Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, John Osborne, T.J. Osborne
Country

Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton and Brothers Osborne on Country’s More Inclusive Future

A few weeks ago, T.J. Osborne — half of the powerhouse country duo Brothers Osborne — received a particularly memorable text message. Earlier this year, T.J. came out publicly as gay in a landmark moment for a genre with few out superstars, and his fellow artist Jamey Johnson was the latest of countless peers who reached out with a message of support. “It’s better to be hated for who you are,” texted Johnson, “than loved for what you’re not.”

“I just thought, ‘F--k yeah,’ ” says T.J., recounting the story over Zoom to a group of artists who are intimately familiar with what it’s like to challenge the status quo in country music: his brother and bandmate, John (sitting in front of his Nashville fireplace); Mickey Guyton (feeding her baby boy, Grayson, in Los Angeles); and Kane Brown (surrounded by award plaques at his home). They all nod in solemn agreement. “At the end of the day,” adds T.J., “I just want to be who I am.”

Music Row and country radio have historically thrived — even banked — on sameness. The charts have been dominated by a narrow definition of who (and what) makes a hit, with one particular philosophy looming large: that it’s better to be loved not for who you are, but by the right people. The Nashville establishment is predominantly white, straight and male, and often slow to recognize the intentional ways it has been kept as such. It has made artists like T.J. reluctant to come out, discouraged writers like Guyton from sharing their true stories and distracted from the record-breaking accomplishments of a talent like Brown.

But Brown, Guyton and Brothers Osborne are among those now unafraid to shock this mold. These are the artists building a new future for Music Row, where power doesn’t equate to chart position alone — it reflects something deeper, where ownership, individuality and the quest for inclusion hold more weight than a hit single. They may not all have equal radio or institutional support on their side, but the freedoms of streaming, the possibilities of crossover markets and their fearlessness about speaking out have created a movement within the mainstream to expand the genre beyond just one look, sound or perspective. The real renegades of Nashville aren’t just those who eschew the system altogether — they’re the ones who try to rebuild it from the inside out.

It’s a strategy that Guyton, 38, has mastered in the past year. She came to Nashville in 2011, signed to Capitol as the only Black female artist on a major country label. Since then, she has endured barriers both subtle and sinister, through racism and sexism both quiet and overt. When she released the superb “Black Like Me” after the murder of George Floyd, it opened up country music to a whole new audience who had never dreamed they would see their story represented — and it also opened doors for Guyton. She received a Grammy nomination, performed at the ceremony and hosted the ACM Awards alongside Keith Urban. She started many crucial conversations about the genre’s systemic and historical racism, all during a pandemic when people were confined to a computer, not an arena. Above all, she found her most creative and resonant voice by doubling down on what makes her unique instead of fighting to fit in.

“As a Black woman who has been signed to a label for a very, very, very long time, I was finally like, ‘F--k this — I am literally crazy if I keep doing the same thing over and over,’ ” she says, rocking her young son in her arms. “I said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to do things on my terms. I’m not going to write another song that you think will work on country radio.’ Country radio was not going to support me, and that’s OK. Let me do it a different way.”

Brown, 27, who rose through the ranks without the initial support of the Music Row establishment, has become a brand unto himself over the past two years. He revolutionized how Nashville thinks an artist can achieve success, embracing social media and YouTube to amass a passionate fan base. Now, he’s becoming a behind-the-scenes force, too, launching the label 1021 Entertainment (a joint venture with Sony Music Nashville) and publishing imprint Verse 2 Music (with Sony Music Publishing Nashville). He has collaborated with everyone from Marshmello to Camila Cabello, made history as the first Black male solo country artist to perform at the BET Awards and scored five No. 1 Country Airplay singles, with both of his full-length albums — 2016’s self-titled set and 2018’s Experiment — ruling Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. He’s one of the first major country artists to put concert tickets on sale as the pandemic eased up, and his 35-city Blessed & Free tour will hit all 29 NBA arenas this fall.

