Brothers Osborne, Jon Pardi Offer Hope for Pop-Country Haters

The Brothers Osborne, Jon Pardi
House of Blues
January 22, 2015

Although California country singer Jon Pardi was last Friday’s nominal headliner at House of Blues, the attraction for me was instead the Brothers Osborne, Pardi’s Grammy-nominated openers. Last summer, a friend of mine had posted a video of the brothers, lead singer T.J. and lead guitarist John, on a stage at the Bing Lounge singing “Stay a Little Longer.” It was the most interesting new country song I had heard in years, and T.J.’s poker-faced delivery of a song so brimming with longing and passion was so exquisitely perfect — not that cloying pop-country, not too western, and so honest and seductive that I thought I might die, I loved it so much. I played that song about a thousand times.

Since then, “Stay a Little Longer” has gotten a lot of airplay on country radio and the brothers have been nominated for a Best Country Duo/Group Performance Grammy for that very single even before the release earlier this month of their first album, Pawn Shop. Few groups have received such critical acclaim so quickly from a relatively limited collection of songs.

The evening had begun with a 93Q-sponsored meet-and-greet with Pardi, who was genuinely friendly and accessible when talking about how Alan Jackson and George Strait were two of his heroes, and how “Troubadour” was hands-down his favorite country song. Pardi has enjoyed success from his debut album, 2014’s Write You a Song, and garnered a following from hits such as “Missin’ You Crazy” and “Up All Night.” I was impressed with how likable he was when talking to the fans — he is no prima donna, but completely down-to-earth and approachable.

The Osbornes opened, and you could feel the excitement as their band began to play. T.J. and John have contrasting looks — T.J. being clean-cut and John wearing a hat and long beard — but their musicianship could not be more in sync. What sets them apart from other country acts is T.J.’s distinctive voice, similar to those of other male vocalists who are not easily imitated like Vince Gill and Dwight Yoakam. TJ’s voice is confident whether he’s singing a good-time drinking song like “Rum” or a requisite "get out of town and ditch the daily grind" song such as “Let’s Go There.” He never strains or screams or, heaven forbid, speaks, which is killing many country songs even as I type because that’s not music; that’s just talkin’ while music is being played.

Although the brothers are from coastal Maryland, some of their songs have a subtle quasi-zydeco vibe, unpretentious and likable. They have sprezzatura — they make it look easy. The angsty, “I’m a goner” wistfulness in “Stay a Little Longer” did not disappoint. When the brothers sing lyrics like this — “So calm and so cool, yeah I try to be/ Like it don't bother me/ The last time was the last time/ Until I'm all alone/ Then picking up the phone” — it is completely and utterly believable, and not faux guy pain or some kind of irony infused into a formulaic song that is trying hard to be a hit. Instead, these musicians are recalibrating their music away from the pop-country/pop-rap trajectory that at best is adulterating the genre to a point where it borders on comedy, and at worst will erode it to the point that it becomes unrecognizable as country music. Country music desperately needs an intervention, and the Brothers Osborne are part of the solution. I kid you not.

When you hear “Stay a Little Longer,” you know it is not just a hit, it’s a classic, destined to stick around for the long haul. When is the last time you described a contemporary country song that way? For me, not since Jennifer Nettles sang “Stay” with Sugarland, and that was awhile ago.

So the brothers have the voices and lyrics that won’t insult anyone’s intelligence, which is really saying something. The way a certain singer or a group’s songs all sound alike can be annoying, but this concert reminded me how versatile the Brothers really are. From the clever and hard-driving “It Ain’t My Fault” and the great cover of Hank Williams’s “Hey Good Lookin’” to the catchy Pawn Shop title track, nothing sounded exactly like anything else, which kept things lively.

That said, the absolute highlight of the show was “Loving Me Back,” a haunting ballad that was so moving I wanted to cry. They’ve released a version featuring Lee Ann Womack, but I was happy to see it performed with just the two of them. It seems to me to be a man’s song with one voice, and the lyrics blew me away — vulnerable, confessional, world-weary without being cynical or devoid of hope:

Bright lights, and guitars, and dive bars, playing for tips.
And pouring your heart out to strangers, is a strange kind of fix
But filling a dance floor, is something I live for, but I give more than I'll ever get back
But I finally found something worth loving, that's loving me back.

You get me high, you get me stoned, it's a ride I ain't never been on
It's a binge, it's a buzz, it's a drunk I can't find in no glass,
Yeah, I finally found something worth loving, that's loving me back.

It’s how country love songs should be — emotionally honest without being too tidy about it.

Something like “Greener Pastures” (which it took me a minute to figure out was about weed) has a nice insertion of “Mama Tried”; and I like that this duo can keep you on your toes. But nothing surprised me more than when, at the end of the concert, the Osbornes joined Pardi in rocking out to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” I loved it, and I know that if they need to, the Brothers Osborne can sing really any genre, but I hope they stick with country and, well, you know, save it. When they left the stage, I wanted them to stay a lot longer.

They are artists, not just performers, and their songs sound authentic because they are authentic, and they are pushing back against everything that is wrong in country music right now. Things like country thug music, saccharine pseudo-pop country and anything that even vaguely smacks of rap. So thank goodness these two brothers from Maryland are not doing any of this. Because someone has to stop it. We need them to stick around, stay a little longer and keep it up.

As for Pardi, he’s as likable onstage as he is in person, and the crowd had a great time watching him throughout his high-energy performance. His brand of country is a little more mainstream, and his most recent hit, “Head Over Boots,” is pretty representative of his catchy, upbeat style; songs like “Missin’ You Crazy” remind me a lot of Dierks Bentley. His voice is a little tinny for my ears, but what do I know? His listeners like him and want to sing along to him. He’s entertaining, and many of his songs are strikingly similar to the others — which is fine if that’s what you want.

What struck me most about Pardi, though, was his band. A running complaint holds that there is not enough diversity in country music, but of course there are different kinds of diversity, and I loved that one of his guitarists looked a lot like Barry Gibb, or maybe even Jesus. And then his other guitarist looked kind of like a Bandido, with a leather vest and no shirt and a lot of tats and flowing Harlequin romance bodice-ripper hair under this feathered cowboy hat…I mean, let people be who they are, and this band does. And then Pardi in the middle of these two with his Wranglers and western plaid shirt…well, it was just great.

I think that Pardi has achieved a lot of commercial success with a certain kind of upbeat, fun, country-pop kind of sound. I hope he takes some risks, or even does some more retro stuff like “Write You a Song,” which is a little rockabilly and a little more honky-tonk. It changes things up a bit, happily so, and makes you wonder what might be around the corner for this relative newcomer to country music. Same goes for the Brothers Osborne, although they really should not be opening for anyone.
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