For Brothers Osborne, a Grammy Nod Arrived Before Even Releasing an Album

David McClister
John Osborne and TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne.

2015 came to a pretty remarkable close for Brothers Osborne. Vocalist T.J. Osborne and guitarist John Osborne went into the holiday break with a top 10 single — “Stay a Little Longer,” which rises to No. 4 on the current Country Airplay chart — and the song brought them a Grammy nomination on Dec. 7 for best country duo/group performance.

Particularly remarkable for that nod from the Recording Academy is that the act hasn’t even released its first full album: Pawn Shop won’t arrive in the marketplace until Jan. 15.

The nomination “was the last thing in the world we expected, including the apocalypse,” notes John. 

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“One of our friends said, ‘Man, do you realize that every time for the rest of your life that you play a show, you will be introduced as a Grammy-nominated artist?’ ” adds T.J. “It really is a surreal thing.”

In part because it took so long to get there. And the payoff didn’t come quite the way they had expected it when they left Maryland for Nashville — separately. John arrived in Music City in 2000 on his own, spending four years at Belmont University and touring during the late 2000s as a member of KingBilly, a Nashville buzz band that graduated several fierce musicians, including Warner Bros. artist Charlie Worsham. T.J. moved to Tennessee a couple years after his brother with an eye on becoming a solo singer/songwriter. 

Once KingBilly fell apart, the brothers played a few gigs together, and the siblings unintentionally got linked in the eyes of a few followers.

“It wasn’t really something that was a master plan,” notes John. “People were saying, ‘I like that you guys are a duo.’ And we weren’t even trying to be a duo.”

But they clicked creatively in a way that mirrors The Allman Brothers, another act originally built around a lead singer with a lonesome drawl and a bro that plays a mean slide guitar. The Osbornes signed with Capitol Nashville before president/CEO Mike Dungan left the label for Universal Music Group (UMG) in 2012, rolling the dice that a rumored merger between the two companies would take place and that they would be reunited with Dungan and survive the cuts when the rosters were purged.

“We took a leap of faith,” says T.J. “We didn’t know what was going to happen or how it was going to play out, and honestly it all kind of came together really beautifully. I mean, the last thing you want to be is a band that the head of the label doesn’t really get.”

The Osbornes made it through the Capitol/UMG transition and got several attempts to find their place in the market. “Rum” surged to No. 27 on Country Airplay in 2014 and was accompanied by an EP that showed their abilities. But they really found their niche when they teamed with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), who helped them find the grit under their sonic fingernails. They recut “Stay a Little Longer,” allowing John to stretch out with the kind of muscular guitar solo that has become a staple of their live shows. 

The Brothers Osborne Tackle Complicated Relationships in 'Stay a Little Longer': Video Premiere

The song’s top five status demonstrates that they have made a connection in the marketplace. Pawn Shop’s title cut, plus “Dirt Rich” and “It Ain’t My Fault,” underscore the grimy, working-class attitude that’s at work in that performance.

The new recordings “come from a place that’s a bit tougher and more masculine,” says John. “They defined the record very well and are a window into how Brothers Osborne is evolving as a band.”

It’s a fairly broad evolution. “Pawn Shop” has a dangerous, New Orleans voodoo vibe. “21 Summer” plays with a breezy, California-beachy nostalgia. “It Ain’t My Fault” has a syncopated breathing scheme that’s part Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me,” part Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” And “Loving You Back” takes a classic country turn with help from Lee Ann Womack, whose participation was its own kind of payoff.

“We grew up listening to country and playing country and revering country,” says T.J. “So we wanted to have a really country song.”

In a sly way, Womack represents the ideal the Osbornes have in mind for their own careers. “I Hope You Dance” spent five weeks at No. 1 the same year that John first moved to town. The Osbornes are a much different act than either brother set out to be — heck, their sound is significantly different from just two years ago. And they expect it to change again before they hit the studio for a sophomore album.

“Lee Ann in 2000 sounded different than Lee Ann in 1995,” says John. “She evolved a lot in those five years. And you fast-forward 15 years later, she put out an Americana record. So I think every artist is evolving and should be willing to evolve. I think if you love music and you have a pretty extensive background, you should just go with it and see where the river takes you.”

Wherever it goes, they can always whip out that “Grammy-nominated” sticker. It took a long time to earn it. But it’s a great aid in establishing a Brothers Osborne brand.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.

2016 Grammys