It has often been said Nashville is where good music goes to die. At least it has often been said, by me, to anyone who will listen. As far as I can recall, the scene has been running on fumes since Alan Jackson rolled up in his black leather jacket and reclaimed a little dignity for the industry with his ever so catchy epoch to Southern Living, “Chattahoochee.”
What preceded Jackson is a golden age of music where larger than life characters like Waylon, Cash, and Hank Junior sang songs that reflected the everyday lives of blue collar Americans, and echoed the hopelessness of hard-won addictions that often accompany the lifestyles of inordinately wealthy young superstars. Those times now seem ancient with the manufactured world of auto tune, drum machines, dime store counterfeits of Jimmy Buffett, and finally the peak absurdity that materialized with Bro Country.
As the ashes of Nashville’s better days lie about the majestic city, still echoing songs of those country music greats, we can see the silhouette of a revival come into focus as new songs hit the radio waves. This is the conclusion I cannot help but come to as I listen to the sophomore album from the Brothers Osborne, “Port Saint Joe.” Quite literally brothers, John and TJ hail from humble beginnings in the blue-collar fishing town of Deale, Maryland. Their home became something of a weekend getaway for the neighborhood fishermen where jam sessions featuring ballads that transcended both era and genre would fill the air. Music was their culture growing up, and this feature is clearly expressed in “Port Saint Joe.”
The album starts with a blues filled groove called “Slow Your Roll” which animates these stories of their humble upbringing. It is an anthem for weekends where the seriousness of Monday-Friday life dissipates — if only momentarily — for drinks, community gatherings, and the music that filled their home. Then, as if on a dime, the tone is suddenly tense and ready to fight with the album’s first single, “Shoot Me Straight.” This is one of many moments, on the album, where John and TJ’s genre spanning versatility is punctuated. At one point, the listener is feasting on something of an ode to the Allman Brothers and the next it is as though he has turned his dial over to classic Aerosmith. The whole body of work on “Port Saint Joe” accentuates this all around striking skill.
Admittedly, their talent and general love for music was slow to catch on in the Nashville scene. In an interview on “Walking the Floor,” a podcast by Chris Shiflett, the brothers reminisce over their life as starving artists, when they worked as busboys for the Country Music Hall of Fame. John recalls taking the job and thinking it would be a six month segue into the music business, but it was five grueling years later that they finally broke out onto Music City. This is a topic which they have revisited throughout their budding career — on the subject of Nashville at the turn of the century — where record executives mostly rewarded homogenization, and for that reason their ascendance was slower than it should have been. The producers were not looking for the next Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, let alone Greg Allman or Neil Young; so much as they were looking for the latest iteration of Kenny Chesney. But as fellow songwriters, the likes of Miranda Lambert and more recently Chris Stapleton, began reintegrating the scene with legitimate artists, the soil was rich for this working-class duo.
For me, this record succinctly captures the highs and lows of small town life. To listen is to be transported back to my own humble beginnings in Northeast Texas. The tracks play like a siren to those of us who grew up with little more to do than drink, listen to the radio, and occasionally drive aimlessly around backroads contemplating the purpose of our lives. Strangely, the way “Port Saint Joe” accomplishes this feat of nostalgia manages to reveal its greatest strength and most obvious weakness. By speaking to the dual nature of rural life where there is never anything to do, but everything still seems saturated with meaning, the album exposes an ugly truth about small town habits.
Track after track unveils a love affair the two young troubadours maintain, not with women or some of life’s finer things, but of substance use. “Port Saint Joe” plays like a soulful album — written by legitimate muses — that tells a story of men who are on the brink of discovering the type of meaning which exists beyond our mortal landscape, but are then distracted by their long-lasting love affair with a bottle of tequila. Or they tell a story where we experience their crippling heartbreak, their interior retreat, and finally hear them sing of finding release while listening to Willie Nelson and smoking a joint. This is not to be too critical of the overarching topic of the record. For better or worse, we are all products of an environment deeply skeptical of the intangible, so our artists must find transcendence somewhere.
Overall, “Port Saint Joe” gives me hope for the direction Nashville is moving. The Brother’s Osborne is one of a small group of artists who have risen, like the mythical phoenix, to resurrect a music scene that had become much too comfortable maintaining the status quo. The album showcases an immense versatility and deep love of all genres of American music, but still manages to be distinctly country.
The Brother’s Osborne is building its catalogue in a manner which ensures the band is around for a long time to come, and this is welcomed news. With each record, they are incrementally reminding Nashville of its rich history and its contributions to the opus of music today. We are in the throes of a country music revival not seen since the heyday of Hank Junior, and “Port Saint Joe” is among the reasons why the music scene coming out of Nashville should once again be spoken of seriously.