Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone”

Brothers Osborne has officially pushed their chips to the center of the table. Your move, country music.

While the duo has been a part of the genre for nearly a decade now, TJ and John Osborne have been critical darlings more than commercial powerhouses (they’ve won nine ACM/CMA awards, but their 2015 single “Stay A Little Longer” is their only Top Ten track to date, leading a certain critic to call them out as a “one-hit wonder” in 2018). However, the duo unexpectedly became a test of country music’s supposed inclusivity when TJ Osborne came out as gay back in February, becoming “the only openly gay artist signed to a major country label.” Once again, the genre failed the test spectacularly, as “All Night” fell off the charts just two months later with only a #25 peak to show for it. While you could make the case that the song wasn’t good to begin with and that it had already stalled out by the time the announcement was made, with the sort of historical baggage that country music carries around, you can’t discount prejudice and discrimination as factors in the song’s demise either.

In response, the duo has decided to force the issue by releasing “I’m Not For Everyone” as the second single from their Skeletons album. It’s a simple declaration that being different is okay, and much like Chapel Hart’s “I Will Follow,” it’s also “a gentle “f**k you” to anyone who thinks this group shouldn’t be part of country music.” It’s a noticeable step up from the group’s previous work, and it forces the genre to face their reputation and finally take a stand.

The core of the song’s production remains the guitar-and-drum setup that dominates the genre, but it brings in enough different elements and sets a strong-enough tone to catch the listener’s ear and draw them into the song. John Osborne’s electric guitar opens the track and calls back to the rollicking axes of the 90s (even if calling the riffs here ‘rollicking’ is a stretch), and the drum set has a rougher feel to its sound than many of its radio contemporaries. While there’s a lot more pieces to this arrangement, I would say the biggest disappointment of the sound is that the producer doesn’t do a whole lot with them: Only the accordion gets enough prominent screen time to make its mark on the mix, adding a bit of flavor to the sound and giving it the song a bit more presence. The keyboard and organ stay in the background and are mostly used to support the guitar riffs, and the fiddle gets lost in the accordion’s shadow and is barely noticeable as a result. The good news is that the instrument tones are relentlessly bright and optimistic, giving the song a relaxed and positive feel, and both the tempo and guitar work provide the energy necessary to keep pushing the song forward. It gives you the sense that despite the narrator’s claim that they aren’t for everyone, they would be for you, an important victory given the song’s context. While I wish the production had done more, it does enough to support the subject matter, taking the edge off of the song’s meta commentary and helping to make the track something everyone can relate to and enjoy.

Lead singer TJ Osborne sounds a little different this time around, for a couple of reasons:

  • Generally, TJ tends to dive into the low end of his vocal range to make his sound a bit more distinct and edgy, but this time he stays exclusively in his higher range, matching the brighter feel of the production. Truthfully (and a bit surprisingly), TJ sounds completely comfortable at this range, losing none of his typical tone or power while reflecting the sunnier feel of the song.
  • For the first time that I can remember, TJ isn’t the exclusive lead singer for a BO single, as John Osborne takes the reins for the entire second verse. As you might imagine, the brothers sound fairly similar, but John’s voice isn’t quite as rough and he can’t quite match TJ’s vocal presence or charisma. Still, he acquits himself capably here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more from him on future releases (I can’t speak to album cuts; he may already sing on a few).

The overall vibe of the vocals here is comfortable: Both singers come across as relaxed and even cheerful, and they have no problem convincing the audience that their narrator is totally okay with being different, even if others don’t feel the same way. There’s no malice or anger present in their deliveries, and the harmony work is solid (if also a bit unremarkable). Given the context, selling this song and making it believable is the biggest key to it finding success, and both Osbornes have no issue in this regard here.

So let’s talk about this context, shall we? By themselves, the lyrics don’t really say a whole lot here: The narrator acknowledges that people are different, declares that they themselves are an acquired taste, and notes that “I’m good for some, but I’m not for everyone.” The “differences” are left vague enough for the song to apply to anyone who feels a bit out of step with the mainstream, and while the verses feel more than a little disconnected (they go from discussing peoples’ clapping and drinking habits to…taking about what kind of tea or bar the narrator would be?), they further the point that the speaker doesn’t subscribe to orthodox thinking (they’re tea that isn’t sweet, a church that celebrates the sinner, etc.). It’s a bit generic on the surface, but its heart is in the right place, as it tries to maximize its target audience and tell them that being different is okay.

