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From prog metal to folk and the Foo Fighters: how Brothers Osborne paid their dues

Brothers Osborne
(Image credit: Jon Peets)

The Brothers Osborne are full of contradictions. They’re proud country fans who play a full-throttle rock show. They’re part of a world with deep conservative roots, but have spoken out about gun control, featured same-sex kissing in a music video (for single Stay A Little Longer), and were the first major-label country artist to publicly support a Democrat (2018 Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean). 

They adore the old-school heroes of rock and country, but also draw from pop, funk, grunge, jazz, jam bands and more. All this comes to the fore on album number three, Skeletons

The follow-up to their introspective, ballad-heavy second, Port Saint Joe, it’s a record built for live shows – “in arenas and beyond,” they tell us – with big songs that showcase their arsenal of licks, tricks and ideas. It’s as tight as they come, but also with the sort of loose vibe and effortless harmonies that make their blood relationship easy to swallow. 

“In our minds it’s about playing good music,” singer/younger brother TJ says. “It’s not about playing a specific genre. We just wanna fucking play, that’s it.” 

They didn’t always plan to start a band together. Initially, upon arrival in Nashville, guitarist John (the eldest by two and a half years) threw himself into every sideman gig going, while TJ played upright bass and wrote songs for other artists. He struggled in the latter department because his own voice on demos “wasn’t generic enough”, and so began playing solo shows, hiring John on guitar. 

Suddenly heads really began to turn – and they were looking at both brothers. People started telling them they should team up. 

“We kept hearing it over and over again,” TJ remembers. “Once we decided ‘Lets do that’, within a year we’d had multiple record deal offers.” 

Since then their path has seen them release a string of popular singles, have awards success (including six Grammy nominations), and a gratifyingly swift, steep upward curve in the size of venues they fill: they’re scheduled to perform at London’s Roundhouse in January 2021. And from there? Who knows?

These are some of the people, places and things they’ve learned from along the way.

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Hank Williams and the old country guard

When it comes to country, the Brothers Osborne go old-school. Alongside generous nods to classic rock icons with rootsy leanings (the Allmans, the Rolling Stones) they keep one boot firmly in the territory of Hank Williams Snr, country legend but also one of the biggest stars of American music, period, who lived fast through the 1940s and died at 29. 

“We always like to pay homage to old traditional country,” TJ says, “especially as country has gotten so pop-heavy that we were like… I feel like it’s gotten so watered down and it’s just such a weird genre right now. I mean, to me the original outlaws and rock stars were Hank Snr and Merle Haggard and Waylon [Jennings] and shit like that, so we like to do a bit of a tip of the hat to that."


Prince

New album Skeletons was made for big nights and loosened inhibitions. On it, the Osbornes’ countrified rock core is spiced up with funky, danceable flavours of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and, perhaps most notably, The Purple One. Much of this hip-shaking side comes through John’s guitar licks, as heard in the likes of All The Good Ones Are

“That kinda thing is very Prince-inspired,” he says. “I love that. It’s hard to do that sound. I didn’t quite nail it because I just have my own accent when I play the guitar naturally, I can’t get away from it! But I always loved how Prince had very dry, direct guitar stabs in his songs. I thought they were so fun and so cool and percussive.” 

Growing up in Deale – a tiny, blue-collar fishing town in Maryland – and raised on their father’s eclectic record collection, it became natural for John and TJ to mix these kinds of flavours without really realising it. 

“Our dad had one of those really huge CD booklets,” TJ says, “and in there would be stuff from old country like George Jones and then Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett and Mariah Carey, and then the next record might be Bruce Springsteen, Robert Johnson, Bonnie Raitt or Dr John, Prince, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, the Stones…” 

“And all music overlaps to some degree,” John adds. “I mean, if you look at Queen doing Another One Bites The Dust, that’s basically a disco track, and there are bands that just like that kind of dance feel. That’s not conscious. My favourite artist when I was, like, six years old was Michael Jackson. I was obsessed. I would breakdance, I was horrible at it but I loved it. And I loved Stevie Wonder.”


