DEALE, Md. — “Y’all know Blake?”
It’s late afternoon, and John and TJ Osborne are starving, having not eaten since yesterday. They’re seated at a restaurant and tantalizingly close to getting some food. But first, a photo shoot. And also that question from a woman at a nearby table.
He may be verging on hangry, but TJ can’t help but crack a smile.
“Not personally,” he deadpans in reply.
The Blake in question is Blake Shelton — country music giant, star of NBC’s “The Voice,” one-half of a celebrity couple with his TV co-star Gwen Stefani.
The brothers may be starting to make a name for themselves in country music, but they don’t exactly run in the same circles as the guy who sells out arenas and appears on tabloid magazine covers.
For John and TJ — the Brothers Osborne, professionally — it’s enough that they finally have a debut album to promote. “Pawn Shop” was released last week after a nearly two-year delay, finally seeing the light of day after the duo achieved breakout-artist status this past year, thanks to hit single “Stay a Little Longer,” which earned a Grammy nomination.
On this unseasonably warm day in December, the brothers are at Happy Harbor, a hot spot in their home town of Deale, a tiny, scenic water town near the Chesapeake Bay. They performed countless shows at this bar while growing up — now, they sit here as major-label artists as cameras go off from every direction. And those camera clicks aren’t coming just from the photographer, but from the growing crowd as word spreads that John and TJ are back in town.
Although the brothers were frustrated when their album was repeatedly delayed, it’s landing at an ideal time. As the industry experiences backlash to the wildly popular “bro-country” style, audiences are ready for something different.
Enter the Brothers Osborne. They won over Nashville critics with a distinctive sound combining classic country and hints of soul, with songs centered on John’s impressive guitar skills and TJ’s rich baritone.
“John and I like to do our music a little bit different — do everything a little bit different,” TJ said. “Nashville tends to be afraid of that, because it’s taking a big risk — someone that may be cool for Nashville but not cool for the masses.”
“But in reality,” he added, “we really saw that people wanted something different. So we were like, ‘We don’t have to hold back anymore.’ ”
Many modern country songs are criticized for lazy songwriting and tired tropes — is everyone really driving a pickup truck down to the river to drink beer with a pretty girl wearing tight jeans? Artists often defend themselves by saying that’s actually what they did growing up in small towns, so they’re writing about what they know.
John, 33, and TJ, 31, also write about their upbringing — you just need to visit Deale to understand why their songs such as “Pawn Shop,” “Dirt Rich” and “Down Home” sound different. About six square miles and an hour away from Washington, the town (population approximately 5,000) revolves around the water and is an unusual hybrid of Northeastern attitude and Southern charm.
Still, it’s the country. “We used to get asked a lot why we got into country music being from Maryland,” John said. The brothers have changed restaurants, now sitting in South County Cafe, feeling human again after devouring steak-and-cheese subs, their standard order. “It’s really country around here — but instead of farms, we have water. It’s the same kind of mentality, the same blue-collar, hard-working town.”
“This is exactly where we grew up. A mile away is the house that we grew up in. This is downtown Deale,” John continued. “There’s, like, a hardware store, a drunk person . . . ”
“And a church!” TJ interjected.
John Thomas and Thomas John (TJ) are the middle of five Osborne kids in a tightknit family. They shared a room and a too-small bunk bed until John left for college; now they have the same situation, just on a tour bus.
John went to Nashville’s Belmont University after graduating from Anne Arundel County’s Southern High School in the early 2000s, and TJ followed his older brother to Music City a few years later. After working separately, the brothers eventually combined forces and signed a publishing deal in 2011, followed by a deal with EMI Records Nashville (now part of Universal Music Group) in 2012. But soon their momentum would screech to a halt.
In Nashville, if you can’t get a hit on country radio, you don’t have much chance of putting out an album.
The brothers got a little buzz for their first single, “Let’s Go There,” an upbeat anthem about young love. It peaked in the mid-30s on the country charts in early 2014 — a decent showing but not strong enough to launch an album.
Next, the label released “Rum,” which extols the virtues of great weather and strong booze. The brothers had a blast filming the music video in Deale to show off their home town.
“Everybody always wants a fun song, a summer song, a beachy song. It’s kind of hard to do authentically, but they are authentic,” said Barry Dean, their “Rum” co-writer.
After an eight-month climb, the song sold well, yet made it only to the high 20s on the radio by late 2014. Still not high enough. “Ultimately, what they want is to have some hit songs on the record, so then they can get it on shelf space at Targets, Walmarts, Best Buys; otherwise, there’s such a limited amount of space at those stores now for albums,” TJ said. “They’re not going to carry it because it’s cool; they’re going to carry it because there’s some sort of big splash that they can get with it.”
Music writers put them on lists like “Best of What’s Next” and “Ones to Watch.” They continued to tour, opening for bigger acts and schmoozing with radio execs. But there was still nothing for fans to buy.
“A lot of people don’t understand that,” TJ said of the career grind even in the absence of an album. “They’re like, ‘You don’t have a record, but you’re out here playing music?’ ”
In September 2014, the label relented and put out a five-song EP. The third track, “Stay a Little Longer,” co-written with hitmaker Shane McAnally, changed everything. The brothers later collaborated with uber-producer Jay Joyce to re-record the song to capture “the full firepower of the Osbornes’ live show,” as Rolling Stone put it, and reissued the updated version as a single last spring.
The song, about two people with physical chemistry so strong that it’s impossible to end a fling, became a hit. It sits at No. 2 at radio and was recently certified gold. Last month, it earned the duo a Grammy nod for best country duo/group performance.
“The thing about the Grammy nomination is it really is about your peers [saying], ‘We see what you’re doing, and it’s awesome,’ ” Dean said. “I saw that and thought, wow, that’s a big deal for a brand-new duo to come walking in there and get the respect of their peers like that.”
Now the Brothers Osborne find themselves in the unlikely spot of being at the forefront of a shift in country music. John and TJ are part of the progressive Nashville clique that also includes the much-lauded Kacey Musgraves and up-and-coming Texas singer Maren Morris. They’re all on a group text chain — one that TJ jokes would be very incriminating if ever released — along with other young singer-songwriters.
“We used to all hang out before we had s--- going on, so it’s the only way we can keep in touch,” TJ said.
At the moment, country music tastemakers are paying special attention to the wave of alternative artists making their mark. The wave crested when Kentucky bluegrass musician Chris Stapleton swept the Country Music Association Awards in November, sparking much conversation about what it meant for an industry that has seen success in recent years steeped in a pop- and rock-heavy sound.
“I’m so excited for the state of country music at the moment — I think it’s evolving into another level,” said Natalie Osborne, John and TJ’s younger sister, who works in Nashville in music publishing. “I think [Brothers Osborne] is putting out the record at a perfect time when country music is becoming really honest again.” She cited Stapleton and Eric Church as other examples: “It’s not the most ‘easy’ listening music, but when you hear it, you feel something.”
John and TJ said they have received the most response with songs that sound different than anything else on the radio, such as the swampy “Dirt Rich.” In that sense, they acknowledge that thanks to the current mood in Nashville, some extra time wasn’t the worst thing.
“In hindsight, it was actually better,” TJ said. “I mean, we’re releasing this record probably a good year and a half, two years later than we wanted to. But in the meantime, it allowed us to write some more material, find out who we were a little bit more and kind of dial that in. Instead of just doing music, we really wanted to do our music.”