Put this song alongside TJ Osborne coming out of the closet, however, and it takes on a whole new meaning, becoming a call for understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. When the narrator says “Some people are just like me, I hope y’all forgive ’em,” they’re asking the genre and its audience (which are not typically known for their inclusivity) for tolerance of Osborne and others like him. “I’m a bad joke at the wrong time” suddenly flips from a reference to the narrator’s poor sense of humor to a calling out of the slurs and derogatory terms (which are often couched in terms of bad-faith humor) that members of this community have had to endure. The description of a bar that’s always open and welcoming becomes a vision of the world the narrator wishes to see, where people can gather without pretense or prejudice and revel in their common humanity. While the message isn’t as forceful as “I Will Follow,” there’s an implicit declaration in saying “I’m not for everyone” that the Osbornes aren’t going to change who they are and what they do, even though they realize that they won’t please everyone. There’s an understated power to this song when considered within a broader context, and it projects both a determination to be true to oneself and a message that it’s okay for you to be who you are.

While I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan of Brothers Osborne and their music, I’m intrigued (and even a little excited) to see how far they can go with “I’m Not For Everyone.” Unlike Mickey Guyton or Chapel Hart, TJ and John Osborne have an established presence on the airwaves (even if their track record is a little weak), and with a strong song like this one, they’re forcing country music to make a choice: Is the genre just paying lip service to being inclusive and welcoming (a perception reinforced by the fact that Morgan Wallen is already starting to regain airplay traction), or is it going to take a stand and put their money (and their spins) where their mouth is? Time will tell, but either way, with the song’s expressive production, the calm vocal presence of both TJ and John, and a message of acceptance and understanding, this is a track that deserves to be heard.

Rating: 8/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “All Night”

Good grief, hasn’t country music filled its party song quota by now?

Boyfriend country better start checking its rearview mirror, because the genre’s next big trend has arrived. For lack of a better term, I’m calling it the “Cobronavirus” movement: In the face of the unspeakable tragedy that is the COVID-19 pandemic, country music has turned back to the nihilistic party-for-party’s-sake songs that defined the original Bro-Country trend in the 2010s. We’ve seen songs like Luke Bryan’ s”One Margarita,” Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer,” Lady Antebellum’s “Champagne Night,” and even Florida Georgia Line’s “I Love My Country” moving up the charts over the last few months, and now Brothers Osborne is hopping aboard the train with the duo’s latest single “All Night.” While it does a decent job distinguishing itself sonically from its brethren, it’s just a fresh coat of paint on a rotting, structurally-unsound foundation, and isn’t any more interesting or worthwhile than its predecessors.

Let’s start with the good stuff first: The better songs in this vein distinguish themselves through the atmosphere they establish with their production (think Bryan’s beach vibe in “One Margarita”), and “All Night” falls into the same category. The key features are John Osborne’s deep, growling electric guitar and the in-your-face mix of real and synthetic percussion, which combine to drive the song forward and give it a seriously sharp edge. (Outside of a Wurlitzer piano that pops up starting on the second verse, these are pretty much the only instruments you here.) The mix generates a ton of raw, visceral energy, while also adding a sense of danger to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill party track. This is some surprisingly solid sound work, and it’s a shame that it winds up feeling like empty sonic calories when your discover just how poor the writing is.

Adding this extra edge to a song places an additional burden on the vocalist to match its mood, but thankfully TJ Osborne is one of the few artists who have the ability and credibility to pull it off. The brothers have trotted out this “outlaw-lite” sound and attitude several times over the last few years (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “Shoot Me Straight,” teaming with Dierks Bentley on “Burning Man”) and seem much more comfortable and believable in this lane than on something like “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You).” Osborne’s impressive lower range and Trace Adkins-esque growl adds a hint of sexuality to the mix and makes you think things will actually get crazy during this rager (perhaps not always in a good way either…). This extra swagger meshes well with the production and helps the general message resonate with the audience, even if he doesn’t have much of value to say when you dive into the details.

Unfortunately, the lyrics here are terrible even by Cobronavirus standards: The narrator goes through a bunch of repetitive “I got the X, if you got the Y” lines that are nowhere near as clever as the writers think, and said X/Y pairings range from the predictable (“moon” and “shine,” “fuse and “light,”) to the nonsensical (“zig” and “zag”? Really?). It may not be an objectifying or objectionable as your typical Bro-Country track, but that “dancin’ out the demin in them, oh my, Levis” is still pretty cringey, and the “rebel” and “yell” line runs too close to dog-whistling for my tastes. Worst of all, the whole “what good is a life, if you don’t get to livin'” message is exceptionally tone-deaf in the middle of a pandemic where the “livin'” the narrator implies could get you and the people close to you killed. Where a song like Tim McGraw’s “I Called Mama” feel perfectly suited for our times, this track feels perfectly ill-suited for them, and is not a song I’m keen on revisiting after this review.