John Prine, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jason Isbell…

The Osborne brothers are no Dylan-esque poets, and nor are they trying to be, but lyrics do matter to them. Often it’s the little things they pick up on, as well as the more standard southern rock subjects (whiskey, heartache, good times, whiskey…). 

In I’m Not For Everyone they laugh affectionately at the pitfalls of trying to get an audience clapping in time (‘Some people clap on the one and three, some people clap on the two and four/Some people don’t join at all coz they got no rhythm, and that’s alright’). 

This kind of light, conversational humour crops up throughout the Brothers’ catalogue, continuing the long-standing (sometimes overlooked) tradition of witty storytellers in countrified music. 

“John Prine was one of my dad’s heroes. Just love John Prine,” TJ enthuses. “And I listen to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s stuff now and really revere him.” 

“John Prine definitely is the king of being able to write a song with humour, and even when he’d write a serious song there was always a ‘wink’,” John adds. “That’s the only way I can describe it with a John Prine song. No matter what he was singing he was always winking at you in his lyrics, and I loved that. And Merle Haggard had some great humour in his songs, like Okie From Muskogee… If you look at art and songwriting, it reflects life. If you don’t have a little bit of humour in your life, then what’s the point?” 

“And you have Jason Isbell now,” TJ continues. “He’s writing some lyrics that are really fantastic, and there’s humour in there that’s slid in there in a really smart way. My brother says this a lot: ‘Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.’ I agree. No one likes that shit.”


Kurt Cobain and the grunge explosion

In high school John and TJ fell in love with grunge, which now comes out in the gnarlier rock textures of their own records. 

“I remember Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden came out and I was like: ‘Holy shit ,this is awesome,’” TJ says. “That took a lot of people by storm. It just came right out of left field – it was this whole different thing no one knew existed. Because we were listening to these country records and these cool old blues records and stuff like that, and then suddenly it was like: boom! That era for us, just being teenage kids, it was like: ‘Alright, you’re speaking my language.’ It really resonated.” 

“I started playing guitar when I was twelve or thirteen, and at that time Kurt Cobain was my hero,” John recalls. “I loved Seattle grunge music. All I wanted to do was play Nirvana songs, and then that got me into Soundgarden, Pearl Jam… That’s all I wanted to play. I loved it, y’know, it was fun to play in a band and play these kinds of things.”


Stevie Ray Vaughan

John Osborne is not typically billed as a ‘guitar hero’, but he’s one of the best six-stringers in the business. On stage he’s an easy, loose but quietly thrilling player to watch, who blends rock, blues and jazz sounds. His own hero? 

Stevie Ray Vaughan really blew the lid off for me,” he says. “And Jimi Hendrix. They made me realise the potential of the guitar.” 

On Skeletons, John’s breakneck instrumental Muskrat Greene calls to mind SRV’s own fast and furious wordless staple, Scuttle Buttin’ – but with a bluegrass heart. 

Scuttle Buttin’’s got a big rock blues beatto it, but you could put a train beat under it and it becomes a country song,” he says, then with a laugh: “It’s so fuckin’ hard to play. It’s like… I know how to play it, but… Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of my favourite musicians and guitar players of all time. But I don’t even try to play it, really, cos it’s just impossible.”


Bluegrass in Maryland

It’s not hard to trace the fiery, speedier textures of the Brothers’ music back to bluegrass – a style with deep roots in their native state. 

“The Appalachian Mountains run right through, so there’s a lot of people from the hills that would move to Baltimore for work,” John explains, “so you had a lot of hillbilly music in that area. So bluegrass music is a very big part of Maryland culture. And my mum’s from West Virginia and her family is just obsessed with bluegrass, and it all just creeps its way into your style.” 

At 16 John started teaching guitar at their local record store, Good Deale Bluegrass. It turned out to be the start of a fruitful relationship with the style, which blossomed when he moved to Nashville and met bluegrass players who introduced him to the likes of Tony Rice and Clarence White. 

“The owner [of Good Deale Bluegrass] was this guy Tim Finch, who’s a phenomenal bluegrass musician, and he turned me on to a lot of stuff. He was an incredible banjo player. I started getting into Alison Krauss & Union Station… That’s what really got me into it.” 

