People keep asking T.J. Osborne how he’s feeling, which makes sense, given the thing he’s about to do, but it’s making him uneasy, hearing that well-intentioned question over and over again from so many people—his friends, his family, his team, and even me, over the course of the days that have led up to this one. Now, at a masked-up photo shoot in east Nashville, he insists that he’s feeling good as he slips on a jacket. “I’m ready to put this behind me,” he says.
T.J. is tall and friendly, with a twangy, sonorous voice that often crests into deep, warm laughter. He’s the lead vocalist of Brothers Osborne, the duo he formed with his brother John, a guitarist, in 2012; together they make roots-inflected, soulful country-rock that sounds just as good on the radio as it would filling an arena. Since signing to EMI Records Nashville, they’ve released seven country Top 40 singles and three studio albums, including their swoony, rollicking platinum hit “Stay a Little Longer,” which crossed over to mainstream radio. (Have you ever fallen in love in late summer, gazing out at an orange-and-purple sunset from the bed of a pickup truck? Well, me neither, but this song will make you feel like you have!) The duo has won four CMA Awards, been nominated for seven Grammys, and collaborated with heavy-hitting country contemporaries such as Dierks Bentley and Maren Morris. There’s nothing surprising about the duo’s popularity: Both T.J. and John are engaging performers with a knack for anthemic hooks.
What may come as a surprise to the band’s fans is the news that T.J., 36, is gay. This isn’t a recent revelation for him; he’s known since he was young, and he’s been out to family and friends in his tight-knit Nashville community for years. In some respects, he says, coming out publicly is no big deal. “I’m very comfortable being gay,” he says later, in a quiet room at the office of his management company. “I find myself being guarded for not wanting to talk about something that I personally don’t have a problem with. That feels so strange.”
But his reservations are understandable, given that country music remains a bastion of mainstream conservatism in American arts and culture. If liberal Hollywood is notorious for pushing a progressive agenda, country has historically been its counterpoint—a safe haven for traditional “family values.” Never mind that many country artists, like Nashville as a city, lean blue: They know that their primary market, like the state of Tennessee itself, skews red. The country music business is lucrative, generating $5.5 billion to Nashville’s economy alone, according to RIAA; if artists speak out, they run the risk of alienating listeners, particularly in an era when even anodyne statements of support for a cause can be misconstrued. The tale of the Chicks, formerly the Dixie Chicks, who were exiled after criticizing the Iraq War, looms large over country music. Taylor Swift even cited the band’s ouster as a reason she remained publicly apolitical for so long: “You’re always one comment away from being done,” she told Variety in a 2020 interview.
With this news, T.J. becomes the only openly gay artist signed to a major country label—a historic moment for the genre. He’s had predecessors, of course: Other openly queer artists, from Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile to masked cowboy Orville Peck to viral hitmaker Lil Nas X, have found success by integrating country influences into their genre-defying music, and country artists including Chely Wright and Billy Gilman have passionate fanbases. But T.J. may be the first to come out with his feet so firmly planted in both the sound and machinery of mainstream country, in the full bloom of his career.
He is worried that coming out will look opportunistic, or attention-seeking. “People will ask, ‘Why does this even need to be talked about?’ and personally, I agree with that,” he says. “But for me to show up at an awards show with a man would be jaw-dropping to people. It wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, cool!”
What happens next remains to be seen. “I don’t think I’m going to get run off the stage in Chicago,” he says. “But in a rural town playing a county fair? I’m curious how this will go.” The professional risks he’s taking in coming out feel worth it, both for his own happiness and because, well, it’s time. Country music is about storytelling, and that means T.J.’s identity is inextricable from his music. Maybe, T.J. says, country isn’t the most popular genre among gay people. “But is that just because they’ve never had the opportunity to relate to it?”
T.J. is short for Thomas John, the inverse of his older brother and bandmate, whose name is John Thomas, named after their father, whose name is also John Thomas, though people call him “Big John.” Growing up in Deale, Md., a blue-collar town on the Chesapeake Bay, T.J. and his siblings—including sister Natalie, who now works for a publisher in Nashville—were always musical, performing alongside Big John’s blues band in local shows. But being closeted was painful. “It was so lonely and isolating,” T.J. says. “It made me resent people.” A first heartbreak in his early twenties crushed him all the more because he felt like he couldn’t tell anyone. “I was mad that no one knew why I was hurting,” he says. He channeled that anguish into his music. One song he wrote about that relationship, called “21 Summer,” has become a fan favorite, and you can see why: It’s a big, nostalgic singalong with lyrics about cutoff jeans and hair blowing in the breeze. It’s still tender for him—not just heartbreak, but how alone he was going through it. “There are so many times I’ve sung that song and wanted to cry,” he says. “People love that song, but the emotion of it is deeper than they even realize.”
After moving to Nashville, T.J. and John signed a publishing deal, and eventually a record deal. It was around that time, when he was in his mid-twenties, that T.J. first told his brother that he is gay. “He was very open and candid about it, and I was emotional, because my brother was finally able to be completely honest with me about who he was,” John remembers. “How often, in life, do we hold back parts of ourselves and wish that we didn’t?” His reaction when T.J. ultimately decided to come out publicly was similar. “If I had to have all my money and success erased for my brother to be truly fulfilled in life,” John says emphatically, “I wouldn’t even think about it. Not for a second.”
