The Brothers Osborne Prove That Mainstream Country Doesn’t Have to Suck

If there is one thing to love about country music, it is its effortless ability to be low-brow. Trailer parks, cheap beer and (of course) trucks all combine to create a deeply lovable genre that has, in years past, been the champion of the working man. The biggest critics of country are furious about the genre’s departure from these charmingly tacky tropes, but they’ll be deeply relieved to hear Pawn Shop, the Brothers Osborne’s first full-length release.

The album’s title track, co-written by Dallas’ own Maren Morris, is an ode to everyone’s favorite place to hock old jewelry and buy cheap guitars. “Pawn Shop” is an endlessly fun song that doesn’t find its success in pretense. It’s clear that the songwriter has an intimate knowledge of the pawn shop and weaves its associated stereotypes into what is ultimately more than just a fun track poking fun at poor folks. It is, in fact, a commentary on the way that hundreds of thousands of Americans scrape by, living paycheck to paycheck.

That’s not the kind of lyrical depth you generally associate with a track with such an, ahem, trashy title, but therein lies the Brothers Osborne’s real success. The tunes are good old-fashioned country (perhaps more alt-country, but that’s a nit-picky distinction) with incredible appeal for the mainstream. The Maryland natives follow in Chris Stapleton’s boot steps to bring eminently listenable tunes to a country radio landscape that has been in desperate need of real change.

Walking that fine line between commercial viability and credibility has clearly been a struggle for many country artists, some of whom have eschewed the label altogether in order to keep their cred intact. The way that the Brothers Osborne are able to two-step across that line is as bizarre as it is remarkable. These are lyrically and sonically sound songs that finally present some kind of chance for radio success.

For country fans, that combination sure has been rare of late. Too many quality artists toil away in regional scenes (like our own killer Texas country universe) or simply drop out of the business altogether because they can’t find success. The Brothers Osborne could have met that same fate, especially considering the state of country as it is right now, but clearly they’ve gotten lucky. In turn, so have country fans.

The songwriting on the entirety of Pawn Shop is deeply evocative and paints a grimy, if nostalgic, picture of middle America. “It Ain’t My Fault” is a particularly good example, a barn burner that is so familiar to anyone who’s been part of the “white trash” family in town, or even just found himself in deep shit after a night of wild partying, that you can just about feel it in your bones.
Even if you don’t have country bonafides or you’re not from the rural South, the appeal of Pawn Shop is pretty universal. “Stay a Little Longer” is an incredibly radio-friendly single that could’ve come from Tim McGraw or Luke Bryan or anyone else, and dramatically boosts the quality of their discography. The truly interesting thing about the Brothers Osborne is how comfortably they settle into the rest of the (largely) crap options on country radio. It feels almost deliberate, like the band sat down and scientifically balanced the factors that make a quality country record radio-friendly.

Lee Ann Womack lends her always remarkable vocals to “Loving Me Back,” a smoldering love song with gorgeous harmonies. It is also an impressive showcase of frontman T.J. Osborne’s rich baritone, with hints of Trace Adkins and Josh Turner and someone else who's a little hard to put your finger on. With his brother John’s occasional rock riffs and Womack’s all-star cameo, T.J.’s vocals produce a truly impressive track, the kind you want to hear a capella in a tiny venue, just to tell people about that time you heard it.

Then there’s “American Crazy,” a song that tackles the divided states of America. The song connects race, class, religion and politics in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky or overly preachy. If anything, it’s deeply refreshing to hear someone (anyone!) tackle social consciousness in country music, especially a pair of white dudes. After the “Accidental Racist” fiasco of a few years ago, it’s nice to hear that country hasn’t entirely lost its conscience.

Even songs that are less remarkable are still about 10 times better than anything you’ll hear on the radio. “Rum” isn’t the best track on the album, but you’ll probably see it sitting at the top of the charts in the not-too-distant future, especially as we head into umbrella drink season. “21 Summer,” with its beachy, folky feel, is light and ethereal, but sounds like it would be more at home on a Ryan Adams album than a record called Pawn Shop. Plus it mentions “cutoff jeans,” a country music trope that is well past its expiration date.

Ultimately, Pawn Shop is an incredible success, one that will hopefully prove that country music that appeals to the mainstream doesn’t have to be abject garbage. It also proves that Chris Stapleton wasn’t just a fluke, that perhaps this aesthetic — inarguably the best that country music has to offer — has the potential for enduring success. 

The Brothers Osborne perform with Jon Pardi at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 23, at House of Blues, 2200 N. Lamar St.,, $22.50
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Amy McCarthy