T.J. Osborne and Morgan Wallen Show the Divide That Country Music Faces

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T.J. Osborne and Morgan Wallen Show the Divide That Country Music Faces

So, it was kind of a big week for country music. For the first time, a mainstream male country star, a guy whose career is very much still happening, came out as a gay man. T.J. Osborne of Brothers Osborne gave an interview to Sam Lansky of Time Magazine, saying “I want to get to the height of my career being completely who I am.” Right away I put on their latest album, last year’s Skeletons, just to see if there were any clues or subtextual elements I could tease out, but also to learn every word so I’ll be fluent when live music comes back. I mean, these shows might be a real party.

Since it had been a minute since I listened to a whole country album, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the genre. Because as you might have heard, this wasn’t the only big story in country music this week. The morning the T.J. Osborne news dropped, we woke up to TMZ’s video of Morgan Wallen shouting the n-word. As disparate as they are, their stories are intertwined to the point that even in a track-by-track breakdown of Skeletons, I can’t help but consider the Wallen moment and what it means. One thing is clear: T.J. Osborne and Morgan Wallen represent where country music is and where country music is going. The trouble is I don’t know which one is which.

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“Lighten Up.” One major recent development in mainstream country music is the acknowledgement of marijuana. For decades, you’d come across scattered lyrical allusions to getting high, but the genre at large seemed stuck in an “Okie From Muskogee” mindset. Now weed is fully legal in 11 states, approved for medicinal use in 34, and a thing we’ve decided not to freak out about everywhere else. One can write a lyric about hotboxing a pickup truck, as the brothers do on their leadoff track, without worrying about being painted as a degenerate. That’s progress. Whether weed use has directly caused both the personal and industry-wide chill that allows a male country up-and-comer to up and come out, we cannot say. But it probably didn’t hurt.

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“All Night.” As in: “I’ve got the all if you’ve got the night.” Which, fine. This song embodies all that modern country music has come to be. Party music for good ol’ boys and girls who throw on an ol’ pair of jeans n’ their daddy’s ol’ baseball cap for a night of drinkin’ beer, havin’ fun, n’ droppin’ all the Gs off the ends of their gerunds. It’s pretty basic, but you can’t be taken seriously in this market if you don’t have a handful of these on each record. And if you’re a T.J. Osborne who’s deep in the process of deciding whether he should live his life more openly, it’s an effective way to avoid getting personal. This one went to #25 on the country charts, so, mission accomplished.

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“All The Good Ones Are.” Here’s a track where if we’re looking for it, which I am, we might start to sense T.J.’s hunger for a more authentic life. “Not every party is a somebody callin’ the cops/Not every song is a mic drop right from the top,” he sings, “but all the good ones are.” Some people can survive on good enough, but not our T.J. We’ll never know if he had a particular secret in mind when he wrote the lyric “Not every secret is a take-it-to-the-graver…but all the good ones are,” but it’s fun to think he did.

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“I’m Not For Everyone.” The second single from Skeletons is a song about being a little bit unusual, and while it’s tempting to see the lyrics as a hint of the announcement to come, it’s more interesting to look at how they approach the experience of being different. There’s an acceptance to them, a lack of belligerence or defensiveness. It’s a good thing, a positive message for the young queer listener who’s giving them a listen today. And if T.J. actually is this sanguine about not being everybody’s cup of tea, well, that’s a thing that will serve him well as the initial coming-out adulation dies down and the experience of being the only guy in his particular cultural position begins. It might not be easy. We don’t know. It’s never happened before.

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“Skeletons.” By this time in the record, it becomes pretty clear that we’re not going to get any proper love songs. This one comes as close as any to acknowledging relationships at all, accusing a former lover of deception. It’s a you, not a her, and at some point there’s probably going to be a song by him about a him, and while I can’t wait to hear it, I guess that’s when we’ll find out how progressive the modern country music industry is. We had Garth Brooks saying we shall be free “when we’re free to love who we choose” in 1992, and that was controversial. We had Kacey Musgraves telling listeners to “kiss lots of boys, or lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into” in 2013’s “Follow Your Arrow,” and that went down a little easier. But we’ve never had a mainstream country love song, to a man from a man, particularly a man with that baritone. It hasn’t really happened on the pop charts either, come to think of it. It would be weird if country led the way, but life is pretty fucking weird these days all the way around.

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“Back On The Bottle.” The Osbornes co-wrote this song with Hayes Carll, one of those guys who’s respected in Austin but hasn’t really broken out in the mainstream. It’s a smart move to hook up with someone like him; he’s someone who embodies the soul of country music and would probably clash with most mainstream country stars. He’s a Townes Van Zandt guy in a Florida Georgia Line genre. There’s been a growing separation between the two big country camps since the early aughts, when Toby Keith took a swing at the Dixie Chicks. There’s been a graceful, more open and accepting wing of country music, your Maren Morris and Little Big Town and the aforementioned Musgraves. And then there are a million of the same bro in the same worn-out ball cap singing the same song and if they acknowledge in any way that the world is different than it was thirty years ago, it’s by putting a rapper on their single. It’s begun to feel like two completely different genres.

