It was 9:30 in Nashville when I reached John Osborne on the phone on a recent morning, which might be early for some touring musicians. But the new father, home for just a day and a half between shows, is up and ready to talk. “My wife and I had twins six months ago, so 9:30 is no longer early anymore,” Osborne, 41, says with a chuckle.
John and his brother TJ Osborne, 38, were born into a musical family in Deale, right off the Chesapeake Bay. After heading south and signing to EMI Nashville, Brothers Osborne have become one of the top groups in country music, winning six Academy of Country Music Awards and five Country Music Association Awards since releasing their debut album in 2016. With TJ’s baritone drawl and John’s epic guitar solos on early singles such as “Stay a Little Longer” and “Shoot Me Straight,” the duo cut a distinctive figure on the mainstream country landscape.
“When we hit the scene, we had so many people ask us how did we get into country music being from Maryland, and we didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to be into country music! That’s just the thing that we listened to,” John said. With the recent success of their friend and Odenton native Jackson Dean, however, they’re happy to no longer be the only Maryland act on the country charts. “My hope is that, when Jackson was hitting the scene, less people asked him that.”
“We love to change things up, just try different things for every album,” John said. But the brothers’ self-titled fourth album, released in September on the heels of the lead single “Nobody’s Nobody,” is their biggest leap into uncharted territory to date. After working with the revered country producer Jay Joyce on their first three albums, the duo picked an unlikely new collaborator: Mike Elizondo, a California session musician-turned-producer best known for his early 2000s work with Dr. Dre, co-producing monster hip-hop hits such as 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.”
Over the last couple of decades, Elizondo has diversified his clientele, working with everyone from Fiona Apple to Maroon 5, and even producing Baltimore punk band Turnstile’s 2021 mainstream breakthrough, “Glow On.” Elizondo also worked with John Osborne’s wife, British singer-songwriter Lucie Silvas, which was how they crossed paths.
“He moved to Nashville right before the pandemic,” John said. “He’s one of the most versatile musicians on the planet. When we wrote one day at TJ’s house, it was like hanging out with an old high school friend. We were cut from the same cloth. We have a lot of the same interests.”
While there is a longer tour in the works for 2024, Brothers Osborne are doing a handful of concerts this fall to support the album. One of those dates, at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, will bring them close to their old Maryland stomping grounds, which the duo sings about fondly on the new song “Back Home.” John said they’re pulling out all the stops to make these shows special. “We’ve done tons of rehearsing, tons of planning; we’ve dropped quite a bit of cash on the production,” he said. “We’re gonna blow it out. It’ll be a show that no one has seen yet from us.”
A lot has happened, personally and professionally, for Brothers Osborne since they released 2020′s “Skeletons,” their last album. In February 2021, TJ Osborne came out of the closet in an interview with Time magazine, becoming the first openly gay artist on a major country label. Soon after, the duo released “Younger Me,” a song TJ wrote about the years he spent contemplating the decision to live his truth publicly, which appeared on a deluxe edition of “Skeletons.”
Brothers Osborne have been nominated for nine Grammy Awards over the course of their career, and last year they finally won one for “Younger Me” in the Best Country Duo/Group Performance category. Later that night, they closed the Grammys telecast with a raucous performance of the album track “Dead Man’s Curve.”
“As a brother, I was there to support [TJ] no matter what,” John says. “And then to not only have such vocal support from the fans and the industry, but to win a Grammy on the back of something that was so important to my brother, was like the biggest cherry on top that we could’ve ever asked for.”
“There were other country acts like Chely Wright or Brooke Eden who have come out. But for TJ to do so, and for their award-winning success to not slow down, speaks foremost to Nashville’s acceptance growing, but also to the quality of a song like ‘Younger Me,’” said Marcus Dowling, a writer for The Tennessean who reports on the country music industry and its growing inclusivity of more diverse demographics and progressive politics. “Brothers Osborne are still as busy or busier than most mainstream acts, as writers and producers working on their own material, or that of others in town.”
Despite their onstage roles, with TJ as the frontman and John as the guitar hero, anything goes when the duo sits down to write songs. “I show up more with lyrics, honestly. My brother shows up with more guitar stuff, which is really strange. And then once he puts his music ideas through my filter then I put my lyric ideas through his filter. That’s where our sound comes from,” John said, noting “Love You Too” from the new album as a song that started with his lyrics. “When we have co-writers in the room with us, a lot of times that third person’s a tiebreaker. Democracy works, even in a writing session.”
On the 2021 single “I’m Not For Everyone,” John took a lead vocal for the first time, singing the song’s second verse. He’s also kept busy outside the band, producing Ashley McBryde’s acclaimed 2022 album, “Lindeville,” and co-writing three songs on Darius Rucker’s new album, “Carolyn’s Boy.”
The self-titled album’s emphasis on tight, three-minute songs doesn’t leave as much room for the kind of extended solos John Osborne’s known for, but he’s proud of how his lead guitar work on the new songs enhances the material.
“At one point in my guitar journey, I became a huge fan of Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He services the song better than anyone on the guitar while still maintaining a personality. That’s kind of what I’m striving for,” he said.
The resulting album is thoroughly country, but songs such as “Goodbye’s Kickin’ In” and the Miranda Lambert collaboration “We Ain’t Good at Breaking Up” have thicker bass-heavy grooves than anything the band has done before, with Elizondo himself on bass guitar. “At the end of the day, we’re creators and we wanted to create,” John said. “We wanna constantly push the boat out as much as we can.”
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.