“Kane has modernized the approach to being a successful country artist,” says Martha Earls, Brown’s manager. (Her husband, Kent, is his partner in Verse 2.) “You could say the same thing about [T.J.]. I certainly would never speak for anyone, but the old approach was, ‘If you’re gay, just sit there and pretend you’re not, because it could bother somebody.’ Now the modern approach is to lead with your truth. That’s the thing that I’ve always loved about Kane: his willingness to be very open about his life. We’re living in the future versus trying to hold on to the past.”

Diana King
Styling by Tiffany Briseno at The Only Agency. Brown wears an AMIRI jacket, Marc Jacobs shirt, G-Star jeans, Scott Bros. by Kendra Scott bracelets, Alligator Jesus necklace, David Yurman ring and watch.

Surely, Brothers Osborne can’t relate to the magnitude of what Guyton and Brown endure as Black country artists. But the duo, known for John’s fearless guitar work and T.J.’s gorgeous baritone, is certainly familiar with pushing against business as usual, having defied plenty of conventional career wisdom since the pair moved to Nashville from coastal Maryland. The brothers spoke about gun control and supported Democratic candidates, but while T.J., 36, had not hidden his sexuality from his friends, he publicly remained in the closet for much of his career. Eventually, following in the footsteps of out country artists and writers like Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Chely Wright and Ty Herndon, he came out in a Time article between album and tour cycles — a decision manager John Peets says was the result of over a year’s worth of conversations and deliberations.

“It was really important to him to do it for kids that were like him growing up,” says Peets, “and we wanted to make sure that if he did it, we minimized the reasons that would look not genuine.” The duo capped the moment off with “Younger Me,” a note to those kids and T.J. himself that shows, as he sings, “being different really wouldn’t be the end.”

Guyton, T.J. and John, 39, have known one another for a decade, going back to the “Misfit Thanksgivings” they would host with friends like Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves before they had fame and the money to travel home for the holidays. (It’s no coincidence that Morris and Musgraves are among Nashville’s other most visible artists joining alongside them as white allies working to make mainstream country music a more welcoming place for all.) Though Brown hasn’t gotten to know the group well yet, he’s relishing the chance to do so — “T.J., you’re strong as hell for coming out,” says Brown. “I’m proud of you” — as well as talk about what they’re here for in the first place: the music.

Brothers Osborne, like Brown, are getting back on the road to support their excellent album Skeletons in June. Guyton will focus on her debut, Remember Her Name, coming in September, the title track of which was written in memory of Breonna Taylor. “We’re going to try and find the right platform for live performance, but I don’t think it’s going to be in a traditional trajectory of a country artist at all,” says Gary Borman, her co-manager alongside Steve Moir. “Before, we were speaking into an empty void. Now, we’re speaking to a bunch of hearts and minds.”

Over the course of a lengthy Zoom chat, the four artists reminisced about their early days, how they coped with the past year and how they’re helping usher in a new future for country music — as well as the country itself.

It’s amazing to think about those Misfit Thanksgivings. So much talent, and long-lasting friendships, too. Mickey, I don’t think most people realize how long you’ve known Brothers Osborne.

Mickey Guyton: T.J. and John were some of the first people in Nashville to embrace me and take me under their wing and be my Nashville family. Those were some of my favorite memories.

T.J. Osborne: When I first met Mickey, even as a gay man, she was so hot it made me nervous. Kane, if it ever happens again, you’re invited.

Kane Brown: I appreciate it, man. I played a show with Brothers Osborne when I first started at some outdoor venue, I don’t remember where.

John Osborne: I watched Kane at that show and thought, “Man, he has a great voice.” He wasn’t a household name yet, but there were a few hundred people in the audience singing every damn word. It was abundantly clear that he was a rocket ship about to explode.

One thing uniting everyone here is that you’re all redefining what it means to be successful in country music. How do you define power in your own careers?

