Ka-Ching…With Twang – Zach Bryan

Zach Bryan is the new prince of country music. Independently of the traditional radio/press game, he seems to have come from nowhere at all like a kind of Lil Nas X (there’s a connection behind the scenes). To paraphrase Bill Hicks, it does seem Zach has become the hero with the anti-marketing angle.

And now he is gallivanting around Europe. He starts in Dublin (April 18 and 19), the heads to Manchester (the Cathedral, April 21) and Glasgow (Old Fruitmarket, April 22) before finishing with two dates in London at Islington Assembly Hall (April 24 and 25). This follows the pattern set by Billy Strings and Tyler Childers, who also played two dates in the 1000-capacity venue when they came to London.

Zach started playing guitar as a teenager in Oklahoma, writing music as therapy. He went into active service with the Navy, following his father who was at work in Japan when Zach was born there. While in Florida, he posted his song Condemned online and followed up with plenty more. Twelve of them found a home on his debut album DeAnn (2019, named after his late mum) and 18 more ended up on his second album Elisabeth (2020, named after a former girlfriend).

Critics like Grady Smith and Trigger from Saving Country Music were early adopters of his lo-fi acoustic ditties. The latter called him a ‘songwriting savant’ whose appeal was in his ‘raw and disordered’ music which is paired with elementary music videos. Trigger refused to grade Elisabeth because, one assumes, he wanted to wait for the full package. Zach, lest it be forgotten, was still a full-time serviceman when he recorded his major-label debut. He is now a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter.

In a 2019 interview Zach told Grady that according to him Jason Isbell is ‘the best songwriter in my life’. As a kid from Oklahoma, he knows about the Red Dirt scene and two big acts from it: Turnpike Troubadours and Tyler Childers. ‘Have the sadboys of the Internet found their poet laureate?’ asked Grady correctly in an explainer video titled How Zach Bryan Took Over Country Music. He discussed Zach’s album American Heartbreak, which he put out in May 2022. Humorously, or neglecting his duty as a critic of some standing, Grady also refuses to grade it, recusing himself as ‘a fanboy’. That’s not how objective criticism works, though.

American Heartbreak has 34 tracks. Not content with just this, Zach put out a nine-song set called Summertime Blues in the middle of July. He has already opened for Luke Combs in a stadium and played the Grand Ole Opry, and his single Something In The Orange charted on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, which is not usually kind to indie acts.

As per the Hot Country chart, which measures sales, only five singles sold more copies than that one in 2022: two by Morgan Wallen, one by Luke Combs, Fancy Like by Walker Hayes and the monster smash Til You Can’t by Cody Johnson. Johnson, Parker McCollum and Randall King are all signed to Warner Music in Nashville; Zach is on Warner Records, which is not the same thing.

For an independent act with little mainstream traction, his streaming numbers are astonishing and last year only four songs outstreamed Something In The Orange, including Tennessee Whiskey by Chris Stapleton, the little engine that will never stop. Production comes from Eddie Spear, who has worked on records by Cody Jinks, Brett Eldredge and (in a smaller role) Stapleton himself. Our ears are in safe hands, which is useful when there’s two hours of music, almost wholly written by Zach, across the sets.

It is very handy that Zach’s voice can fit on a playlist next to Wallen and Combs. That, and he, is the sound of contemporary country music. Much as both those superstar performers reflect the feelings of their audience back to them (so far, so Springsteen), Zach is a guy in his mid-twenties singing about his life. In fact, Sam Fender – whom my partner calls a Sensitive White Boy – has also gotten to play big arenas with his anthems.

As with many artists, parental loss informs his success, in Zach’s case his mum’s in 2016. Fans seek him out after he performs and tell him stories that are, to his keyboardist JR Carroll, ‘dark and depressing’. Showing an allegiance with the working fan, Zach ended 2022 by releasing the recording of his Red Rocks show called All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster as a Christmas present to his fans. The week before Zach played, it hosted Louis from off of One Direction.

