When the country duo Brothers Osborne received their first Grammy nomination in late 2015, their debut album still hadn't been released. So John and TJ Osborne, natives of Anne Arundel County, met the news with disbelief.
"That wasn't in the realm of possibility in our minds," said guitarist John Osborne, on the phone recently from his Nashville, Tenn., home. "We saw our name in the category and I had to read it 10 times for it to even register. It's still something that shocks me to this day."
Even though they lost, the duo has since grown more accustomed to recognition, in large part because the accolades haven't slowed down. There have been positive reviews to their first headlining tour, national TV performances and a major win at November's Country Music Association Awards. Their busy year comes full circle on Sunday, when Brothers Osborne return to the Grammys, again nominated for best country duo/group performance.
For 32-year-old singer/guitarist TJ Osborne, continued notice from the Grammys affirms the duo is on the right path. He and John have "worked really hard" to make music that goes beyond radio ear candy — "something that means more than that," TJ said from his Nashville home.
"The Grammys are your payoff for sticking to your guns and not taking the easy road," TJ said.
Their journey to country stardom began as teenagers in the small town of Deale, where John and TJ played in a band called Deuce & a Quarter with their father. They performed at haunts like Skipper's Pier Restaurant and Dock Bar and Happy Harbor.
John Osborne Sr., a plumber still living in Deale, recognized his sons' music talents early on, but their work ethic stood out most. In high school, the brothers helped on plumbing jobs without complaint, and when they wrote original songs with their father, "we worked hard at it to develop a sound," Osborne Sr. said.
A father of five "good kids," Osborne Sr. remembers John and TJ being inseparable.
"They played T-ball and baseball, and I was their coach. When they got older, we played music," Osborne Sr. said. "It's like they came out of the womb together almost."
John and TJ moved to Nashville in the early 2000s to pursue music. Over time, Brothers Osborne honed the sound that led to their recent success — a no-frills, guitar-driven take on country that owes more to rustic bar bands jamming blues and rock than Nashville's recent penchant for sugary pop.
After many open-mic nights and writing sessions, a record deal came in 2012 with EMI Nashville. A few singles and a 2014 EP followed, but the duo really began turning industry heads with 2015's "Stay a Little Longer." The single was certified platinum that November, and a month later, the duo got the call about the song's Grammy nomination.
The track lost to Little Big Town's "Girl Crush," an outcome that didn't surprise either brother. Fans of the group, TJ and John said losing to an act they "adore" made it easier to swallow. Coming up short, though, is never fun.
"I would be lying if I said losing anything isn't at least somewhat disappointing because you have high hopes. Who wouldn't want to win a Grammy?" John Osborne, 34, said. "To be that close and lose — it doesn't feel great."
Still, they aren't complaining about their whirlwind year. They performed on "Today" and "Late Night with Seth Meyers," headlined more than 30 shows on their Dirt Rich Tour and garnered positive reviews from country and mainstream outlets alike. The top highlight came at the CMA Awards, where they beat out acts like Florida Georgia Line and Dan + Shay for vocal duo of the year.
The moment remains "one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life," John Osborne said.
"As we were standing up there, trying to drunkenly stumble our way through an acceptance speech — one we were not prepared for in any way — you just feel a huge amount of love from the community," John Osborne said. "It's a very heavy feeling."
Brothers Osborne also received support from their hometown late last year, when a rare break in touring allowed for one night's visit to Anne Arundel County. They got to show members of their growing live crew where their country dreams began, TJ Osborne said.
These days, when they can pop in for a quick visit to Deale, they feel the pride and support from the town.
"Regardless of fame, you can't really blend in in a town of 5,000. We go back, and a lot of people want to say hi, and lot of people are just excited and want to congratulate us on what we've done," TJ Osborne said. "Now that we finally have a lot going on, everyone's excited and they feel a part of it, which they are. It's cool to be able to share that with them."
Many Deale residents will tune in Sunday, when Brothers Osborne get a second chance at hoisting a golden gramophone. Their single "21 Summer" is up against Dierks Bentley and Elle King ("Different for Girls"), Kenny Chesney and Pink ("Setting the World on Fire"), Pentatonix and Dolly Parton ("Jolene") and Chris Young and Cassadee Pope ("Think of You").
A song the brothers penned with country gun-for-hire Craig Wiseman, "21 Summer" tunefully toes the line between wistful lost love and fleeting lust. Like "Stay a Little Longer," "21 Summer" came together quickly once the brothers committed to the concept, said TJ Osborne.
"Usually the best songs end up that way," he said. "Once we got on a roll, it just felt natural. I think we all have had our own '21 Summer' story in our minds, and I was able to let it just kind of fall out because it was honest."
Like last year's ceremony, the brothers aren't expecting to hear their names called.
"I think we have a shot, but it's not going to shock my brother or [me] if 'Different for Girls' wins," said TJ Osborne, who's bringing his mother as his date. "I'm just going to have no expectations and be pleasantly surprised if we do win."
They're already working on new material. TJ Osborne declined to describe the next record's direction, but mentioned they just finished a writing session with Jon Randall, the songwriter behind Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss' hit, "Whiskey Lullaby."
TJ Osborne knows recent accolades have elevated not just the group's profile, but expectations as well. He also acknowledges a sophomore album "ends up being a lot of people's worst records." The challenge is avoiding such a slump while expanding their sound.
"People in Nashville, country radio and our fans, they're expecting us to do something different — to be the new wave of Nashville," he said. "So we can't do the same old, same old, but at the same time, if you go too far out there, then you lose the fan base that loved you for what you did originally. It's that ebb and flow."
Whether they win or lose, it has been "an unbelievable year for us, and I'm incredibly grateful for it," TJ Osborne said.
Over that year, the question they've been asked most, by far, is: "How did you get into country music being from Maryland?" The answer, according to John Osborne, is simple: Country music doesn't begin or end at a state border. It's everywhere, including his home state.
"I feel proud that we're from Maryland, and we're able to represent our state that way because maybe there is a preconceived notion of the people we are," John Osborne said. "If you think we're not country up there, you're wrong, and I feel we're playing a role in changing that perspective."
The 59th Grammy Awards air live 8 p.m. Sunday on WJZ (Channel 13).