Simply put, “All Night” falls under the Carlton Anderson rule for me: Sure, the production is decent and TJ Osborne is a believable narrator, but I cannot overlook writing that is this lazy, this awkward, and this annoying. It’s a step down even from the forgettable “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You),” and gets Brothers Osborne no closer to shedding that “one-hit wonder” label I slapped them with in 2018. My biggest fear is that this track is the canary in the coal mine, and that country music’s new Cobronavirus movement, much like the coronavirus pandemic itself, is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)”

Wow, I don’t remember Brothers Osborne being this boring.

The pair asked people to “Shoot Me Straight” on their last single, so here goes: As highly as people speak of TJ and John, it’s time to bestow the dreaded “one-hit wonder” label upon them. Ever since their breakout hit “Stay A Little Longer” in 2015, country radio has consistently shot them down, with the #28 airplay peak of “Straight” being their worst showing since their debut single in 2013. Now, the brothers are waving the white flag, dropping their hard-driving, outlaw-esque style for a more contemporary sound for their latest release “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You).” It’s the closest they’ve come to re-creating their 2015 hit since  its release. but they removed everything that was interesting about their music in the process, and we’re left with a plodding, lifeless song that doubles as a substitute for Ambien.

The production here is way more restrained than you’d expect from a Brothers Osborne, opening with a quiet acoustic guitar, some affected mandolin stabs, and a decidedly not-hard-driving drum set. The choruses turn up the drums and add an electric guitar borrowed from Van Zant for some added volume, but unfortunately the noise is the only thing you get (and even that isn’t much). This track has absolutely zero energy to it, and the mix makes the track sound more like a lullaby than a heartfelt romantic ballad. With its melancholy instrument tones and frequent minor chords, you won’t even realize this is a love song unless you’re listening carefully, which you won’t be doing thanks to the song’s sleepy vibe. (Even the guitar solo work feels halfhearted and lethargic, suggesting that John Osborne was actively trying to dial back his axe to soften its blow.) In short, this mix is neither memorable nor interesting, and it fails to get its intended message out to its audience.

Similarly, in taking the edge off of his delivery TJ Osborne turns himself into a dull, monotonous vocalist, and he lulls the listener to sleep long before they have a chance to care about what he has to say. The narrator questions whether or not they were alive before meeting their significant other, but Osborne’s flat, apathetic performance makes me question if they were alive after they met either. I hesitate to call the performance “mailed-in,” but in trying to match the tone of the production and make the track feel more romantic, Osborne plays to his weaknesses rather than his strengths, and despite his distinct tone and decent technical skills, he just doesn’t feel earnest or believable in this role. In truth, the song is a poor fit for TJ, and probably should have been left as an album cut rather than a single.

In a vacuum, the lyrics here aren’t terrible: The narrator is reflecting on the hard, shallow “life” they lived before they entered their current relationship, and can’t even recall how they existed before now. The problem is that the song focuses on philosophical and existential questions that are bland and high-level by design (the narrator wasn’t really living his life, after all), and unlike many tracks in this lane, its lacks any details about the narrator’s past that might catch the listener’s ear and draw them in. (For example, the narrator “heard he was a wild one,” but outside of the “last-call stranger” line, the listener doesn’t hear anything to that effect.) In other words, the song is intentionally boring, and thus needs a lot of help from the singer and the sound to make the story interesting and draw in listeners. When the artist and producer fail to hold up their end of the bargain, however, you’re left with a zombie of a track that has as much life as the pre-relationship narrator does.

“I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)” is a cautionary tale of what mainstream country music can do to promising performers. Before this, Brothers Osborne seemed to have find their niche in the genre as a rough-edged outsider in the mold of Eric Church or Dierks Bentley, and earned some critical acclaim in the process. Acclaim isn’t always profitable, however, and after several underwhelming singles the brothers have shifted to a forgettable, uninteresting style in an attempt to blend in with the rest of the radio and bump up their airplay numbers. The trick may very well succeed, but for my money what’s lost will outweigh what’s gained.

Rating: 5/10. Frankly, I doubt I’ll remember this one at all.

Song Review: Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”

Darn it, is my 2018 Top Ten list out of date already?

