Brothers Osborne singer-guitarist TJ Osborne lets out a throaty, good-natured laugh when asked if he and his brother, John, felt more pressure cutting their third and latest album, Skeletons, than on their first two studio outings.
“I assume that’s a rhetorical question,” TJ says before running down a list of hardships the country-rock duo endured. “First, John came down with tinnitus. That came out of nowhere right before we started recording, so we had to reschedule things a bit.
“He’s got it to a manageable place now, but that set us back. Then I got salmonella poisoning, I guess from eating under-cooked chicken. It took me a month to shake that off, although I was still recording vocals with cold sweats.”
Next, TJ recounts the tornado that tore through Nashville last March, an epic twister that ranks as the sixth-costliest tornado in U.S. history.
“That was tragic for a lot of people in town, and many are still recovering,” he says. “As for how it affected us, we lost power in our studio for a week, so we ended up having to track the rest of the record elsewhere. And then COVID hit. We had to finish up the last bits while in quarantine.” He heaves a sigh and says, “You could say there was some pressure.”
Beyond health issues and acts of God, there was another kind of strain the brothers experienced, although this one was self-inflicted.
Following up their knockout 2016 debut, Pawn Shop (which spawned smash singles like Stay a Little Longer and It Ain’t My Fault), the two weathered the dreaded “sophomore slump” confidently with 2018’s Port Saint Joe, a vibey, adventurous and hook-filled set that featured the radio hits Shoot Me Straight and I Don’t Remember Me (Before You).
In the increasingly pop-oriented world of country music, Brothers Osborne’s forward-thinking, crafty blend of Southern rock, outlaw country, arena anthems, soul grooves and blues swagger – highlighted by TJ’s heartfelt baritone vocals and John’s intricate, explosive guitar licks – made its mark.
“We succeeded with the first two albums, and in a way that became a good kind of problem,” John says. “When people talk about your sophomore record, it’s as if their expectations aren’t so high. It’s almost like they’ll give you that one. So coming into the third album, you have to show everybody that you’re here to stay and you’re ready to take it to the next level. It was a challenge we weren’t going to turn away from.”
There was a fresh air of fearlessness and derring-do throughout Brothers Osborne’s first records – the pair came on like young bucks eager to show off their stuff. That unbridled spirit is at a fever pitch throughout Skeletons.
The boys blaze like commandos through barn burners such as Back on the Bottle and Dead Man’s Curve (the latter of which features a seismic chicken pickin’ solo by John), and they fold liberal helpings of funk flavor into the greasy groover All Night.
On their first true-blue instrumental, Muskrat Greene, they take listeners on a blitzing bluegrass ride, but with the strutting shuffle Hatin’ Somebody, a heartfelt call for racial unity, they re-imagine themselves as a swampy jam band for the modern age.
Amps rage and seethe, hell is raised, and there’s damn near too many walloping guitar solos to keep track of. It’s a thrilling album because it was made to be thrilling. Despite all the outside turbulence (or perhaps to spite it), the Osbornes are having the time of their lives making music, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
One thing that’s remained constant in the Brothers Osborne’s world is producer Jay Joyce, who returns for his third go-round with the outfit, but for the first time the duo have eschewed using guest musicians and opted to record Skeletons with their touring band: guitarist Jason Graumlich, bassist Pete Sternberg, drummer Adam Box and keyboardist Billy Justineau.
“We had one main objective for this album, and that was to make sure each and every song could be plucked from it and put right into our live show,” John says. “If you come to one of our concerts, you’re not going to get some laid-back deal; you’re in for a full-on rock show. We’re very proud of our last album, Port Saint Joe, but it had a bit of a chilled-out vibe. This time, we went for more of a heavier hand. You hear these songs the way they’re going to be played on stage.”
Which, of course, in the age of COVID, raises the inevitable question: when might that be?
“That is the unknowable right now,” TJ says. “Right now, we still have 2021 dates in the U.K. still on the books, but we’ll have to see if they stick. It’s been hard being off the road. We’ve always toured when we released a record; we’d slowly work new songs into the set.