As Brothers Osborne’s career grew, they made gestures toward inclusion, starting with the video for single “Stay a Little Longer,” which featured gay and interracial couples. For the most part, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “And then,” T.J. says, “there were people who were like, ‘Faggot lovers!’” This kind of reaction was especially discouraging for T.J., even amid the affirmation he had received from his family and friends. But staying publicly closeted was suffocating too—not only for him, but for the guys he dated. “Saying, ‘Hey, don’t hold my hand. Someone I know is in here, so can you wait in the car?’” he says. “Rightfully, they would feel unwanted by me.”
The months spent in lockdown due to the pandemic forced some introspection, and he realized the perfect moment to come out would never arrive; he had to create it for himself. “I want to get to the height of my career being completely who I am,” he says, then stops. “I mean, I am who I am, but I’ve kept a part of me muted, and it’s been stifling.”
Doing this, he hopes, will open up a new world of creative possibilities. It helps that the band already steered away from some of the gendered tropes that can show up in country songwriting. “If our songs were all about, ‘Climb on up in my truck, girl,’ that might really confuse some people,” John laughs.
T.J. agrees: “It’s not that I want to write a song that starts…” He begins to croon, and it’s momentarily a shock how rich and robust his baritone is. “Hey, boy…” He cringes. “Just me doing that right there sounded awful, right?” (Reader, it didn’t!) He continues: “But the worst thing for creativity is to have boundaries.”
Which is not to say their next album will be a disco record; Brothers Osborne plan to continue making the same music they’ve always made. (When I tell them that male-fronted country-rock music feels, to me, like the last stronghold of straight culture, they both laugh. “That might be my fault,” John quips.) But there’s also a chance that T.J.’s openness will widen the field for new fans to feel welcome. “Others will now feel invited to the country music party for the first time,” says T.J.’s close friend Kacey Musgraves, the singer-songwriter whose progressive-minded storytelling has helped earn her a mainstream fanbase. “Country music deserves a future even more honest than its past.”
When Ellen DeGeneres came out on the cover of this magazine in 1997, it was shocking to many—both the act of coming out, and how visible she made herself with it. Now, the tides have turned toward quieter declarations of identity, particularly as young people embrace more fluid expressions of sexuality and gender. For high-profile people, a high-profile coming-out has mostly fallen out of favor; a public figure might be as likely now to mention their queerness offhandedly on social media as they are to make a formal announcement. It’s a way of both controlling the message, and also, maybe, of minimizing it.
In pop, it’s advantageous to be perceived as a provocateur. That’s less the case in country, which remains a risk-averse business that runs on the established machinery of radio and touring, and trades on more traditional tropes in its lyrics and soundscapes. Even amid calls for greater inclusion, the homogeneity of the top artists in the genre is still striking. “Any steps that have been taken have been purposefully kept small enough to not ruffle feathers at country radio,” says Musgraves.
Will conservative radio programmers or rural concertgoers be as eager to play and tailgate a gay artist, even one they already know and love? Both brothers want to believe the answer is yes. “Maybe I’m not giving my fans enough credit,” T.J. says. “Maybe I’m not giving the genre enough credit.” His reasons for doing this now, he says, have nothing to do with wanting to be loved or hated. “I just want to move on,” he says again, and it’s here that I break.
So I ask T.J. a question, which is: What if there is nothing to move on from? What if being gay is a gift, and your gayness is not something to be tolerated but something to be celebrated, and even if untangling the shame and confusion of growing up gay in a straight world takes a long time, it’s worth doing so you can use your voice, not only to sing songs about cutoff jeans and hair blowing in the breeze but to say, clearly and unapologetically, that this is who you are? What if there are a lot of gay boys in small towns who haven’t figured it out yet and feel overwhelmed by snarky TV sidekicks and glittery pop stars bellowing self-empowerment anthems, and what if those gay boys in small towns got to have an avatar of their own—if they knew that someone like them was singing that song about cutoff jeans and hair blowing in the breeze on the radio? Isn’t that why we spend so much time talking about representation, because as much as it’s a burden, it’s also the only antidote to the loneliness of being different? And—not to tell him how to feel, which is, of course, exactly what I’m doing—but isn’t this occasion, of owning who he is in a place where some people might prefer he didn’t exist, something to embrace instead of something to endure?
“Don’t get me wrong,” T.J. says. “When I say I want to put it behind me, I want to put the coming out behind me. Because ultimately it’s a very small detail about me.”
But what if being gay is not a small detail? I ask. What if it’s the most important thing about you? Which is not to say that it should be, or that it is, but just that—what if?
T.J. nods. “There are times when I think I’ve marginalized this part of me so that I feel better about it,” he says. “And I realize that it is a big part of who I am: The way I think, the way I act, the way I perform. God, think of all the times that we talk about love, and write about love. It’s the biggest thing we ever get to feel. And I’ve kept the veil on.” He sighs. “You know that thing—stand for something or you’ll fall for anything?” he says. “That sounds like something someone in country music would say. But if you stand for something and it’s not what they stand for, then they hate it.” This is who he is, whether people like it or not. “I’ve done more than I ever thought I would,” he says. “At this point, my happiness is more valuable than anything else I’d ever be able to achieve.”
It’s almost dark by the time we get back to his house, north of Nashville, and it’s a sticky evening, so warm it almost feels like summer. Along the river through the darkness, I can see where herons have built their nests in the treetops. Standing outside, I ask T.J., for maybe the tenth time that day, how he’s feeling.
He hugs his arms around himself. “Good, man,” he says. “I’m feeling good.”
I believe him.