Country music invariably draws on the past to create its present, and with Brothers Osborne’s new single, “Nobody’s Nobody,” part of that past could be traced to an unlikely source: 1986 top 40 radio.
The track is built on a pulsing Wurlitzer piano figure that sounds a tad like a synthesizer, and that element could have easily fit back in the day alongside Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls,” Level 42’s “Something About You” and The Rolling Stones’ “Harlem Shuffle.” The Osbornes’ vocals, however, are decidedly 2023 country, creating a fresh sonic juxtaposition.
“Nobody’s Nobody” “fits in pop radio in the same way that Don Henley would have fit on pop radio,” says guitarist John Osborne. “There’s still a big organic element to it. It’s all organic instruments.”
The upbeat music and humble message of “Nobody’s Nobody” came together fairly organically last year, though it took a bit of effort to find the spark. Brothers Osborne had essentially recorded their next album, their first with producer Mike Elizondo (Keith Urban, twenty one pilots), but the duo decided to take an extra week to write new material in an attempt to beat the existing songs. On the first day, Sept. 26, they were joined at Elizondo’s Phantom Studio in Gallatin, Tenn., by singer-songwriter Kendell Marvel (“Don’t Think I Can’t Love You,” “Right Where I Need To Be”), and they chased down several ideas that were OK, but not quite inspiring. Marvel and the Osbornes stepped outside for a break, and while they cleared their minds, Elizondo stayed indoors, where he stumbled onto that pulsing Wurlitzer sound, essentially a string of watery, bubbling 16th notes.
“I had a delay pedal on it,” he remembers. “It was kind of creating this certain rhythm, and when you play a chord, then the delay creates a rhythmic offshoot of it.”
Meanwhile, the other three debated their options outdoors. Since things weren’t really jelling, they could have easily called it a day. But Marvel mentioned a title he had thought about, “Nobody’s Nobody.” He wasn’t entirely certain where to take it, but he envisioned it as something sad.
“I didn’t hear it that way at all,” says lead vocalist T.J. Osborne. “I actually heard it as, ‘[If] nobody’s nobody, [then] everybody is somebody.’ And then they were like, ‘Oh s–t, OK.’ ”
When they returned to the studio, that positive ideal seemed to match up well with Elizondo’s propulsive keyboard bed, and they set to work with a new sense of purpose, developing “Nobody’s Nobody” in perhaps 45 minutes. The opening lines contrasted a hall of fame inductee against someone else whose stardom might be short-lived. But the next two lines level the playing field a bit: “Some people never ever make a name/ But change the game in someone’s story.” Beethoven’s mother exemplifies the thought: Most people know nothing about her, but it’s a good bet that she had an effect on his enduring art.
“I think most people aren’t meant to go down in the history books, but everyone has changed the trajectory of someone else’s life,” T.J. notes. “That is just a really simple line, but it speaks to me in such a way that just hits every time I hear it.”
The individual phrases in that opening verse ended primarily with blue notes, providing just the right amount of angst and grit. “Most American music has blues influence,” says John. “It’s almost impossible to not have some version of that because it’s so intrinsically a part of American culture and American roots. And it’s also something that we love to sing and play. So it’s just in our DNA.”
The song’s atmosphere changed subtly when they reached the chorus, which uses longer notes and a bed of harmonies while inserting that “everybody’s somebody” sentiment. After celebrating a range of people — “sinner, saint or son of a gun” — they flipped to the “nobody’s nobody” hook. And they tagged it with a slow-cooking “No, no, nobody” post-chorus that extends the hook into a bit of a mantra. “I didn’t want that to stop,” T.J. says. “It just feels so good.”
Elizondo built the demo, then played bass when they tracked the master version at Phantom with John on guitar, Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums and Phil Towns playing keyboards. They tried a number of different approaches they hadn’t attempted on previous albums, starting with John layering more guitar parts into the fabric than in the past. “As a guitar player, if you ask me to play more, I’m not going to say no,” he quips.
He played some distinctive stabs in the chorus, with the sound intentionally washing out as the notes fade over Towns’ pulsing keyboards. John also created an instrumental bridge for “Nobody’s Nobody,” a series of rising, dexterous patterns.
“One of my favorite bands of all time is Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and I didn’t realize until I got further into playing guitar how important of a guitar player Mike Campbell is,” says John. “When I listen to Mike Campbell, everything is so incredibly intentional and does as much service to the song as possible. And I always wanted to lean in that direction.”
T.J.’s lead vocals embraced the song’s inherent humility with appropriate understatement, completing each of his performances with admirable consistency. “Once he’s got it locked and programmed in his brain, he will give you three, four takes of each section — or top to bottom, depending on the process — and they will be nearly identical,” Elizondo says of the singer.
The Osbornes handled the harmonies differently from past efforts. They stacked loads of vocals into the background, and T.J. contributed to the supporting voices with his brother for the first time. They sang the parts face-to-face on separate mics in the same room, with Elizondo encouraging them to keep building.
“I’m a student of all the greats you’d hear about, like [producer] Roy Thomas Baker doing all the Queen vocals with everybody on one mic,” says Elizondo. “They would sing each note three or four times, and then they’d go to the next note and they just kept layering and layering.”
Brothers Osborne’s team, including EMI Nashville and Q Prime South, was nearly unanimous in assessing “Nobody’s Nobody” as the best first single from their next album, and the duo agreed. EMI released it to country radio via PlayMPE on April 6. It climbs to No. 47 after four weeks on the Country Airplay chart dated May 13.
“The subject matter really aligns with who we are and what we’d like to see in the world,” John notes. “It’s crazy right now, everyone’s so divided. Everyone is just looking for a reason to hate another [person]. And for us to have a song that isn’t just your typical life or love song — it has a positive message — it’s just all the more reason for us to put this out first.”