“I guess one good thing that can come out of this is, when we finally do play, our fans will have lived with Skeletons and they’ll know the whole album before we hit that first note. We’re excited to see how the new stuff is received.”
One of the best things about your playing, John, is how you always surprise people. It’s impossible to predict what you’re going to do in any given song.
JOHN OSBORNE: “I think you should always shoot for something different. I try to get out of my own head a lot. That’s when you can go on the real journey of the song. Sometimes I forget that I even know how to play guitar – I’m so lost in where the song is taking me. I forget the licks I’ve learned, so I just start playing whatever – I make stuff up.
“That’s where the surprises come in. I’m as surprised as you are. Of course, a lot of people might listen to me and go, 'That guy’s a total idiot. Why can’t he play anything normal?' [Laughs] But 'normal' can be boring. You hear it in a lot of big radio songs; the guitar parts are well played yet generic.“
TJ OSBORNE: ”I think what helps us in that regard is that our music is just a reflection of who we are. We’re not trying to be anything we’re not, and we’re not trying to fit in with anybody. We try to stay true to the music we hear in our heads, and I think that extends to all elements of the songs – the writing, the singing and, of course, the guitar playing. I think that’s how you establish your own identity.”
JOHN: ”One of the advantages I have over a lot of other musicians is that I’m afforded time to dig in and try to find something. I’m friends with a lot of session musicians – they’re the best players in the world – and I know they’re dealing with limited time in the studio.“
”They have to go in and do the job and move on to the next thing. I get to mess around and find stuff that’s crazy and abrasive. So on the one hand, maybe I do think differently and play differently because that’s who I am, but I’m also allowed that opportunity.”
Before you formed Brothers Osborne, you both played in cover bands. I’m curious how you were able to create your own identity after playing other people’s music for so long.
JOHN: ”For us, and certainly for myself, that happened right from when we went from the bedroom to the stage. I learned other people’s licks and solos, which you have to do to get to a level of proficiency.
”I learned a lot of styles. But when we were on stage, I didn’t want to play things like they were on record; I wanted to put my own voice in there. I got improvisational and stretched out. Like I said before, that’s the journey. The music will guide you if you get out of your own way.”
TJ: ”We would always slip in our own music when we played in cover bands, so I think that’s what really molded us into what we are. It was hard sometimes; we’d follow some band that played nothing but covers, and the crowd loved them. We gotta follow that? But I didn’t see the point in driving from Nashville to Kansas to play somebody else’s music. I didn’t want people going, 'Man, those guys were a great jukebox.'”
JOHN: ”Learning other people’s music is important, but it should always be a springboard for how you can apply it to your own music.”
This is the first full album you recorded with your band. Did that shape the way you wrote in any way?
TJ: ”I don’t think so, because all of our stuff always sounded very band oriented. We’ve never had a sterile, studio vibe in our songs.”
JOHN: ”Everybody writes their own way, but when I’m writing I just try to stay in the moment of inspiration and let the song guide me; I don’t think about anything else. TJ’s a little different. When he’s writing, he’s already thinking about the light show.”
TJ: ”On this record, more than we ever did before, we did pre-production. We played the songs with the band, and everybody knew the material really well. We were able to work on mood rather than just chord changes. We never really had the time for that before.
”The only rehearsing we did was onstage during soundcheck. John and I would start playing a new song and the band would join in. That was it. So it was a bit disjointed, and that gave John and me an unfair advantage over the guys.”
But how were you able to make things sound fresh and spontaneous if you knew the material so well?
JOHN: ”Well, you still leave room for improvisation. The songs were sketched out, but they weren’t written in stone. [Laughs] That’s where all those surprises come in.”
TJ: ”We leave a lot of jagged edges in because we don’t want to get married to any one thing. We want to be like, 'OK, this is a good little placeholder. Now, let’s take this into the studio in its raw form.' Then we can collectively kind of piece this thing together of where we want the solo to be, to where it’s not the same formula of verse, chorus, verse, solo, chorus or whatever.”