He paired it with a note saying that in 2023 he would play ‘a limited number of headline shows’ so that ‘working class people’ don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for a scalped ticket and make money for ‘huge monopolies’. Reporting on this for Saving Country Music, Trigger predicted that he would ‘most certainly be blackballed’ from festivals run by Ticketmaster’s parent company LiveNation.

That seems to have happened but Zach has a busy season ahead regardless. Currently he has no dates across CMA Fest in early June, but there is a homecoming gig in Philadelphia set for May 31. He will fill arenas across Virginia and Georgia in May and has two stadium dates in New York before two dates back at the fabled Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, which is about the size of Wembley Arena. In August Zach plays two dates in Tulsa to a raucous home crowd and he has a night in LA at what used to be called the Staples Center. Nobody will pay more than $130, with prices starting at $40.

To return to the music: Rachel Brodsky writes a monthly column for Stereogum on popular music. She sees Ryan Adams in Zach Bryan, as the two share a ‘boyish, weathered vocal’. Jon Caramanica profiled him in the New York Times, commenting on how Zach has been ‘making hay from pain…taking the shortest path from feelings to words’. Zach himself wants to be talked about like Bruce Springsteen (so far, so Fender) or early Ed Sheeran, rather than a Red Dirt country star; he plans to do a Masters in philosophy once all the hype dies down.

Were it not for that the live recording does the job for me, I was going to compile a shorter album from the 43(!!) tracks which were on both studio albums, but Zach has put out some additional standalone singles since then. Thus it would be more like 50 songs. These include the song which gives the tour its title, Burn Burn Burn, on which he sings ‘I’m a simple man’ and which he plays near the end of his set just before Revival, a song from his album Elizabeth. There was also Starved, where he sends his beloved a quite grungy note from the ‘hard’ road, and Dawns, a collaboration with Maggie Rogers with the rueful line ‘I’ve wasted all my dawns on you’ and a reference to his late mother.

Most people know Zach Bryan from Something In The Orange, which was placed second on the tracklist of the original American Heartbreak LP. ‘To you I’m just a man, to me you’re all I am’ is how the chorus begins, with the verses documenting a liminal stage in a relationship: ‘there’s no weight’ when his beloved puts her head on his shoulder (‘between my collar and jaw’), and he wishes he could go ‘back to us dancing’ rather than feeling ‘poisoned’ and like ‘I just hate you’. His music is characterised by directness and plenty of passion, which is well within the current Combs/Wallen trend.

In January 2023 Something In The Orange hit number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the tenth biggest song in America and proof of the enormous grassroots support for the singer/songwriter. Ranking it just behind Handle on You by Parker McCollum on his list of Hit Songs from 2022, Grady Smith wryly commented that ‘somewhere in America, they are playing Parmalee and Zach Bryan back to back on country radio’; it is more stark because Parmalee, who have the top song on radio in 2022 with Take My Name, are a product of Music Row and Zach is not. It is also as rare as a pig flying over a blue moon to see a song written by one person (a 100%-er) rank as one of the year’s top songs. I wonder if Hardy or Luke Combs are going to call Zach and ask to write with him.

It seems Zach Bryan is to the TV show Yellowstone what Striking Matches were to the TV show Nashville, providing regular musical moments and boosting their own cred. Five of Zach’s tracks feature in the latest season of the popular show, all from the Summertime Blues project. They include the title track, Whiskey Fever, Motorcycle Drive-By and Quittin’ Time. It was The Good I’ll Do, a song of unrestrained passion (‘I’ve been waiting for you all damn night!’), which was propelled back into the charts thanks to being featured on the show, which has also made a star out of Lainey Wilson.

As you’d expect from a young songwriter, love and youth preoccupy him. Jamie has the direct lyric ‘I miss my loving lady and laying in her arms’ while 68 Fastback starts with a request to ‘use me for parts’ since he ‘ain’t ran right in years’. Younger Years, where our narrator tells of partying with Johnny and Deborah and his ‘Levi jean queen’, was a favourite of Grady Smith when he put up his review of American Heartbreak. There’s also a country shuffle version of You Are My Sunshine.