“They would have these jams, maybe once a month or every other week,” TJ adds, “and I’d bring my upright bass and John would bring his guitar, and we didn’t know any of the damn songs but we would just start playing along. And everybody would be playing; there might be eight people strumming guitars, two playing bass, people singing, There were only a couple of them that were any good, but it wasn’t really about that. It was more just a fun jam.”


Paying dues in Nashville

Moving down as 18-year-olds from Deale was a big deal. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that the small-town mindset prevailed in Music City, even if the competition there was a lot stiffer. 

“It’s an easy town – as long as you’re not an asshole – to find friends and get support from others,” John reasons. “We’re all very hardworking, we’re all very ambitious, but all like to support our friends as well. The country music community in Nashville is made up of a lot of people from small towns elsewhere, and we have come together for a very similar purpose, so we just naturally get along.” 

“It’s felt like a very tight community. I think even as Nashville grows it still has that sense of community here,” TJ says. “I mean, I live just on the outskirts now, but to me the music community still has a very small hometown kinda vibe.” 

One crucial key to success, they discovered, was persistence – waiting tables when money was tight (and it always was) and seizing every music-based opportunity. For John, as a guitar-slinging gun for hire, this has resulted in an eclectic gig CV. 

“I played at an Irish bar doing Irish folk music, then the same year I was playing a metal club,” he recalls, laughing. “My friend’s bass player couldn’t make it, so I had to learn his prog-metal songs and play bass in this prog-metal band. I took a gig where we drove all the way up to Cleveland, only to get there and the promoter pulled the gig as we were pulling in, and made literally zero dollars. But looking back I wouldn’t change any of those moments."

Foo Fighters

In 2018 the Brothers joined the Foos on stage in Edmonton, Canada for an impromptu blast through Tom Petty’s Breakdown. Having appeared on [Foos guitarist] Chris Shiflett’s podcast, they found themselves on matey terms with one of the biggest rock bands in the world. 

“It really fortified the way I feel about our approach,” John says, “which is basically ‘work hard and be nice to people’. They are one of the most successful rock bands in history, yet they treat it like it’s their first gig ever and they’re excited to play. Talking to Dave Grohl was like talking to one of your peers. He never acted as if he was the drummer in Nirvana or the frontman of the Foo Fighters, he just acted like he was one of your musician friends… Literally, we talked about Maryland and steamed crabs!” 

“I remember standing on that stage,” TJ adds, “and seeing Dave Grohl take his guitar off and handing it to my brother and knowing that my brother was going to rip the shit out of that guitar. And he did. The whole place was going wild.” 

There is a cautionary element to this story, though, as John recalls slightly sheepishly: “If you think there’s a potential that you might get up and play with a band, don’t drink too much and smoke too much pot, cos they might just call you up on stage. And that’s what happened with us! But we had fun. Fortunately we did Breakdown, and I’ve played that song a million times, so I was like: ‘Okay, we’re good.’”


Family

Old Man’s Boots, the closing song on Skeletons, is a touching ode to their upbringing, and their father in particular (‘I’d be lucky to walk a mile in my old man’s boots,’ they sing). A self-employed plumber to this day, he raised them to work hard, whether they were helping him on jobs or playing four-hour sets in bars with his covers band. He helped pay for college and first homes. Now they’re enjoying being able to give something back. 

“We actually helped him buy a house, and he just moved down a few days ago to Nashville so we can be together with him,” John says. “But yeah, that song is very true, word for word, and I attribute our success to his raising us and teaching us to work very hard for where you want to get in life.” 

John and TJ have a closer history than most bandmates. They shared bunk beds up until John graduated high school. Were you always buddies, as well as brothers? 

“Yeah, absolutely, we were always friends,” John says. “Of course, we’re brothers so we would fight a lot too. We would always wrestle and hit each other – no head shots. But then our parents bought us boxing gloves. I think they thought it would help, but that only made it ‘free reign’, so we’d just fight all the time. But then five minutes later we’d be best friends again. That’s how it is still.”

Skeletons by Brothers Osborne is out now.