JOHN: ”Like, for my solos – I treat those spaces like a canvas, but I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do till I do it. And I’m open to changing things around. I usually find that my third take is the best. Takes one and two, I’m still figuring things out. On take three, I’m comfortable and let ’er rip. Beyond that, things get sleepy. Takes seven or eight usually sound tired.”
This is the third album you’ve made with producer Jay Joyce. How would you characterize your relationship with him? Do you butt heads?
JOHN: “We butt heads, but a lot less than we used to. I remember on Pawn Shop I had the solo all worked out for Stay a Little Longer. Jay had some thoughts on it, and before long we were arguing. He was trying to push my buttons, but he was also trying to figure us out. He was sizing us up. And so we got into, literally, a screaming match, cursing at each other, throwing F-words around. It was pretty tumultuous, but we got past it.“
TJ: “We’ve had a lot of debates with Jay, and that’s fine. I love a good debate. I think that’s where some of the best stuff comes from. Jay can be difficult sometimes, but if it were so easy and he just agreed with us all the time, there wouldn’t be much point in working together. The reason this combination clicks is because we do disagree. Something good always comes out of it.
JOHN: “Now, I think there’s a huge level of trust that we’ve developed over years of working with each other. When Jay says something really abstract, we just go with it because he is a mad scientist; he doesn’t think like a normal human being. You have to trust his intuition. And he also trusts our intuition. On this record, he asked us a lot more questions than ever before: 'What do you think about this?' 'What are you feeling for this?' I think that’s huge. That’s what collaboration is all about.“
How do you two actually work out guitar parts between yourselves?
JOHN: “To tell you the truth, it’s pretty unspoken. TJ plays acoustic guitar when he sings. He’s got a heavy hand and has great rhythm; he’s very percussive. Sometimes what he plays will pop out of a track, just like an electric guitar. I anticipate that, so I know how to respond.“
TJ: “I think I’ve gotten better as a guitarist. I try to play just enough of what’s needed from me. I enjoy playing rhythm. I like stacking guitar tracks, but I never want to overwhelm what John is doing. He’s such a great guitarist, so I don’t mind supporting him.
“On stage he’ll look over at me and say, 'Take a solo!' And I’m like… 'Really?' I guess I’m like the ginger with sushi. I’m the palate cleanser. I’ll tell you one thing that’s made a big difference on this record is our other guitarist, Jason Graumlich. He’s a really, really amazing guitar player, and his style is so different from John’s. He gets an awesome tone and he’s got a lot of… swagger.“
JOHN: “This is the first time he’s been on a record of ours. Jason and I are so different in terms of style and tone. He does things I would never think of. On our first two records, I would think more like a session player: 'I’ve got to play this part here because later I’m going to stack this part.
“And then I’ve got to make room for the solo and then I’m going to double this.' With Jason, I could think more like a band guy. If something needed stacking, I did it later, but I didn’t have to think about it. Most of the time, things already sounded good.“
John, your distortion sound all over the record is so vibrant and exciting, but it’s especially potent on “Lighten Up.” What are you using there?
JOHN: ”For a lot of the record, I used a Two-Rock Traditional Clean. It’s a really cool, versatile amp. You match that with the JHS Bonsai Overdrive pedal and you’re good to go. The Bonsai has a switch that allows you to get all kinds of screaming green distortions.
”On Lighten Up, I used those with my ’56 Les Paul Junior, which is my favorite rock guitar ever. It just sings. As soon as I played the solo on that song, I noticed that the tone really spoke.”
All Night has a pretty distinct ZZ Top vibe. Was that an intentional tribute?
TJ: ”It wasn’t intentional, but it was certainly referenced after the fact. The song’s really simple, and we were kind of unsure about it at first. We were like 'Man, is it not cerebral enough?' It does have a ZZ Top swagger too, not that I’m saying their stuff isn’t cerebral. A song can be high-minded in its own way. As the saying goes, 'Not every song has to be Socrates.'”
John, your staccato picking on the All Night solo is quite awesome. How many takes did you need for that?
