More than a quarter-century after Uncle Tupelo released the genre-defining No Depression, does the term “alt-country” still mean anything? If Brothers Osborne are to be believed, the current stagnation of Florida Georgia Line-derived mainstream country means it’s about time for the phrase to be resurrected. “I’ve always compared [modern country] to the early ’90s when hair metal was so huge, and you had these bands like Warrant, who were more about showing off and about the picture than they were about the music,” singer T.J. Osborne told Rolling Stone early last year. “It got to a point where it became so huge, it became a bubble, and the only thing that can happen is that bubble is going to explode. Which it did when Nirvana showed up. That’s what is happening now.”
It’s a bold claim for an artist who at the time only had an EP and a couple singles to their name, though Osborne wasn’t predicting himself to be country’s Kurt Cobain — merely tabbing himself and guitarist brother John as part of a wave of artists (also including Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, and Eric Church) representing a sea change in country’s — what did Yeezy call it? — artistry. And that’s good, because the Brothers Osborne’s breakthrough single, “Stay a Little Longer,” definitely isn’t “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” or even “I Got Drunk.” But this top-five Shane McAnally co-write unquestionably stood out on country radio last year, for its sweetly helpless vocals, open-air production, and gently crescendoing sense of urgency. Most of all, though, it was memorable for its excoriating closing guitar solo — three minutes on the full version, climaxing with an Edge-like ecstasy — the best of its kind in recent memory heard on any FM format.
Similarly, Brothers Osborne don’t take a sledgehammer to mainstream country on their full-length debut, Pawn Shop — they just do it better. The lyrical thoughtfulness, the character of the production, and the sheer quality of the playing are all exemplary, setting the bar for the genre in 2016. Take opener “Dirt Rich,” a stomping ode to the modesty of down-home living that borrows some of the chorus melody from Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown,” and could’ve very easily come off like a lesser riff on that 2015 smash. But the rustic imagery is impressively evocative — a screen door “with a hole big enough to let the neighborhood bugs inside,” a mailbox “lookin’ like it’s been drinking, leaning to 11:00″ — and the chorus is unsentimentally persuasive (“If you’re broke, don’t fix it / Learn to live with it”), while John’s slide guitar zips gleefully over the clomping beat. The song is a total blast on its own terms, and there’s another half-dozen like it in the ten tracks that follow.
A lot of the credit for Pawn Shop has to go to Jay Joyce, the secret MVP of 2010s country, who co-produced the excellent last few albums by Eric Church and Little Big Town (as well as the first three Cage the Elephant LPs) and serves as a guiding hand for the Brothers Osborne here. Under Joyce’s stewarding, John’s banjo picking is given a vinyl crackle and his guitar slides a Hattori Hanzo sharpness, while T.J.’s vocals are wisely kept from going too thick with warbling vibrato, allowing them an understated vulnerability badly lacking in Nashville these days. Meanwhile, the productions are full of glistening detail — subtle tambourine shuffles and wah-wah bends and vibraslap hits — and have a playful vigor to them that’s reminiscent of sun-soaked late-’90s smashes by Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth. (The near-funk drum break to the title track only needs some faux-scratching to get its show on, get paid.)
As important as the production is, though, it’s still the songwriting that makes Pawn Shop stand out. Like “Dirt Rich,” “Rum” takes one of country’s most common tropes — alcohol-fueled escapism — and makes it the Brothers’ own with gorgeous harmonies, cute couplets (“Let’s put our hearts together / Two parts love and a pinch of good weather”), and a late-song revelation that the song’s idyllic setting isn’t at the beach, but just a yard with a garden hose and a kiddie pool. Even better is closer “It Ain’t My Fault,” where T.J. points fingers everywhere but at himself (“Blame the bar for the band / Blame the band for the song / Blame the song for the party / That went all night long”) for an outing gone rowdy, each J’accuse creating a separate scene in a tantalizing movie that we never get the total scope of. And yeah, “Stay a Little Longer” is here in its full grandeur, spellbinding in its recounting of romantic self-delusion (“The last time was the last time / Until I’m all alone and I’m picking up the phone”) even before it gets to the solo that should launch a thousand Guitar World subscriptions.
With their outsider mentality, predilection towards smoking a little smoke (“Greener Pastures” ain’t about farm land), and dabblings in both classic and alternative rock, Brothers Osborne are undoubtedly kindred spirits with tourmate Eric Church, another figure obviously concerned with bringing some kind of “realness” back to Nashville. But whether Church or the Osbornes or Kacey Musgraves or whoever else actually manages to overthrow the current status quo in country — if that’s even their intended goal — what’s more important is that they’re simply enriching the genre’s mainstream right now with better songs and fresher sounds. The Jani Lanes can stay, but it’s nice to finally have some artists aspiring to be the Kurt Cobains to balance them out.