Motorcycle Drive-By is one of the road songs which Zach has written that are popular with his audience. Indeed it’s no surprise that he has covered John Denver’s deathless anthem about country roads. From Austin and Highway Boys also seem to be the big successes, both via streaming and through inclusion in the live show. Both are songs that have been written by Americans since Hank Williams’ era: the narrator of the former moves ‘as quick as trains rollin’ through town’ and wishes he wore ‘concrete shoes’, while the latter sees Zach caught between heading to the Ryman to play his music (‘keep truth in songs’) and wishing he could avoid ‘mirrors in hotel rooms’ and instead ‘sleep next to the river’.

He is also ‘on a highway directly to the moon…may have to pull over soon’ on the rocky Ninth Cloud. On that track he also proclaims that ‘fitting in for kids like me is dying’. Yet he’s not a misfit at all. He says how he ‘got high’ in the opening line of High Beams. On Whiskey River he overdoes it and wants to head home, and he uses some chugging bar-band electric guitars to soundtrack Sober Side of Sorry.

Zach is an astute commentator on the industry which he has disrupted. He is aware of the Cold Damn Vampires that populate the industry, warning any listeners not to let them ‘steal your hope…turn it something green’. That song proves Zach is as self-aware as Aaron Watson (whose song Fencepost is the definitive modern protest song about the music industry) and as tuneful, given the whistling hook Zach uses as an overture to his piece. If She Wants A Cowboy, meanwhile, satirises the sort of guys who do what their label tells them to do and adopt fake rural attitudes. He uses the word ‘cowboy’ as a verb (‘I’ll cowboy the best’) and affects a twang to match the dissimulation of the narrator, who also employs autotune to ‘Nashville the best’. It’s musical trolling really.

The live recording shows the crowd in fine fettle, as if Zach has brought the campfire singalong to the arena. They are particularly good on set opener Open The Gate, the old chestnut Condemned and the hoedown Heading South. ‘I don’t deserve any of ya!’ claims the singer just before ten thousand people bellow the final chorus of that song, and they do the same on Snow. Including that song is apt: Zach’s Colorado show was chilly and he spends much of the evening thanking them for ‘sitting through the cold’ and bearing with technical issues.

Across the set we learn that there ain’t ‘no cure for a no-good rambling man’ (No Cure), ‘if loving you’s an ocean I’d have drowned’ (From Austin) and ‘we’re all running from the things inside…the best time for goin’ is when the goin’ scares you’ (Traveling Man). There are a couple of songs named after his home state: Oklahoma Smokeshow is a tale of young love which amps up for the chorus, while Oklahoma City has Zach’s narrator talking to an ‘old friend’ who left town a while ago. ‘Is it the goodbyes that haunt you or the fear of new hellos?’ is a great line, as is ‘run far enough boy and you’re bound to trip’. It’s the lyrical prowess and directness as much as the rural arrangements full of acoustic guitar and fiddle that have pulled in the crowds.

I started writing this piece many months ago, intending to collapse 43 songs into a more manageable set of 15 or 16. I didn’t actually visit American Heartbreak until this month (April), put off by the 150 minutes of sound, and even then I started with the live recording because it had fewer tracks. On the day I concluded the piece, Zach was nominated for the ACM New Male Artist of the Year alongside ERNEST, Bailey Zimmerman and Dylan Scott, who was nominated as a ‘new artist’ despite having had a number one hit back in 2017. I wonder what Zach makes of this industry bollocks.

Predictably, Zach was shut out of Song of the Year for Something In The Orange (which was also GRAMMY nominated), probably due to the same industry bollocks. As it stands, there is a gap in his tour schedule for the date of the awards on May 11, sandwiched between a show in Virginia and one in Massachusetts. It is thus feasible that Zach could turn up and rub shoulders with Wallen, Combs and hosts Garth and Dolly, which will boost his already tremendous credibility.

Something in the orange tells me he’s not done yet.

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