Country music stars love to cast themselves as rebels, but if we’re honest, we know that most of them are anything but rebellious. Conventional wisdom says that there are lines you have to toe if you want to have a successful career, especially when it comes to politics and social issues, and you cross any one of those lines at your peril.
TJ and John Osborne seem not to have any use for conventional wisdom. If they want to present themselves as rebels, they’ve made a pretty good case for themselves.
At the same time that they embrace their working-class upbringing, they’ve been exceptionally willing to step into America’s political fray on the side of the line that is traditionally not the country-music norm. And, so far, the apparent contradiction appears to be working for them.
The Brothers Osborne grew up with a genuine working-class pedigree. Raised in the small town of Deale, Maryland, they lived in a blue-collar household saturated with the music of classic rockers and traditional country musicians, Bob Seger and George Jones. The inspiration of their father’s music collection led them to develop their own musical talents in time-tested directions.
“It’s like an old-school rock approach,” John said of the combination of his guitar playing and TJ’s singing. “Groups like [Aerosmith and the Allman Brothers] always had the lead singer as well as the sideman guitar player. That’s what we’re going for, too. We’re carving our own path in country music.”
That aesthetic was predominant on the duo’s first recordings, and the mix of TJ’s deep, drawling vocals and John’s hard-charging guitar was classic Southern rock all the way. The authenticity of their sound was impossible to overlook, and a series of singles made their way onto the charts before the brothers had even released their debut major-label album, Pawn Shop, in 2016. That album hit number three on the country charts, and it was clear that the country music establishment loved them.
Yet there was always something a little off-kilter about the brothers’ approach to country traditions. Take, for example, the single “Rum,” in which TJ sings of the simple pleasures of dipping one’s toes in the water and imbibing an alcoholic beverage. It’s not exactly a trope that’s unfamiliar in pop country music, but while most country singers are wading in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or a Mexican resort, the Brothers Osborne stick closer to home.
“Most people we grew up with don’t go to these beautiful beaches,” TJ said. “They can’t afford to do it. They don’t have the time for it. What we’re most familiar with is people going to the local bars and hanging out with each other.”
The bottom line for the brothers is that their upbringing taught them to look out for the underdog, to do what’s right, and to be unafraid to speak up about it, even when speaking up risks offending.
“We all end up in echo chambers, and we’re constantly agreeing with the people that we’re nearest, and we push away the people that we have different opinions with,” John said at this year’s ACM Awards. “We all need to come together and have some hard conversations, but be respectful to one another.”
The hard conversations that John’s talking about involve issues such as gun law reform and racial injustice. On both of these topics, the brothers have been outspoken in a way that most country music artists would hesitate to be. Taking a political stance can be career suicide — remember the Dixie Chicks? — and most musicians stay within the safe confines of silence.
But not the Brothers Osborne.
“At the end of the day, we all have each other’s backs,” John told CMT recently. “That all goes back to authenticity. And yeah, we’re all very vocal and honest people, and we want to stick up for the people who are bullied, or don’t have a voice in this crazy world that we live in.”
Fortunately, their fans seem to be responding to their authenticity, and their forthrightness is not hurting their careers. Their second album, Port Saint Joe, hit number two when it was released back in April, and the brothers won the ACM Vocal Duo of the Year award for the second year in a row.
They’re also in the middle of a sprawling tour that illustrates just how far-reaching their appeal is. Their show at the Clyde Theatre in Fort Wayne comes in the middle of a month that begins with a swing through Canada and culminates with a string of shows in the United Kingdom.
The shows present the duo’s new music in all its gritty glory and with a heaping helping of working-class humility. In the making of Port Saint Joe, the brothers only wanted to be real, regardless of whether the music was popular or critically acclaimed.
“We weren’t trying to be anything or anyone that wasn’t truly us,” TJ said of the album. “Imperfections and all.”
And, in the end, being true to yourself is the ultimate act of rebellion.