What if Zach Bryan Is as Good as His Fanatical Audience Thinks He Is?

by info.vocallyrics@gmail.com
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Zach Bryan has a fair amount of Bruce Springsteen in him. But not just a single Bruce. When the newly minted superstar headlined L.A.’s Crypto.com Arena last week (in a single sold-out gig at a venue he probably could have filled several times over), it felt like he is veering toward having his own “Born in the USA” moment, reviving that familiar mixture of populism and substance and making a new generation of fans scramble to get a scarce ticket. But then, a couple of days later, Bryan did something funny: He digitally released a new album — titled just “Zach Bryan” — that comes closer to feeling like his “Nebraska” than any go-for-broke, roaring, grab-the-brass-ring kind of record.

He’s marching to the beat of his own Boss, and it’s not always the one you expect.

First watching Bryan’s ability to captivate a capacity crowd with not much more than the force of some strong, robustly played rock ‘n’ roll songwriting, and then hearing him follow with an album that leans a little more into his sadcore/low-fi/indie-folk side, I found myself finally being pushed off the fence, into being a fan. But maybe you’re still straddling that railing. If so, I feel your ambivalence, and your pain. Or, to steal some language from another living ex-president: a lot of us have misunderestimated Zach Bryan.

You could sense some confusion if you paid attention to social media in the wake of Bryan announcing his 2024 tour on Monday — a trek that will hit stadiums as well as arenas and features some “cred” acts, like Jason Isbell, Sierra Ferrell and Turnpike Troubadours, opening for a headliner that few people have been entirely sure whether to call a country artist or not. Bryan came up through the cracks, kind of, as somebody with initial appeal to the “red dirt” country crowd — a movement that sits a little to the left of mainstream country, but to the right of Americana, where he would probably most naturally sit if he’d arisen without any preconceptions. But there are suppositions. He’s a Navy guy who got honorably discharged after his TikTik views blew up faster than any ordnance could, which probably had the effect of assuring conservative roots music fans that he was the rare Americana-type artist they could trust not to turn out to be a flaming lefty… even as it might have scared progressives into thinking he was an Oliver Anthony in the making. (Not that Oliver Anthony existed as a thing yet, but you get the picture.) Yet this Oklahoman made it clear he had little love for Nashville, made only a half-court press at best toward getting radio play, and the song that did barely crack country’s top 20 while the album became a blockbuster was called “Something in the Orange.”

Which… what did that title even mean, anyway, popping up in country music’s alcohol-fueled playlists? Was it a song about screwdrivers?

The crowd that turned out for Bryan’s show at Crypto.com last week looked very Stagecoach-y, full of young women in cowboy boots in bar lines stretching practically to the Pantry. But if they looked as if they could just as easily be turning up for a Luke Bryan tour, what they got, and eagerly embraced, was something awfully far afield from that ethos: largely sorrowful, largely self-effacing, fairly poetic songs that just happen to have some banjo or bravado in them here or there. It’s in a loose style that’s more Jeff Tweedy than Cole Swindell and, yes, a lot more Bruce than Dan + Shay or Hardy. The lyrics are sometimes blatant, sometimes kind of cryptic, but it didn’t matter — just as the crowd had when Bryan was way down on the bill at last summer’s Palomino Festival in Pasadena, this audience sang a lot of the words back at him like Swifties in redneck retrograde. The crowd embraced even the sadder or more emotionally ambiguous songs, which seemed like a minor miracle. And the thought arrived: Maybe this audience love is all due to the fact that Bryan snuck right past the gatekeepers and tastemakers, not in spite of that. Even with support from a major (Warner’s L.A. division) for the last two records, he’s all about DIY… D2C.

And it’s right around then you may also have the realization that the mass audience may have better taste than you do.

Bryan has bolstered his independent reputation with a series of moves that might seem like schtick to detractors but seem quite heartfelt. These range from his crusades against Ticketmaster and ticket reselling to playing last fall through an unseasonal snowstorm at Red Rocks (and then, for Christmas, releasing a live album of tat set with a Ticketmaster diss in the title), to spontaneously releasing EPs and one-off singles right after the 34-song “American Heartbreak” because he can’t stop compulsively connecting.

Zach Bryan performs at the Zach Bryan Concert held at the Crypto.com on August 23, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Buckner for Variety

On the just-concluded ‘Burn Burn Burn Tour” (which bypassed Ticketmaster-contracted venues altogether, something he won’t be pulling off with next year’s longer trek), the egalitarian ethos extended to the very core of the staging. I’ve seen dozens of in-the-round shows in the past, but none quite like the way Bryan did it. Whereas a Harry Styles might go gallavanting in every direction with a mobile mic, Bryan had four microphones set up at the mid-point of all four sides of a square stage, and most of the time, he would sing a verse and a chorus at one mic, then move on to the next one, making sure to cover all four angles during every song in the set. At first, it seemed distracting, if not annoying; no matter where you were in the audience, there was one-quarter of each song that he addressed to your part of the arena, and three-quarters where you’d end up looking up at the big screen. But over the course of the set, it was easier to get used to the idea that you were at a party where the host is sometimes in your face and sometimes attending to someone else across the room. I’m not at all hoping that every tour adopts this unusual strategy, but it’s an interesting, even philosophically admirable experiment.