Black was probably the most ambivalent I’d ever felt about a Dierks Bentley album. It was fine, sure, but the album’s slick, modernized style felt like an awkward fit for Bentley’s rough-edged persona. In contrast, Bentley’s latest album The Mountain puts him in a much more comfortable position, letting him return to the hard-charging, Outlaw-esque style that made him one of country music’s biggest stars while also allowing him to ruminate on his experience and contemplate his career mortality. While “Woman, Amen” was a feel-good, well-executed track that moved Bentley closer to his comfort zone, his latest single “Burning Man” brings him all the way back, harnessing his forceful, unapologetic approach and old-school street cred to put a distinctly Dierks twist on the classic “getting old” track.

The driving bass drum is about the last instrument I expected to experience a resurgence in 2018, but it’s been used to great effect in several songs recently (“Run Wild Horses,” “All Day Long,” “Lose It”), and “Burning Man” does the same thing here, pairing it with a nimble-but-dark acoustic guitar to give the track a shot of serious energy from the start. The drums slowly become more numerous and complex as the song progresses, and an electric guitar adds some empathic stabs during the chorus (not to mention a decent solo courtesy of John Osborne), but for the most part the track leans on the simple, unrelenting guitar/drum combination for its energy and momentum. There’s an intensity to this mix that not even “Run Wild Horses” can match, but it meshes with the lyrics to give the song a “raging against the dying of the light” feel that suits Bentley and the material perfectly. It’s one thing to tell your listeners that you can still rock as hard as you used to, but only the best can put together a mix like this and prove it.

Vocally, “Burning Man” requires a special sort of singer to pull off convincing, and Bentley is one of the select few who fit the bill. It’s nothing terribly strenuous in terms of its range or flow (though Bentley sounds totally comfortable here), but it requires a certain amount of cachet and charisma to come across as believable in the narrator’s role. (Forget current singers like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt; I’m not even sure Alan Jackson could have made this feel earnest.) Thankfully, not only is Bentley the perfect fit as a (sort of) reformed rapscallion who can still get loud from time to time, but TJ Osborne’s weathered voice and recent singles (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “Shoot Me Straight”) gives him enough credibility in this lane to also feel genuine (even if he isn’t really old enough to reflect on a life of hard living and lessons learned). Bentley and TJ Osborne have a surprisingly amount of vocal chemistry, and while John Osborne doesn’t contribute any noticeable vocals, unlike the Brian Kelleys of the world, he adds least adds to the song through his solid guitar work. It’s not a Willie-and-Waylon sort of pairing (yet), but it’s as close an approximation as we’ll get in the genre today.

The lyrics here focus on the duality of a old, wise narrator (or two) who hasn’t fully accepted his age and wisdom yet, and instead declares that while he’s slowed down from his wild and woolly days, he certainly hasn’t stopped (hence the hook “a little bit holy water, but still a little bit burning man”). On one hand, there’s a lot of wit baked into how the narrator describes his current situation, especially in the second verse:

I always loved the highway
I just don’t run it as fast
I still go wherever the wind blows me
But I always find my way back
I still don’t get it right sometimes
I just don’t get it as wrong
I still go a little bit crazy sometimes
Yeah, but now I don’t stay near as long

On the other hand, these sorts of statements are pretty much the whole song, with only the bridge expanding on the concept and looking at the narrator’s future plans. (Bentley elaborates on these plans in later tracks on The Mountain, but I wish he would have done a bit more here to put a bow on this particular single. It’s certainly not bad and I really like what’s here, but it starts to feel a bit formulaic the longer Bentley and Osborne hammer on this point.

Overall, however, I think I like “Burning Man” even better than “Woman, Amen,” and that track was already the sixth-best single I’d hear all year! The topic was tailor-made for an artist like Dierks Bentley, and the production and vocals do a great job making the whole thing believable and enjoyable. I don’t talk about albums much on this blog, but I’d Bentley making a strong case for The Mountain to be my favorite disc of the year.

Rating: 8/10. You’re gonna wanna hear this.

Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “Shoot Me Straight”

There are only so many ways to tell the same story, but telling a story the way Jamey Johnson would is never a bad thing.

If there’s one review I’d like to have back from 2017, it’s my assessment of Brothers Osborne’s single “It Ain’t My Fault.” I took the song a bit too seriously, and interpreted the songwriting as lazy rather than tongue-in-cheek. Still, even my revised opinion of the song wasn’t great, and I was hoping for a bit more flavor from T.J. and John in their next effort. Said effort has just arrived with “Shoot Me Straight,” a demand for directness from a leaving partner, and honestly, it’s got a bit more kick than I expected.