T.J.: The thing that comes with fame that I enjoy isn’t the attention. I do like the attention; I’m not going to lie to you. But it really is being able to have power to influence and change the narrative. To change other people’s lives.

Guyton: In country music, I felt that you’re only allowed to be one way. And as a woman, you’re only allowed to sing about heartbreak or love. But it’s so important to sing your truth. That’s why I fell in love with country music. When I saw that you came out, T.J., I cried because you’re such a beautiful man, and I imagine all these members of the LGBTQIA+ community are going to flock to you because you represent who they are. And Kane — this biracial, beautiful Black man that came and just shook the entire country music industry by being himself.

Brown: Part of owning your power is not being afraid to take chances or try things our own way. Or even if you are afraid, doing it anyway. Certain songs I cut or wrote, writers we’ve signed or even launching a label, we’ve all done it on our own terms.

John: I feel very lucky that there are artists changing the definition of what it is to be a country artist.

Diana King
Styling by Anna Redmon at AMAX. John Osborne wears a Madewell shirt, Todd Snyder jacket, 7forallmankind jeans, Frye boots and a Vintage Stetson hat.

In that sense, it feels like there’s no music more suited for this polarized time than country music — which really was borne out of, and shaped by, so many different cultural tensions and collisions in America.

T.J.: Isn’t that amazing, though? One of the most narrow lanes of genres has become one of the most diverse places for different-sounding music, different types of people. It’s such an exciting time for country music.

Brown: What unites us is that music brings people together and heals.

Kane, you’re essentially building your own empire with your publishing company — signing the likes of Joybeth Taylor, Alex Maxwell, Rivers Rutherford and Josh Hoge — and your label imprint, which signed Restless Road.

Brown: I feel like my whole life I’d been beat down. So it’s me just trying to be the bigger person. When I signed Restless Road, I told them I wouldn’t sign anybody else until I broke them. I just want them to know I have all my focus on them. [For publishing], I just sign whoever’s a good writer. I just signed this dude Levon Gray out of Alabama. He’s a Black guy, super R&B. He tagged me on an [Instagram] story. I had him come in, write a song with me, and the label wants to use that as my next single. I just want to give everybody a chance — no matter where you come from, no matter where you have been — and just leave the door open.

Guyton: Walking the walk.

John: That is indicative of how you need to operate in business in general, but especially the music business. We get roped into this notion that we have to do it the way it has always been done. And that worked for decades, before the internet age. Now if you adhere to this strict policy of one way of doing things, you’re going to be left in the dust.

T.J.: John and I have talked many times about starting our own publishing venture. It seems fun, but it’s also a scary thing to get involved in.

Brown: When I was coming into the music industry, I was trying to go through all the X Factors and American Idols. I basically started all of this on my own. I failed so many times and then overcame everything. Where I came from, living in a trailer, going to 12 different schools? I feel like I’m on top of the world.

We often define modern “outlaw” country as a bunch of straight, white dudes with tattoos, but what you’re all doing seems pretty “outlaw,” too, in a way.

John: The reason why it was “outlaw” was not because they were robbing banks. It was outlaw music because they weren’t adhering to the norm. Philosophically, it’s not much different from what we’re doing now. We decided: “Let’s be us.”

Guyton: It’s an exciting time. But I think to myself, “Is it really changing?” I’m still getting called an “f-ing n-word” on Twitter, and I’m still getting my child called ugly and [being told] to go back to the projects. I think, “There’s no way it’s changing.” And then I go to Nashville and do a show and see Black people backstage working, and that’s something I didn’t really see before.

T.J.: Once I came out, there were so many [men] who were like, “I love country music, but me and my husband have gone to shows for 20 years, and we always felt a little uncomfortable. Thank you for making us feel like we’re not such outcasts.” I’m like, “F--k yes! That’s what it’s all about.”

Brown: At my shows, everybody comes out: Black, Hispanic, Asian, white, gay people. And that’s just what I love, knowing everybody has a place to go.

