NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to T.J. and John Osborne, of the band Brothers Osborne, about returning to the road after a year of major personal revelations.



When you look into John Osborne's home studio in Nashville, you see a wall of guitars.


INSKEEP: How many guitars do you have behind you there?

JOHN OSBORNE: Never enough.


J OSBORNE: Six or seven years ago, I had one guitar. And I thought, man, if I could just get one more guitar. And then that one more turned into one more, turned into one more, turned into one more.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

J OSBORNE: And it's a sickness. It's incurable.


INSKEEP: John Osborne and T.J. Osborne are the Brothers Osborne, one of the bigger acts in Nashville country.


BROTHERS OSBORNE: (Singing) There's a roadside bar with a neon sign, and when the sun goes down, we'll be rolling up, about the time to lighten up.

INSKEEP: Their newest album is called "Skeletons." From that Nashville studio, the Osbornes told us they wrote this album to be louder than their past music, so it would be easier to play in front of rowdy crowds.

J OSBORNE: We wanted to be able to perform it in really large venues. And of course, we put this record out and performed it nowhere.

INSKEEP: It was released last year during the pandemic; only now are they preparing to tour with it. But the brothers say the enforced pause was good for them. They took the opportunity to think about who they are or, rather, how they present themselves. T.J. spoke in public about something that only his friends and family knew - that he's gay. In 2021, he is the first major-label country star who has said that out loud.

T J OSBORNE: When everything stopped, it just really highlighted to me, like, what's valuable to me? It seemed like everything crumbled before our eyes this year with touring. I mean, our business just got absolutely decimated. But at the same time, I was like, wow, I'm OK. And that just made me realize - gave me the confidence to say, OK, it's - I need to do this for my own sanity. The other thing that's kind of weird, Steve, is I never really came out to anybody. I came out to a couple of people. It's really - I mean, for those of you who do not know, it's very awkward to do it, in my opinion.

J OSBORNE: Because we never have to come out as straight.

T J OSBORNE: Yeah, it's just strange. You know, it's like...

J OSBORNE: You know, it's a weird thing to think about.

T J OSBORNE: It's not like you're in conversation and someone's like, hey, you know, the price of eggs at the grocery store, and you're like, oh, hey, by the way, since you mentioned that, I'm gay.


T J OSBORNE: You know, it's like, when do you - it's so strange. There's never really a good segue.

INSKEEP: There's no transition, yeah, to...


T J OSBORNE: Yeah, it's so strange. And I'm one of those people - I don't really like to shock people. And I felt like, you know, for so many reasons, it needed to be said for me, I think also for visibility, for other people that are like me that maybe don't relate to maybe a lot of the queer community. I mean, I know at first when I - my first struggles with being gay, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I just kind of like to do regular, like, dude things. And then I realized that is part of being gay, too. And so for me to come to that realization that I am a gay man and to show other people that either don't know what gay people are like or either are struggling with their sexuality because they feel like they don't fit this mold that society has told them it is that it's here. It's me. It's everyone.

INSKEEP: Was there another mold that made this difficult, a presumption that gay country star is just not a category?

T J OSBORNE: Yeah. I mean, yeah, for sure.

J OSBORNE: That was a big part of it.

T J OSBORNE: Yeah. You know, I was asked once, like, how are you going to be gay and sing country music? And I said, it's pretty easy; just be attracted to dudes and sing a country song, you know? But - (laughter).

INSKEEP: (Laughter).


INSKEEP: In the title track of "Skeletons," T.J. Sings of a bad relationship. Of course, this song, like all songs, means whatever the listener wants it to mean.


INSKEEP: But for those who want to know, T.J. can now say that the song's inspiration was a relationship with a man.


BROTHERS OSBORNE: (Singing) I heard you been creeping around about the time that sun goes down.

T J OSBORNE: I've had a lot of support, for sure. But what does that mean going forward in a very broad scope with my career? And I don't know.

INSKEEP: Do you presume that when you're singing, you're singing in some large measure to, you know, classic red America, more politically and socially conservative people than otherwise?

T J OSBORNE: I don't really think about that 'cause I know I do. And there's a lot of middle America that you might even call red-blood America that are a lot more open-minded than probably people think they are. In some ways, it makes it a hurdle to be in the country music world and be gay. You can look at it another way and say, what a great opportunity for me to be able to be with these people that I've gotten to know and love over the years and get to educate those people.


BROTHERS OSBORNE: (Singing) High time to come to Jesus. You got skeletons in your closet. It's written all over your face. Every little lie, stacked so high - can't keep your story straight. I don't know how they got there. It's getting under my skin. You got skeletons in your closet, and I got bones to pick with them, oh.

INSKEEP: Well, John, you also, I think, have talked more openly about some things than in the past. What's the experience been like for you?

J OSBORNE: Yeah, it's been amazing, actually. I've struggled with anxiety since I was a kid, and I just always had this impending sense of doom. And I just thought that was being a human (laughter). And come to find out - no, it's actually kind of not super normal. And I was always convinced, you know, well, I don't have control over things, but I have control over how hard I work, and if I work harder, I can outwork my problems, my struggles that are internal, within me.


J OSBORNE: And I found out in a very epic way that that is not true, and we basically had to stop our career.


J OSBORNE: I did a lot of therapy. I went into some mental rehabilitation to kind of help me through my struggles, my problems, confronting my anxieties and confronting the depression that I was going through, as opposed to outrunning it.


INSKEEP: I'm listening to you both and thinking you're both professional performers. You're also really good at putting on a performance. And yet in each case, you decided you wanted to sort of perform a little less in your daily life.

T J OSBORNE: Yeah, that's - wow.

J OSBORNE: Yeah. I mean...


T J OSBORNE: Is this a therapy session?

J OSBORNE: That kind of blew my mind a little bit.


J OSBORNE: No, that is actually a fantastic - and, you know, it's funny that you mention that because there's a person that you are offstage. There's a person that you are onstage. And there's a person that everyone thinks you are and all of these things, right? And the closer that all of those are together, it seems like the happier and more genuine you are. And your shoulder - the tension in your shoulders goes away, and you feel so much lighter on your feet.


BROTHERS OSBORNE: (Singing) Younger me made it harder than it had to be.

INSKEEP: John Osborne with his brother T.J. Osborne. This summer, they start their pandemic-delayed tour for their album "Skeletons."


BROTHERS OSBORNE: (Singing) ...Get the best of me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.