When Maggie Rogers came out to recreate her duet part on “Dawns” (one of those recent non-LP singles mentioned earlier), you had to wonder: Had Rogers gotten the memo that she would need to service all four quadrants of Crypto.com Arena, one at a time? Of course she had!

“Dawns” makes for a good segue into discussing the new album, even if he didn’t deign to do anything so conventional as include such a popular recent single on a full-length that quickly followed. Bryan references the death of his mother in “Dawns,” just as did in the very title of his first indie release, “DeAnn” — which, Bryan pointed out, was having its fourth anniversary on the night of the Crypto.com show. The loss of a mother has been a powerful motivating force in songwriters’ lives, from John Lennon to Bono to Kanye, and Bryan is far from done with it. On the new record, following an opening poem, the first three full songs all deal with death or grief, as the main subject or in passing. “I lost my family to a bad disease,” he sings in the trumpet-laden “Overtimes,” one of the album’s sprightliest tracks,” these lyrics aside. “I got a mean mean gene in my family tree / That grows in grandfather and his daughters and me, ya see.” (The “disease” is unspecified but can easily be guessed.) In the more sedate “Summertime’s Close,” he laments another loss, remembering a time “back when got sick,” concluding with the thought, “I just put some beer on ice / And tonight I’m dancing for two.” “East Side of Sorrow” has him losing a loved one in a hospital after a long vigil, sending him out onto the street at “6 a.m. and fucked up again, asking God where the hell he’d been.” He even turns it around and wonders aloud whether music is any salve at all: “Do you ever get tired of singing songs / Like all your pain is just another fucking singalong?”

The album takes a big spiritual upturn with “Hey Driver,” even though Bryan doesn’t really paint himself in high spirits — nor when he’s singing, “I’ve been feeling like there’s no point at all / The klonopin ain’t kicked in and I missed my sister’s call.” At least no one’s dead, for now, and there is a destination “where they still put sugar in their iced tea,” and a road there that includes Michael Trotter Jr., of the duo the War and Treaty, as a galvanizing harmony vocalist throughout. In fact, Bryan is so taken with Trotter’s singing that he can be heard saying “This is your song, Mike” to him before the track commences, and then he lets him take the last couple of lines at the end into the stratosphere, by himself.

It’s Bryan’s tastes in features generally that probably has a lot of skeptics reconsidering him, just in this past week. Besides the War and Treaty, Ferrell sings a full-length harmony part on “Holy Roller,” the most rollicking, unabashed good time on the album, and Bryan becomes an honorary member of the Lumineers in the collaborative “Spotless.” But the featured feature is undeniably “I Remember Everything,” which has Kacey Musgraves taking a full verse and then riding out the rest of the song, as both partners in a doomed romance agree: “Strange words come on out of a grown man’s mouth when his mind’s broke.” The sudden appearance of Musgraves’ crystalline solo voice in this context is not unlike those startling moments when Emmylou Harris has just shown up in the middle of a record.

The Musgraves duet feels fairly “produced” — it’s slick enough to earn its spot if someone pushes it as a single — but that’s not true of a lot of the album, in which the sonics sometimes get as raw as the words. Online, a few fans who have been firmly in Bryan’s camp have taken some issue with his self-produced effort, saying a lot of the track feel like “demos.” They say that like it’s a bad thing; it isn’t. “Zach Bryan” feels rough around the edges, and most of the songs have two or three accompanists from his band roped in, with the full ensemble only occasionally banding together in full. Sometimes it’s a guitar, a piano or a fiddle coming to the fore, but what keeps the sound interesting is that it’s rarely all those things at once — and when the group does assemble to rock, as in “Fear and Friday’s,” the dynamic effect against all the quiet that came before or after is galvanizing.  

“My blood’s at a boil, (but) there ain’t no fire,” Bryan sings in that last one, a Springsteenian sentiment if ever there was one. He spends the album grasping for either passion or basic satisfaction, usually coming up short — and sometimes blaming newfound fame, though he’s smart enough to keep any really entitled-sounding ennui subtle. In “Tradesman,” he’s wishing for simpler days, in engagingly colloquial specch: “Everyone lately’s scaring me / It’s all backdoor deals and therapy / The only callous I’ve grown is in my mind / I wish I was a tradesman playin’ with some tuned-up tired string band.”

The good news is that, through most of “Zach Bryan,” he doesn’t sound so far removed from that idealized bar. Or back porch: The song “Smaller Venues” is punctuated by the squawking of a very loud bird that presumably interrupted the real recording, although we won’t be crushed if he reveals it was a sound effect. It may be overstating it to say this album is his “Nebraska”; it’s not as unremittingly bleak as Springsteen’s classic album, and sometimes transcends the sense of demo-itis with a bigger sound. But he knows intimacy is his best feature, more than being a blowhard — and knows how to make the recordings playful and not just painful.

There are better things to be suspicious about in 2023, but not many to be more excited about than the idea of music this twisty and true-feeling resonating with a mass audience first, ad the cognoscenti later. For a former Bryan skeptic, the whole album is a reason to believe.

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