Zach Bryan rose to internet stardom in the country music world after posting impassioned and barebones song performances on YouTube. After self-releasing two albums in 2019 and 2020, the 26-year-old from Oklahoma is set to release a 34-track studio album titled “American Heartbreak” through Warner Records on May 20.
A mix of Tyler Childers and Brent Cobb, with a sort of Turnpike Troubadours aesthetic at times, Bryan places the most emphasis on his lyrics. At a time when Nashville has a virtual monopoly on the industry, pumping out irritatingly optimistic pop snap tracks, Bryan, while lacking in name ID, has a massive leg up. He is his own person – not the character executives would likely push him to be – and his somberness appeals to those disaffected by industry elites.
How Bryan navigates the next steps of his career is crucial. He is transitioning from friends recording him drunk shredding guitar and racking up millions of views, to being honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 2021 after eight years of service to further pursue his love of music. He is ready for the big leagues.
How will the artist fare as he enters the company of a rudderless ship? Will he stay true to himself, and hence, the dedicated fan base he built?
If what is so far available of his new album is any indication, Bryan will maintain his original sound and beautiful songwriting. “American Heartbreak” is a gift to fans who have been eager for more songs amid Bryan sporadically dropping singles.
His single “From Austin,” which peaked at 21 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart, resembles “Oklahoma City,” another single in which he chronicles the pain of missing a good and true friend. “From Austin” laments the pain and struggle of leaving a relationship.
You remember getting drunk on the outskirts of this town
When I gave you all I had, but it still let you down?
Everyone I’ve ever loved has either left or died
Wish I was born with concrete shoes, but I’m leaving tonight
It’s ’bout time that I left Austin
‘Bout time you settled down
With a man who doesn’t move as quick
As the trains rolling through town
‘Bout time that I face
The hard times I’ve let go
If love was just an ocean
I would drown before I float
“Highway Boys” is another single that made its way onto the studio album. Like the songs above, it is a nostalgic devotion to friends of past and present as the artist undergoes the transformation from a beloved but mostly unknown alternative country star, to a “mainstream” centerpiece.
Bryan acknowledges in the chorus, even, the underlying question of his deal with Warner; will he stay true to his craft? To himself?
I wanna ride that K-10 to way back when
Sleep next to the river, hear it rushin’ again
Get my no-good soul back to wherе it belongs
And do my best to keep truth in songs
And do my best to keep truth in songs
And all of my old friеnds miss havin’ me around, but
Highways work both ways and I can’t stand the liars in town
If you need me, you can find me slightly out of control
‘Cause highway boys don’t rest and don’t hang hats ’til they’re home
Highway boys on the road tonight, got a gig out at the Ryman
They finally found out the hard way that this sound I got is mine, man
The common thread throughout Bryan’s songs is a melancholic nostalgia highlighted by stories of drug and alcohol struggles. Of course, there is a reason he and people like Childers or Sturgill Simpson, or even Koe Wetzel appeal to Americans in our postmodern world, but especially in the forgotten parts of the country where “deplorables” get cast aside by our ruling class. Listeners seek originality and someone they can relate to. We all do.
Country music listeners are drawn to artists that demystify their own circumstances. These songwriters fall in stark contrast to the corporate dog artists, leash in hand, who from Los Angeles still consider themselves speaking for that “other half” removed from the urban enclaves.
This is where Bryan comes in.
His songs tell of true heartbreak, addiction, and mistakes. They are not sugar-coated. They are not Florida George Line or Luke Bryan infused – as if everyday people sip margaritas all day and lounge on the beach looking at beautiful women. Rather, Bryan illustrates that normal life is hard and tragic, which isn’t difficult to do for an audience that already knows this.
Bryan’s are the sort of songs you listen to when you are walking to your 9 to 5 in the freezing cold, bundled as snow falls all around, or when you miss a significant other that life had different plans for. They are the sort of songs you listen to when you are drunk, reminiscing on old friends and old times. On family, too.
Perhaps this is by design. The pain of his mother’s death in 2016 echoes throughout his sound. His 2019 song about her, “Sweet DeAnn,” laments:
You always sat there with me, and you cried every I time I played keen, you said your boy would be seen, by the masses someday. But I don’t want the stage, I don’t want the girls, I want back the days, You were breathin’ in this world.
Bryan is an artist for the people, by the people (he got his start on YouTube, after all) and he is no cliché. Fans now wait to see how he evolves in this new phase, but are hopeful for more of those certain songs that one gets the sense are a middle finger to superficial Nashville.