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“High Note.” Maybe my favorite song on Skeletons, another track addressing a shadowy “you,” another one faintly redolent of weed smoke, a sexy mid-tempo breakup song that makes me want to see them live, which reminds me how much I’d like to see anyone live, which reminds me how goddamn crazy the last eleven months have been, which makes me wonder whether the isolation and break from touring caused the soul-searching that led to T.J.’s coming out, which makes me wonder whether there’s going to be a strong gay contingent in the Brothers Osborne’s live audience going forward and what that will look like, which makes me wonder how any audience of any kind is going to behave when we can be together in person again, which makes me aware of how much weirder I’ve gotten during all of this, which reminds me that public full-body crying is probably going to be a very normal thing to see in the After, whenever that is. This song took me on a real journey, is what I’m saying.

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“Muskrat Greene.” It’s an instrumental, so I guess this is where we talk about Morgan Wallen. The guy’s profile has been growing steadily over the last year, while his appeal has continued to elude me. To me, he’s always been the latest country guy off the assembly line, but people seemed to like him, which led to his being booked on SNL last year. He of course then blew that opportunity by making out with fans on camera during a pandemic, which seemed to make him more popular. And then he got back on SNL, and got to be in a sketch himself, heretofore only a privilege afforded to the Justin Biebers and Black Eyed Peases of the world, and then he got bigger. And then this week TMZ posted video of him saying the n-word, sort of fluently, like it was not a thing he had to think about saying, and now he’s off country playlists and his record deal has been suspended. Since then, about half the country music world has tweeted “this is not who Nashville is” and the other half has tweeted “hold up, actually this is exactly who Nashville is,” and now poor BeBe Winans has been enlisted by BMI to educate Wallen on how to be a more empathetic person. It is a mess, and while cancel culture is still not a thing, Morgan Wallen is for the moment the first person to face potentially career-ending consequences for their words since the Dixie Chicks told a London audience they were ashamed George W. Bush was from Texas.

Good instrumental though.

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“Dead Man’s Curve.” There is no better snapshot of the state of modern country music than this: a mainstream male star can feel comfortable enough to come out, but still be obligated to say “great gosh-a-mighty” in a lyric.

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“Make It A Good One.” A seize-the-day song full of homespun, whiskey-soaked wisdom like “you ain’t ever gonna find a U-Haul gettin’ pulled behind a hearse” and “if you wanna make the good Lord laugh, tell ’em your plans” and this has nothing to do with anything, but when we read the news about T.J. Osborne coming out, my boyfriend and I pulled up a YouTube playlist of Brothers Osborne videos just to see what we were talking about here, but also with an unspoken subtext of could he get it? And the answer is yes he could. I’m not proud of this, but as this song urges, I must live my truth. The music of Brothers Osborne has changed my life already.

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“Hatin’ Somebody.” As in “hatin’ somebody ain’t never got nobody nowhere,” which feels true, but very possibly ain’t. Let’s get back to Morgan Wallen for a minute. He’s off pretty much every country radio playlist right now, and he’s “suspended” from his record deal, whatever that means. But watch how the SNL commotion made his star rise, how it connected with enough 2020 country fans who were tired of being bossed around by the eggheads and politicians. Look how it made a mini-martyr of him, a victim of cancellation even though he got the gig back immediately. Look how that personal story of a good ol’ boy gettin’ in a mess o’ trouble connected with a frustrated audience and gave an unremarkable artist a number-one album. Look how well it worked.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote this: “In the next week or two, you will hear Tucker Carlson’s reedy voice saying The n-word is bad, it’s ugly. But don’t we regularly hear it in rap music? And haven’t you made a mistake? Is it fair to exile a young artist for one misstep?” But before I’d even read that draft all the way through, Glenn Beck beat him to it. Today. The we’re not defending him, but shouldn’t he be shielded from any kind of punishment? defense is already kicking up, barely 36 hours into this story.

Here’s how I can see it playing out: mainstream radio will avoid him for at least a little while. His label may drop him, like his agent just did. But so what? Plenty of artists without his profile have navigated around the system. No U.S. airplay hasn’t stopped BTS. Radiohead and Wallen’s SNL replacement Jack White seem to have no trouble self-releasing albums.

With enough people feeling enough phony grievance in 2021, in an America where people have the nerve to protest the wearing of masks, an artist can really run with this story. He can peel enough fans away from this new, more tolerant country music into something based around…not racism, not exactly, just a vague longing for a world where a good ol’ boy can get into a mess o’ trouble again and still have the whole wide world rooting for him.

Classic country music, the music of the Waylons and Willies and Johnnys, has always had an outlaw appeal to it. I’m concerned that the standards of respect and civility are the new laws to disobey for credibility.

Wallen’s got three songs in the Apple Music top 20 right now, for the record.

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“Old Man’s Boots.” Your standard country song about tryin’ to make your daddy proud. I hope T. J. Osborne did this week. I know he made me proud.

I know he made some people recognize and understand themselves a little more. I know that with just a few simple words, he made some people less ashamed to show the world who they are. And that’s important.

I just worry that Morgan Wallen did too.

Editor-at-Large
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.

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