While not scathing commentary, the fact that it touches on politics is unusual; that’s something most Nashville singers desperately try to avoid. But John and TJ Osborne, the affable sibling duo raised near the Chesapeake Bay in Deale, Md., don’t mind addressing controversial topics — they’re the rare breakout country act whose career seems to pick up steam when they take risks.
On Friday, they release their sophomore album, “Port Saint Joe.” It lands after much critical acclaim and two Grammy nominations for their 2016 certified gold debut record, “Pawn Shop,” which spawned four hits. On Sunday, “It Ain’t My Fault” won music video of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the same prize it picked up at the Country Music Association Awards in the fall.
“We tried to ruin our career, and we won two awards,” joked John, 35. Sure, they occasionally receive threats of being “Dixie Chicked,” or blacklisted from the industry, when they bluntly discuss politics. However, they also see positive feedback. “The fact that we can put out a political satire video and gain fans from it, that shows people want to see [someone] tackle these subjects.”
It helps that the brothers were underdogs for so long that it feels as if they have nothing to lose, as it took years of songwriting and touring before they broke through in Nashville with a sound that strays from the pop-leaning instincts of country radio. That attitude fueled the thinking for choosing “Shoot Me Straight,” featuring their signature jolt of high energy Southern rock, as the first single off their new record. At more than six minutes long, “everything about it said it shouldn’t be the single,” said TJ, 33.
“We could have put out a song we thought was a bit safer — or keep the message of, We’re going to keep doing our thing, despite the odds and the formula and what we’re ‘supposed’ to do,” John said. “We wanted the statement off our first single to be, ‘This is our band. We are different.’ ”
While that mind-set wins them fans, it can still be risky in Nashville. Just because you break through as rising stars doesn’t mean everything afterward is smooth, especially when you refuse to compromise your artistic vision.
“Things are starting to become easier for us, but we’re still working as hard as we did when we put our first single out,” TJ said, adding they still have times “struggling at radio or fighting to get on award shows.”
The latter might surprise fans who frequently see the brothers on televised ceremonies. Yet this past Sunday, they didn’t perform at the ACM Awards, even though they were in attendance and won for video and vocal duo of the year.
When asked about their absence from the stage, which raised questions from viewers on social media, TJ called it “a little frustrating how it all played out.” Originally, John said, they had a “lot of things lined up, a cool slot” but then — for reasons unknown to them — they kept getting “squeezed out” until they were offered a very short performance slot. By then, they felt it didn’t make sense to play at all. (The ACM Awards did not respond to a request for comment.)
In addition, both of the awards they won were in categories not featured on the broadcast and were only presented on the nontelevised red carpet. When that happened, “it was hard not to feel shunned a little,” TJ said. Incidentally, they tied with Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert for the most awards of the night.
“For them to pull the televised award just days before the airing of the show was another kind of punch in the gut,” John said. “But at the end of the day, we have two awards from that show, and they were given to us by our peers. That is something we’re forever grateful for.”
They are indeed beloved by quite a few in the industry, as many have found them a refreshing antidote to the “bro country” phase that took over Nashville for several years. “Port Saint Joe,” named after the beachfront area in Florida where they recorded the album with producer Jay Joyce, sounds like a natural complement to “Pawn Shop.” While the first record’s themes established they would never forget their blue-collar roots growing up in a small fishing town in Maryland, the second establishes a band confident in its tone.
Collaborating with some of Nashville’s top songwriters, and leaning into TJ’s deep baritone and John’s killer guitar skills, they go from hard-charging rock (“Slow Your Roll,” “Drank Like Hank”) to the laid-back (“Weed, Whiskey & Willie,” “A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright”).
TJ said he’s proud the record is “more mature” and shows how they’ve evolved since their first album; this is evident, particularly on tracks like the pensive “I Don’t Remember (Me Before You)” and “Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive).” One standout is “While You Still Can,” a quiet yet urgent song about appreciating time with loved ones.
The duo performed it on Bobby Bones’s syndicated morning radio show in October after the Route 91 Harvest festival, where 58 concertgoers were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The brothers had performed at the festival two days before the massacre. When playing the song on the radio show (with lyrics including “Cause everything you thought would last forever, never lasts forever like you planned”), John started crying and couldn’t get through it.
Moments like that set Brothers Osborne apart, as they were also one of the few country acts to talk about gun control after the tragedy.
“We were raised that way, to be respectful and kind to people first and foremost, but to stand up for what we believe in and be vocal,” John said. After all, they would rather stay true to their beliefs than worry about potential career impact. “At the end of the day … when I look in the mirror, I know I spoke up and said something.”
Brothers Osborne appear May 18 at Merriweather Post Pavilion with Dierks Bentley.