It’s fuzzy, ethereal and mysterious, a sound so hauntingly unique that it practically defines Brothers Osborne’s new single, “21 Summer.”
Ninety seconds into the three-and-a-half minute performance, the opening melody from the chorus is reprised by a melancholy sonic stew. It’s a jumble of five voices, layered in tandem with an electric guitar and slathered with reverb, and the other-worldly sound cements the complex ball of emotion in the lyrics’ grateful heartbreak.
“It’s that eerie nostalgia that you can’t quite put your finger on,” guitarist John Osborne says. “It’s about looking back on a time in your life, regardless of how a previous relationship went. Whatever went wrong seemed to drift away and you only remember the glow of it, and the beauty of it and the importance of it.”
The ghostly “21 Summer” is resurrected from another part in the brothers’ development. Written around the end of 2011, it’s the oldest song on their debut album, Pawn Shop, which EMI released Jan. 15. As a result, that hazy signature in “21 Summer” could be considered the starting point for the entire album, since it was also the starting point for the song. It was a guitar riff in its original incarnation when John played it for his brother, vocalist T.J. Osborne, and songwriter Craig Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying,” “Boys ’Round Here”) at Wiseman’s Big Loud Shirt offices on Music Row in Nashville.
The riff was intriguing, though where it was headed wasn’t immediately obvious.
“It’s never clear right off the bat,” says T.J. “Most people that write songs are emotionally all over the place, so you can kind of really pick from a palate of different feelings. Really the first battle is to just kind of get everyone on the same page of what you want the message to be.”
There was something nostalgic about the melody, and the theme soon became fixed around the memory of an old flame.
“I can guarantee where it started — you’re kind of looking back on one of those crazy chicks you dated,” says Wiseman. “I talk about my old days when I was in bands, and you don’t talk about that stuff very long before crazy chicks come up.”
The woman in “21 Summer,” though, isn’t just a crazy memory. She’s more a signpost in the singer’s emotional development. The first verse establishes a couple random bits of culture — a blue Chevrolet, a song they shared — that trigger an appreciation for her role in the guy’s life. He doesn’t know where she is anymore, but John found the right words to address her at the start of the chorus: “I hope you find the storm that you were chasin’.”
They alluded to the physicality of the relationship — “the night that you slipped off those cutoff jeans” — but Wiseman also thought they should grab something specific to the Osbornes to make it a little more personal. As they discussed the brothers’ history in Deale, Md., on the coast of the Chesapeake Bay, Wiseman interjected “the sound of high-tide thunder,” a short phrase that spoke volumes about their past.
“We grew up right on the water, and when we would stand out there on the water’s edge, we would watch the storm come in and the lightning,” recalls John. “That, attached to all of the loves and stuff that you grew up with, I was like, ‘Wow.’ That was one of the most powerful images I’ve ever heard.”
They made a demo of the song, then cut a fuller version where the original guitar riff was transformed into a vocal hook. That performance wasn’t released, but the Osbornes revisited the song when they aligned with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town).
“The way they had it was almost like a Bon Jovi rock thing, and I thought it didn’t feel believable,” says Joyce. “We turned it more into an almost Crowded House kind of summery vibe, which I think fits it so much better.”
They cut “21 Summer” again at Joyce’s St. Charles Studio in East Nashville during the same session where they recorded “Stay a Little Longer,” with Joyce finding ways to tone down the instrumentation, particularly the sounds from drummer Adam Box.
“Instead of a big, cracking snare drum, he gave our drummer a mallet and a big down-tuned snare drum, which really widened the track,” says John. “When he got through with it, there was so much more depth.”
The key riff, revamped as a vocal in the earlier version, became much more complex this time around with the Osbornes cast as part of a backing vocal group that included their sister, Natalie Osborne; bassist Pete Sternberg; and John’s wife, singer-songwriter Lucie Silvas. The lines were doubled by John’s guitar part, then smothered with echo.
The overall effect essentially blended the Osbornes’ East Coast upbringing with West Coast pop influences that have shaped the sound of modern country.
“The approach at the studio was to go for more of a California country vibe — you know, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, J.D. Souther, that kind of thing — which doesn’t get done a lot lately,” says John. “That’s such a big part of our culture in American roots music.”
In an odd twist of fate, Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey died Jan. 18, three days after Pawn Shop was released. “Stay a Little Longer,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 6, earned a nomination in the Feb. 15 Grammy ceremony where the Eagles paid tribute to Frey. The next day, EMI shipped “21 Summer” to radio via Play MPE, obliquely carrying on the Eagles’ country/rock influence.
“21 Summer” also carries on a bit of the foundation that was laid with “Stay a Little Longer.” Both songs feature elongated notes in the verses, establishing T.J.’s smoky, languid resonance.
“As a singer, I don’t have a bunch of licks and I’m not going to just knock your socks off,” says T.J. “For me, it’s more about just the tone of my voice and the feeling, so to be able to really emotionally get invested in just a single note and hold it out is pretty important for the value of me as a singer.”
Wiseman was happily surprised when “21 Summer” appeared on Pawn Shop and particularly impressed with T.J.’s ability to capture the multitude of emotions they had carved into it four years prior.
“Here we are saying ‘cutoffs,’ ” notes Wiseman. “I mean, we’re right up in the middle of a bunch of heavily used verbiage, and, man, I am frickin’ onboard. I believe him when he says that.”
Now it’s about finding believers in the marketplace. Buoyed by its haunting trademark, “21 Summer” was the general favorite for the second single from Pawn Shop. It popped from No. 50 to No. 45 in its fifth week on Country Airplay.
“Everyone at [the label] was saying this should be our next single, and we polled all of our fans on social media. ‘21 Summer’ got the vote,” says T.J. “Hopefully that’s an indication of what’s to come.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.