THERE WAS A FRESH AIR OF FEARLESSNESS AND DERRING-DO THROUGHOUT BROTHERS OSBORNE’S FIRST RECORDS — THE PAIR CAME ON LIKE YOUNG BUCKS EAGER TO SHOW OFF THEIR STUFF. THAT UNBRIDLED SPIRIT IS AT A FEVER PITCH THROUGHOUT SKELETONS
BROTHERS OSBORNE SINGER-GUITARIST TJ Osborne lets out a throaty, good-natured laugh when asked if he and his brother, John, felt more pressure cutting their third and latest album, Skeletons, than on their first two studio outings. “I assume that’s a rhetorical question,” TJ says before running down a list of hardships the country-rock duo endured. “First, John came down with tinnitus. That came out of nowhere right before we started recording, so we had to reschedule things a bit. He’s got it to a manageable place now, but that set us back. Then I got salmonella poisoning, I guess from eating under-cooked chicken. It took me a month to shake that off, although I was still recording vocals with cold sweats.”
Next, TJ recounts the tornado that tore through Nashville last March, an epic twister that ranks as the sixth-costliest tornado in U.S. history. “That was tragic for a lot of people in town, and many are still recovering,” he says. “As for how it affected us, we lost power in our studio for a week, so we ended up having to track the rest of the record elsewhere. And then COVID hit. We had to finish up the last bits while in quarantine.” He heaves a sigh and says, “You could say there was some pressure.” Beyond health issues and acts of God, there was another kind of strain the brothers experienced, although this one was self-inflicted. Following up their knockout 2016 debut, Pawn Shop (which spawned smash singles like “Stay a Little Longer” and “It Ain’t My Fault”), the two weathered the dreaded “sophomore slump” confidently with 2018’s Port Saint Joe, a vibey, adventurous and hook-filled set that featured the radio hits “Shoot Me Straight” and “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You).” In the increasingly pop-oriented world of country music, Brothers Osborne’s forward-thinking, crafty blend of Southern rock, outlaw country, arena anthems, soul grooves and blues swagger — highlighted by TJ’s heartfelt baritone vocals and John’s intricate, explosive guitar licks — made its mark. “We succeeded with the first two albums, and in a way that became a good kind of problem,” John says. “When people talk about your sophomore record, it’s as if their expectations aren’t so high. It’s almost like they’ll give you that one. So coming into the third album, you have to show everybody that you’re here to stay and you’re ready to take it to the next level. It was a challenge we weren’t going to turn away from.”
There was a fresh air of fearlessness and derring-do throughout Brothers Osborne’s first records — the pair came on like young bucks eager to show off their stuff. That unbridled spirit is at a fever pitch throughout Skeletons. The boys blaze like commandos through barn burners such as “Back on the Bottle” and “Dead Man’s Curve” (the latter of which features a seismic chicken pickin’ solo by John), and they fold liberal helpings of funk flavor into the greasy groover “All Night.” On their first true-blue instrumental, “Muskrat Greene,” they take listeners on a blitzing bluegrass ride, but with the strutting shuffle “Hatin’ Somebody,” a heartfelt call for racial unity, they re-imagine themselves as a swampy jam band for the modern age. Amps rage and seethe, hell is raised, and there’s damn near too many walloping guitar solos to keep track of. It’s a thrilling album because it was made to be thrilling. Despite all the outside turbulence (or perhaps to spite it), the Osbornes are having the time of their lives making music, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
One thing that’s remained constant in the Brothers Osborne’s world is producer Jay Joyce, who returns for his third go-round with the outfit, but for the first time the duo have eschewed using guest musicians and opted to record Skeletons with their touring band: guitarist Jason Graumlich, bassist Pete Sternberg, drummer Adam Box and keyboardist Billy Justineau.
“We had one main objective for this album, and that was to make sure each and every song could be plucked from it and put right into our live show,” John says. “If you come to one of our concerts, you’re not going to get some laid-back deal; you’re in for a full-on rock show. We’re very proud of our last album, Port Saint Joe, but it had a bit of a chilled-out vibe. This time, we went for more of a heavier hand. You hear these songs the way they’re going to be played on stage.”
Which, of course, in the age of COVID, raises the inevitable question: When might that be?
“That is the unknowable right now,” TJ says. “Right now, we still have 2021 dates in the U.K. still on the books, but we’ll have to see if they stick. It’s been hard being off the road. We’ve always toured when we released a record; we’d slowly work new songs into the set. I guess one good thing that can come out of this is, when we finally do play, our fans will have lived with Skeletons and they’ll know the whole album before we hit that first note. We’re excited to see how the new stuff is received.”
One of the best things about your playing, John, is how you always surprise people. It’s impossible to predict what you’re going to do in any given song.
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