Guyton: I was so scared when I came to town. I trusted all these older guys that knew the formula — and there really is no formula, especially for someone like me. Any time I would try to overthink it and write this formulaic song, it never worked for me. And it was confusing because I would write something and everybody would be like, “It needs to be really, really country.” And I’m looking over here at Sam Hunt like, “What do you mean?” No offense to Sam; I love him. I finally was like, “I cannot listen to you guys. Because what a man thinks and likes as a song for a woman may not be what a woman wants to hear from another woman.”

John, you vocally supported your brother and bandmate wholeheartedly through his coming-out process. Your Instagram video about him was really sweet — and said all the right things.

John: That wasn’t my thought initially. My thought initially was, “This is my younger brother. I love him for who he is, and I’ll be there for him no matter what.”

T.J.: I noticed a lot of times since I’ve come out, people want to separate me from John. And that’s exactly why I came out — so we’re not separated. That we are equal.

Guyton: [John] stands up for what’s right. I’ve seen him go to bat for me in times where I felt so small and alone. And he would give me encouragement that nobody else did. He saw me when nobody else did. He is a true ally.

John: You’re going to make me cry.

Diana King
Styling by Anna Redmon at AMAX. T.J. Osborne wears a John Varvatos suit, Rag & Bone t-shirt and Lucchese boots.

I’m sure there’s a bit of a calculus to determining people’s intentions lately — fielding requests and wondering, “Are you asking me here for my music or for a different reason?”

T.J.: It’s nice when people want to help out. But it can be frustrating, especially in Pride month: “Do a playlist, Spotify wants you to do this.” If you want to help me, do that s--t in f--king November. You doing it in Pride month is nice, but that’s really helping you. Sometimes it’s really aggravating because I think when people do that, they feel like, “My work here is done, I’m an ally.” No, I need help year-round.

Guyton: There is a lot of being tokenized, and it’s difficult. I’ll take the blows, though. It’s so much bigger than just me. If I can help prevent that from happening to future people of color — and not just Black people, not just gay people, anybody that’s marginalized — if I can take the blow to make it not as hard for them, I’ll do it.

T.J.; When a lot of the Black Lives Matter stuff was going on, we had people coming to us being like, “You should collaborate with Kane or Mickey.” And I’m like, “I would love to collaborate with them, but I don’t want to collaborate with them just to be like, ‘Hey, I like Black people.’ ” Hopefully, it should be implied already, but I just want to collaborate with them for a f--king cool song.

Brown: This year has been s--t, but I just won my first ACM Award [for video of the year for “Worldwide Beautiful”]. And it wasn’t like, “Congratulations on winning your first ACM. How does it feel?” It was like, “How does it feel being Black and winning your first ACM?” So in my head, I was like, “I feel like I’m about to win this award because of everything that’s going on right now.” I felt like they were just giving me a handout. And luckily, I had a lot of country artists and my team be like, “No, you worked your ass off. You deserve it.” This year has been crazy. If you talk about how you feel, you get bashed. If you don’t talk about it, you get bashed. Just trying to find where your place is has been the hardest part for me this year.

How important is it for you all to be honest with your fans about these feelings and struggles?

Brown: I tend to channel a lot of my honest feelings or experiences into my songs. I’m very open with my fans about my life, but I also try to stay positive. It’s honestly a balance I’m figuring out, but a barrier comes down when writing lyrics. Writing “Learning” [a 2016 single that discussed a number of struggles] was a way to talk about growing up, and I hope when other people hear that song or other songs of mine that it gives them hope.

John, you have been very open about your experiences with depression and anxiety in a part of the music business where talking about mental health can still be pretty taboo.

John: It’s important to talk to people about what you’re going through. I’m a happy person. I’m kind, I’m hardworking and have successes. But a year and a half ago, I was suicidal. I never thought I would get there, but I was, and I learned a lot. And fortunately, I had the quarantine time off to get myself in a good place and understand what I needed to do going forward.

