Walmart—monolithic, cheap, and eroding the soul of small-town America,” a sentence loaded with the kind of shockingly classist overtones that are all too common in many publications.
Instead of Walmart, let me turn you toward Brothers Osborne’s excellent debut album Pawn Shop, a record by two IRL brothers from Maryland that celebrates the “monolithic, cheap soul of small town America.” Like on the album opener “Dirt Rich,” that uses funkiness that recalls the Band to enumerate an imperfect, beloved country home. It’s the kind of home plenty of people saw portrayed on Making A Murderer, and one that, yes, is monolithic in terms of its presence across America. That’s because it’s how much of America’s working class lives, and honestly, I think most of them wouldn’t change anything about it–that’s the gist of the song. The idea that a song like this one–or one by Luke Bryan or Carrie Underwood or Floria Georgia Line–is eroding the “cheap soul” of America is a statement that my grandpa would’ve called Bass-Ackward. It’s actually the opposite: This music is one of the only places that small town spirit is affirmed, and Pawn Shop doubles as a love letter to that cheap soul.
After an early self-titled EP in September of last year, John and T.J. Osborne’s propensity for writing a fabulous country song became self-evident. “Rum” was one of their earliest singles, and it takes a page out of Kenny Chesney’s book of tropical nonchalance, tying an Appalachian finger-picked melody and a banjo into a drum-heavy celebration of late-life relaxation. Perhaps you can imagine, that doing hard manual labor and living in the kind of ramshackle house that “Dirt Rich” describes, just how meaningful a scraped-for vacation would feel. But it was their co-write with Nashville’s Midas songwriter Shane McAnally that felt really revelatory; “Stay A Little Longer” is currently up for a Grammy and in the top 5 on the Country Airplay chart, a double punch of critical and commercial success that’s been hard to come by lately.
Jay Joyce, best-known at this point for his excellent work with Eric Church, brings that same kind of springy, heartland grunge into Pawn Shop, but it comes through clearest on this smash single. Honestly, the closest comparison I have for the way the pop inclinations are threaded into country grit is how Mutt Lange used to produce for Shania Twain. Listen to “Up” and tell me you don’t hear the stylistic similarities it has to “Stay.” For the record, that’s about the highest compliment I could give a producer, and I do think the songwriting here is more nuanced. It’s on the slower, jealousy-fueled “Heart Shaped Locket” and conspicuously absent barn-burning ballad “Love The Lonely Out Of You” that these two brothers floor me. “Lonely” can holds a candle to any Ryan Adams track in terms of writing, and is illuminated from behind by a swell of organ that feels skeletal and spiritual at once. Hopefully the success of Cam’s “Burning House” on radio will help convince people that country ballads can definitely still be bangers.
Maybe you’ve never been inside a pawn shop, and maybe you’ve never been broke enough to pawn anything. Or maybe you weren’t raised with the idea that America is full of lost treasures connected to valuable stories that trace their lineage through the people who populate America’s creaky, rundown towns. That’s fine, but then perhaps equating that experience–and mainstream country music–to the one-dimensional monolith of Walmart isn’t the appropriate positioning. Pawn Shop‘s title track turns a coasting guitar line into a celebration of the desperate quirkiness of the practice–something that’s already been unpacked in glorious detail in Pawn Stars if you’re interested–and no, in no way is making money off telling the story of this lifestyle a sell-out of these values. But even if it was, that’s how capitalism works and is designed to work, and in no way are Sturgill, Isbell, or Stapleton doing anything different than their peers in that respect. Your authenticity distinction is meaningless when examined through the all-seeing eye of the dollar.
But since we’re here inside of this discussion, let’s talk about how T.J. and John nabbed the fallen-from-radio-star-grace Lee Ann Womack for the stunning denouncement of the hard-living party lifestyle on “Loving Me Back.” It’s a song that elevates love as a stronger, more pungent drug than any tobacco, one that goes down smoother than any whiskey, and it could easily sidle right up next to anything off Traveller. It’s the simplest kind of love song, one that can be understood by anyone nursing a Budweiser at the bar or chain-smoking Walmart-bought Parliaments just outside. It’s an affirmation of the small town soul, which is exactly what country music has always been since way before the 1970s, through that decade, and what it will continue to be when we’re gone.
For more on the Osborne Brothers read our profile of them here.