JOHN: “That was a third take. Jay won’t really let me overplay, and I appreciate him for that. He wants the notes to sound precise, but he also wants energy. I played the whole song on a baritone guitar. I didn’t want it to sound stock. I was going for a surprise sound.
“I was inspired by Danny Gatton, that staccato triplet thing he used to do. I just never heard it on a baritone guitar. It came out great, and then I stacked it with a blackguard Tele. It really speaks.“
TJ, let me ask you about the song Hatin’ Somebody. It has an obvious social-political message. How on the nose do you try to be when writing something like that?
TJ: “The answer is 'not very.' You don’t want to sound pandering or kumbaya like We Are the World. With a song like this, you just want to make your point enough where it’s made. You don’t want to hammer it home and make somebody cringe, so there’s a finesse to it.
“That’s the artistry, the fine line you want to walk. It tells the story – there’s our grandfather, a hillbilly from West Virginia who went to Baltimore to get work. He was like a fish out of water, and I think it really changed him. The message is there, and it makes the point if you want to hear it.“
John, you mentioned “redneck jazz” star Danny Gatton before. Your chicken pickin’ solo in Dead Man’s Curve is also very Gatton-ish.
JOHN: “Yeah, but not as good as what he did. My chicken pickin’ chops aren’t what they used to be back in the day. I was a lot faster when I was younger, when I would play with anybody who asked me. I wasn’t a better guitar player; I was just faster. I feel like I’m more musical now, but the piss and vinegar that once was there, I had to really dig for that one.
“It’s aggressive – the song is called Dead Man’s Curve, so it’s gotta have that feeling of driving too fast and you’re gonna crash and burn. The very first thing I played was pretty good. The second take was imperfect, but that’s what makes it great. It feels like a Dodge Charger about to explode. John, you mentioned your ’56 Les Paul Junior and the baritone guitar.“
What other models did you use?
JOHN: “After making some money, I went a little crazy buying vintage guitars; in fact, I went too crazy. At the end of the day, simplicity works for me. My main guitar is still the one I’ve had for years, a ’68 Tele with a B-bender in it. I have a ’53 blackguard that I used for the chicken pickin’ on Dead Man’s Curve. Then I used the Les Paul Junior and a ’63 SG/Les Paul Standard. What else? Oh, there’s a ’59 Strat. I brought 10 guitars with me but ended up using those five.“
TJ, how about you?
TJ: “Just before making the record, I bought a pre-war 1937 Martin D-18. Sometimes Jay will put a piezo pickup on it but he’ll still mic it. Doing that, we can get kind of an electric tone from it. The other guitar was Jay’s Gibson J-200. I have a few myself, but they sound a little 'boomy.' Jay’s guitar sounds awesome. I’ve used it on every record.“
Brothers in a band can be a combustible mix – the Kinks, Oasis… Do you guys ever have volatile moments?
JOHN: “We definitely do. I think anyone in a relationship, whether it’s a marriage or a close friendship or a family, you’re going to fight. It’s human nature. TJ and I have a joke: 'We either agree 100 percent or we disagree 100 percent.' There’s no gray area. We were raised in a very close family. We came up as best friends and we really stuck up for each other. The way I see it, the only person who can kick his ass is me, and I know he feels the same way.“
TJ: “One thing that helps is that we’re not trying to get in each other’s lane. John can sing, and there are times when he’ll take the vocal lead on a verse, say, but he’s not trying to be the singer for the band. He’s more of the guitar player. Same goes for me; I play guitar, but I’m basically trying to support John’s guitar work. I’m happy to be the singer. We know our strengths.“
JOHN: “We’re not afraid to be honest with each other. In this industry, people aren’t always forthright for whatever reason. They want to tiptoe around artists, whereas TJ and I go right for the jugular. It’s necessary. It keeps us grounded. We’ve had huge blowout fights for 10 minutes, but a minute later we’re having a beer and laughing. That’s just how it’s been our whole lives.“
- Brothers Osborne's new album, Skeletons, is out now via EMI Nashville.