Listen to “Dirt Rich,” the opening track from Brothers Osborne’s first album, Pawn Shop, and you might think the twangy tune about making the most of what you’ve got is the sort of story songwriters spend hours in a room dreaming up. With clever lyrics about leaky refrigerators, defective smoke detectors, and screen doors riddled with holes, it’s an evocative, detailed portrait of working-class rural life. But the duo weren’t just flexing their creative muscles here: The pair of real-life brothers actually lived everything they’re singing about.
“As much as that song was fun, it’s actually very true,” T.J. says. “People think it was just a song we wrote to try to relate to the small guys, not realizing that’s who we are and where we came from.”
Growing up in the blue-collar ocean town of Deale, Maryland, in a family of seven, T.J. and John credit their father, who worked as a plumber, with instilling in them the scrappy resourcefulness they celebrate on the song. “There were times when T.J. and I would come home from school and all of our electricity would be off because our folks had a hard time paying the electric bill,” John recalls. “And instead of crying about it, our dad would turn it into a really fun game of hide-and-go-seek in the dark.”
“It was almost like, when the power went out, we looked forward to it,” T.J. adds with a laugh. “We had no idea that we were poor. We just thought that was just life — I guess for [some] people, it is.”
Spinning their rural, working-class upbringing into poignant, relatable tunes is exactly what’s turned the Brothers Osborne into one of country’s most heartwarming success stories in recent years — and it’s netted them both a platinum-selling single (2015’s “Stay A Little Longer”) and back-to-back CMA Awards for vocal duo of the year. With their just-released second album, Port Saint Joe, the band embraced their roots even further: They decamped to a Florida beach town that resembles the one they grew up in, lived and worked side by side in a house-turned-studio, and walked away with some of their most genuine tunes to date.
“I think Pawn Shop was us not really knowing who we were yet. We were close to finding it, but you can really hear the difference in listening to Port Saint Joe,” T.J. says. “The difference between us not really knowing who we are and us starting to really figure it out.”
John and T.J.’s childhood was always musical. Before deciding to raise a family, their parents had tried to make it as singer-songwriters in Nashville, so John and T.J. started playing instruments at an early age and took every opportunity to play, whether it was around the house or at a neighborhood function. “We were the token band that would play,” John laughs. “We knew at an early age how to work really hard but also enjoy ourselves at the same time … It naturally had an effect on us and the way that we write and the way that we perform. You can’t ever hide your inspirations.”
Once it came time for John and T.J. to choose their own career paths, naturally they both gravitated toward Nashville. John, two years older, made the move first in 2002, with T.J. doing the same in 2004. By the time T.J. felt ready to perform publicly a few years later, John had already formed his own band, KingBilly, but would help out and play guitar for T.J.’s solo act whenever he could. “People kept always mentioning, ‘The energy between the two of you is really cool to watch,’” T.J. recalls. “We’d never even noticed it because we’d been doing it our whole lives.”
It’s something T.J. and John’s mom had been telling them from their early days — “She still tells us that we’ve made a huge mistake by not going on American Idol,” T.J. chuckles — but it took years of positive feedback before the duo finally gave in, listened to their mother and officially started playing as a band in 2012.
Despite their literally lifelong experience making music together, once John and T.J. started working as an official duo, they didn’t feel ready to dive right into the music industry. The music industry, however, was certainly ready for them — the duo was fielding so many inquiries that they finally set up a showcase in 2012, and received record-deal offers on the spot. Within a year, the guys went from simply being siblings to becoming Brothers Osborne, EMI Nashville recording artists.
Fast forward nearly six years later, and Brothers Osborne have a gold-certified album with Pawn Shop and are celebrating the release of Port Saint Joe, which debuted at No. 2 on the Top Country Albums chart. As they began work on their second LP — named for the city it was recorded in — they were eager to show off the musicianship they’d been honing on the road. “We’ve progressed a lot,” John asserts. “All those little things that we did, from hanging out on the bus together, to playing a show out in the middle of a cornfield, to jamming during soundcheck — all of those little things add up to a really, really big impact on what you do creatively.”
The recording setup — they made the album in producer Jay Joyce’s beach house alongside him — helped Brothers Osborne achieve their more polished sound without losing any of their personality. Though they recorded Port Saint Joe in a brief two weeks, living and working in the same place resulted in more jamming out than they did during the making of their debut. As a result, the LP’s first four songs were recorded at the same time and run together (though they’re broken up into separate tracks on the album) — a notable departure from how albums are usually made. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” T.J. says.
Another standout moment on Port Saint Joe is the heartfelt album closer, “While You Still Can.” While the guys had already shown off their ballad abilities with “Stay a Little Longer,” the acoustic track puts a personal spin on the long tradition of “count your blessings” songs with ultra-specific references to their parents.
“Our dad was always telling jokes — the same old jokes [we reference in the song] — and we try to tell them like our dad would,” John says. “And our mom, like every other mom in the world, is constantly calling and wanting to have a conversation even when we don’t have time. It just reminds me to kind of make the time, if you can, for those people.”
The song took on a whole new meaning in March, when their mom needed emergency heart surgery. The pair asked for prayers for their mom in an Instagram post the day before her triple bypass procedure, which sparked comments from the likes of Little Big Town and Chris Stapleton’s wife, Morgane. In the country world, T.J. and John’s parents are practically as beloved as they are, as the guys often bring them to awards shows so they can take part in the band’s victories, too. When their mom, along with their dad and three siblings, attended this year’s CMA Awards in April, it marked a full-circle moment for everyone.
“One of the best parts about our success is that our family gets to enjoy it with us,” John says. “We love the looks on their faces when we have success or win an award — that means as much to us as any award could. They deserve credit, too.”
T.J. agrees. “We’re not afraid about taking some risks and falling flat on our faces, because we did come from nothing, and we know what it’s like,” he says. “We had a great time — we really enjoyed our lives when we had nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I love to be able to put food on the table and provide for myself, but I think it’s allowed us a lot of freedom to have been brought up that way. We’re not really attached to, you know, the fortune and the fame.”
“We know what we have,” John adds. “We were raised to enjoy life with or without success — and that’s the most important thing.”