The production still has the Outlaw-esque vibe of “It’s Ain’t My Fault,” but the electric guitars are given precedence over the percussion and bring a lot more funk to the table this time around. There aren’t a lot of other instruments here (some bass, some real drums, an occasional organ, and that’s it), but the guitars have more than enough body and attitude to fill the space. The atmosphere here is bursting with attitude and swagger, and while I wouldn’t call it the optimal fit for the subject matter, it’s a hard-hitting, high-energy mix that grabs the listener’s attention from the start and never lets go. (My one complaint with all this is the outro: As crazy as the guitars get, it’s way too long, and it lacks the fullness and energy of the rest of the song.) Perfect fit or not, I’m totally on board with this sound.

Lead singer T. J. Osborne’s vocal performance is a step up from “It Ain’t My Fault,” pulling off the best Jamey Johnson impression I’ve heard since Johnson himself graced the country charts. His delivery is a lot less stiff than before, featuring a bit more variation in both his tone and volume. The seriousness is still there, but at least this time it feels warranted by the material—after all, breakups are a pretty serious matter! Most of all, he’s got the chops and charisma to match the attitude of the production, and feels completely in character as an exasperated narrator ready to just rip the relationship bandaid off. (For his part, John Osborne does his best Brian Kelley impression vocally, but if that’s him on the guitar solos, he automatically leaps past Kelly, Kristian Bush, and even Kix Brooks as the most useful duo partner in recent memory.) All in all, I guess I’m totally on board with the vocals too.

As for the lyrics…honestly, it’s the same old don’t-sugarcoat-the-truth breakup song you’ve heard a hundred times before (Trace Adkins’s “Don’t Lie,” The Dixie Chicks’s “Let ‘Er Rip” (a Wide Open Spaces album cut) Luke Bryan’s “Someone Else Calling You Baby,”…heck, even Brett Young’s “Like I Loved You” has echoes of this sentiment). To be honest, the narrator falls on the slightly-unlikeable side of the spectrum, as he goes on about all the friends, exes, and alcohol that’ll help him get over the pain, and is so direct that it makes you wonder whether he cares if the relationship ends or continues. The writers try to use drinking analogies to make their song feel unique, but drinking is so ubiquitous in this genre that it doesn’t help a whole lot. I’m not totally on board with the writing, but in the end, as a wise man/culinary dish once said, two out of three ain’t bad.

“Shoot Me Straight,” for all it lyrical flaws, is probably my favorite Brothers Osborne song, and gives me hope that the duo has finally found a role in the genre besides being “the group that isn’t Florida Georgia Line.” The sheer attitude of the production and vocals overwhelm the shortcomings of the writing, and make it a tolerable listen on the whole.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two on the jukebox.

Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “It Ain’t My Fault”

Some musical acts grow on you as you hear more of their material. Brothers Osborne is not one of those acts—in fact, the more I hear from them, the less I like them.

I was pretty ambivalent about the brothers’ breakout hit “Stay A Little Longer,” and never heard their follow-up single “21 Summer” because it stalled before reaching the Top 20 on Billboard’s airplay chart. “It Ain’t My Fault” is actually the fourth single off of the brothers’ debut album Pawn Shop (“Rum,” released in 2014, only made it to #27), and…holy wow, this was a lot worse than I expected it to be.

The production is primarily percussion-driven, with some electric guitars added for flavor. The song starts with a drum set with some strange effects applied to it, and makes a jarring switch to synthetic hand claps (which feel completely out of place) during the chorus. The guitars combine with the upbeat tempo to give the song a slight Outlaw-esque vibe, but the drums are too often left out on their own (save for the vocals), and they start grating on your ears by the end of the first verse. By the third minute, you’re just begging for the song to end.

The lyrics bother me for two reasons. First, they’re lazy as all get out. I mean, just check out these witty lines:

Blame the heart for the hurtin’
Blame the hurtin’ on the heart
Blame the dark on the devil
Blame the devil on the dark
Blame the ex for the drinkin’
Blame the drinkin’ for the ex
Blame the two for one tequilas
for whatever happens next

So…you’re just flipping the blame between two objects three times and calling it good? You couldn’t have put just a little more effort into this song?

Second, the entire song is basically the narrator absolving themselves of any and all blame for what might have happened after a night out at the bar, when they’re obviously culpable for the whole darn thing. The song was supposed to come off as playful and tongue-in-cheek, but lead singer TJ Osborne’s vocal are too stiff and serious-sounding to make the song any fun, and he just sounds like he’s in denial about the whole thing and needs to grow up and take responsibility for his actions.

Overall, “It Ain’t Might Fault” is a frustrating song that should have been better on so many levels. Instead of a fun, clever, rough-edged ode to hard living, the Brothers Osborne turned the song into a dour, lazy, sloppy mess. These bros need to step up their game fast, because the radio won’t put up with junk like this for long.

Rating: 3/10. Avoid this one at all costs.