T.J.: Country is famous for three chords and the truth, and that’s great when it’s your truth, but what about ours? Why can’t I say my truth?

Guyton: I don’t feel like I really had a choice [about being honest]. I know people have heard it over and over again, but from a Black woman who knows firsthand what discrimination feels like, I’m watching women — doesn’t matter what color you are — being actively discriminated against on a daily basis [in country]. It got to the point where I could shake every hand and kiss every baby and write with every hit songwriter in Nashville, and it’s still not going to change. And it still hasn’t changed. But I realized that people would listen if a Black woman said it. When a Black woman says, “Hey, white women are being discriminated against in country music,” all of a sudden, everybody’s ears turned up like, “Huh? Oh, really?” It feels like we’re in the 1950s.

Diana King
Styling by Tiffany Gifford. Guyton wears a BIBHU mohapatra dress and Pamela Love earrings.

And on top of that, you have to constantly prove that you are “country enough” or battle with people gauging your authenticity.

Guyton: I grew up on gravel dirt roads in Crawford, Texas, next to, at the time, Gov. George W. Bush’s ranch. And where my grandmother was buried, you had to drive over a 100-year-old bridge. So every time anybody says what’s country and what’s not, I’m like, “Are you the country police?”

Brown: I just stopped caring. That’s the first thing people say: “You’re not country.” And I’m like, “Well, uh, OK.” I’m country as s--t, so I don’t know.

John: Hell yeah, dude! Amen to that.

Guyton: I’ll tell you what happened to this Black female songwriter who went into a writing session. She threw out the line, “It’s heavy on my mind.” And one of the songwriters says, “Well, that sounds R&B. We’re trying to write a country song, but if you want to write an R&B song, then we can put that in.” I kid you not! I was so pissed. Then I went into a writing session, and this white guy goes, “It’s heavy on my mind.” That was one of the first lines he said! I started dissecting all of these songs that people consider country, like “Chillin’ It” by Cole Swindell, and I’m hearing all of these phrases that they got from every culture. Why are people telling you what is and is not country? It doesn’t matter.

John: It’s infuriating. Being at the forefront of change, you do have to deal with a lot of s--t. I’ve read some of the things that are said to Mickey on Instagram, I know what Kane has had to deal with, and I’ve seen firsthand what my brother has to. But that’s what you get for being a big proponent of positive change. As tough as it is, history will look back at it as a great thing.

Musically, what is everyone most excited about in these next few months as we come out of the pandemic and head back on the road or into the studio?

John: To be honest with you, I’m a little bit nervous, because we haven’t played a full show in forever, but I don’t even think it’s going to matter. People are so ready for live music.

Mickey, your debut album is coming out soon, and you’re working on a new one as well, Kane.

Guyton: I’m so excited. I had a woman produce it, Karen Kosowski, and it has been really great. I found her after years of going through the whole Nashville circle. She’s a truly incredible woman.

Brown: We’re working on the album right now. I’m more focused on touring, but I’ve been writing basically every day. I like so many different sounds, so it’s finding which ones go together. I’ve got some that are pretty rock-heavy, one’s almost over-the-top metal. Of course, two pop songs, and one with the artist H.E.R.

Guyton: You can do anything. Watching your rise was incredibly encouraging for me because you came from the outside, and knowing how not always welcoming Nashville can be, you were like, “F--k it! I’m going to do it in my own way.” And now everybody’s there for the photo op.

John: What’s amazing in all of this is, until someone came along that is different, there’s a whole school of people that thought they never had a chance. Every time Mickey sings her ass off at an award show, there will be a Black girl who immediately thinks, “I can do that.” And then a biracial boy will see Kane and go, “That’s my guy. I can do that.” And now T.J. will be onstage, and a young gay child will look at him and go, “Yes, that path is for me.”

T.J.: There was a fear of pushing the envelope because it could be career suicide. We’ve proven that we can continue to be ourselves. We can speak our mind, and it will still resonate. There’s room for all of us.

This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.