When TJ Osborne announced to the world that he was gay in February 2021, it was both the beginning and the end of a journey. Coming out was a decision years in the making, a historic moment for country music that allowed him to finally go public with a part of himself he’d always felt obligated to keep hidden. It also opened the door to creating Brothers Osborne, the duo’s most honest and heartfelt album to date.
“I would even go as far as to filter what I would say in interviews or how I would act onstage, or maybe I wouldn’t do a certain gesture for fear that it might be perceived a certain way,” TJ says over the phone from Nashville, reflecting on his past life as a closeted country singer. “Now I’m in a place where I can do that, it’s really made me fall back in love with music again. There was a minute there where I was kind of maybe going through the motions.”
Calling Brothers Osborne, out now, a new chapter for siblings TJ and John Osborne would be an understatement. It’s a new lease on life. Coupled with working with a new producer, Mike Elizondo, the album is an 11-song celebration, one that savors positivity and pushes headlong into fresh musical territory, most notable on the disco-influenced dance number “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That,” which features TJ singing through a vocoder.
It’s no coincidence that this, their fourth LP, is self-titled. While TJ was opening up about his sexual orientation, John was baring his soul about mental health issues that plagued their last album, 2020’s Skeletons, and threatened his very wellbeing.
“A lot of things coming to light allowed us to feel more open about who we are creatively. We took that feeling into the studio with us, and it gave us a newfound sense of freedom,” John says. “It was wasn’t necessarily that we weren’t who we were before, but we weren’t fully who we were. And now we could just feel like we have no limitations.”
John’s guitar playing has always kept the band’s music rooted firmly in rock & roll, but Brothers Osborne expands the palette, with piano, synths, and drum machines. The siblings were willing to follow Elizondo down any creative alley, no matter how foreign. “There was never a moment where he suggested something and we shied away, because that’s not the point. The point is, the studio is the place to try everything,” John says. “We felt like we could almost get away with murder on this record.”
That sense of creative self-confidence came directly from the manner in which the Osbornes had put their personal lives out there so fully in recent years. For TJ, no matter how much he’d been honest in his music or public life beforehand, there was always a degree to which he’d held himself back. “One of the things that’s weird for people who are closeted is if you achieve things, they don’t feel like achievements because you feel like the real you hasn’t been realized,” he says, referencing the book The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs. “It’s like you’re driving someone else’s car.”
He points to “We Ain’t Good at Breakin’ Up,” a touching collaboration with Miranda Lambert, as the type of song he wouldn’t have written previously. “People would always ask if me and Abi were still together,” he says, referring to his partner Abi Ventura, “and I would say, ‘Yeah, we’re not good at breaking up.’ So without [coming out], some of those song certainly wouldn’t have been created.”
Looking back on Skeletons, the strain floats just below the surface. Be it on the title track or even the self-affirming messaging of “I’m Not for Everyone,” there’s a lingering sense of estrangement, a lack of acceptance that the siblings seem to wrestle with. Behind the scenes, John was in a particularly dark place at that time.
“I was at my lowest,” the elder Osborne says of the months leading up to Skeletons‘ recording in the fall of 2019. A bad bout of tinnitus had plunged him into the grip of anxiety and a deep depression. He did a stint in a mental health center and spent Christmas in the hospital. “I was at a fork in the road: It was either end my life or go seek help,” he says. “And I sought help.”
John had dealt with his mental health issues for years, and gone on and off medications along the way. “I felt like I was always walking along a cliff edge,” he admits. But as he began to talk more freely with those around him about what he was going through, he found it helped him make breakthroughs. “I just decided then and there, I’m going wide open,” he says. In April 2021, two months after TJ’s news, John revealed his struggles.
“After coming out of that, it gave me a new sense of feeling like I could accomplish anything,” John says. “I went through the darkest point in my life, I made it through, and on the other side I feel nearly invincible now. I feel amazing.”
He acknowledges that, as a bearded guitarist from rural Maryland, he’s hardly the “poster boy” for mental health — but for that very reason he feels the need to speak up. “The funny thing is that artists are the last people that should be in the music industry,” he says, unfurling a mighty laugh. “The only reason I’m any good at guitar was because I was a shy kid and I had a lot of social anxiety. So I locked myself in my bedroom and just played guitar all the time.”
In March of this year, John and his wife, singer Lucie Silvas, became parents for the first time, welcoming twin boys into the world. Fatherhood has helped John to cap another difficult battle he’d dealt with in private: the inability of he and his wife to conceive. He admits that those struggles, including years of IVF treatments, contributed significantly to his flagging mental health.
“The feeling of disappointment that you have when it doesn’t work out is not only hard for you but it’s compounded by the struggles I would see my wife, Lucie, go through. Because I knew she wanted to be a parent so much, as I did,” he says. “For someone to know that their body is responsible for the lack thereof, it’s 10 times harder. It would just break my heart to see her go through that time and time again.”
The rawness of that pain, and the palpable sense of relief in coming out the other side, helps give songs like album opener “Who Says You Can’t Have Everything” or single “Nobody’s Nobody” their sense of authenticity. Either one could easily fall into sentimentality. “It’s quite a wholesome sentiment, and I almost wasn’t sure about it at first, because we usually aren’t really wholesome,” TJ says of the opening track. “But then I rewrote it from a place of emotion and honesty, and every time I would come around and be like, ‘I feel this, and it’s true for us.’”
Still, in era where artists are still told to “shut up and sing,” TJ insists that wading into hot-button issues has never been his or the band’s intention. From gun control to gay rights, they’ve always spoken their truths, yes, but that’s not necessarily the same as getting political.”I don’t see it as [making] a political statement. I see it as just simple right and wrong, the humanitarian aspect,” he says. “We grew up in a very small town, and we were raised that when we see something wrong, we speak up.”
In the current political environment — especially in country music — avoiding conflict is almost impossible, no matter the outpouring of support that both Osbornes have experienced over the past two and a half years.
“I have felt a different shift in energy toward me being gay that I did not feel before,” TJ says. “And I just hope that is a temporary thing. I hope that they can find something else to fight about, and just leave us alone. Mostly, I hope it doesn’t discourage other people who are in the position that was I in. Because that would be the biggest travesty of it all.
“For anyone to feel stuck, or that they can’t be themselves, it’s a really sad place to be.”