Seeing America Through Zach Bryan’s Rust-Colored Glasses

Samuel Elkins

Seeing America Through Zach Bryan’s Rust-Colored Glasses

Samuel Elkins

The double (or even triple) album might be thriving, but for a non-household name to release a 34-track album as their major-label debut? That’s pretty audacious. To do something like that, you need a compelling reason. What possible force could be pushing you? For rising country singer Zach Bryan, who released his 34-track American Heartbreak in May, the “why” justifies that level of output. And Bryan hasn’t stopped at 34 songs. On Friday he shared even more new music: a nine-song EP called Summertime Blues.

An album-length EP following three LPs’ worth of material might seem like overkill, but the demand is definitely there. Bryan — who is 26, has a Navy background, and is originally from Oklahoma — sent American Heartbreak to a #5 debut on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the Top Country Albums chart. Radio is catching up to that surging interest: This week, the album’s single “Something In The Orange” debuted at #59 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. At a time when Morgan Wallen’s 30-song Dangerous: The Double Album has spent 64 weeks at #1 on the Top Country Albums chart, Bryan seems poised for a much-needed takeover.

Despite similarly prolific output and being grouped in the same genre, Wallen and Bryan are inherently different performers. Wallen is more of a bro-country slickster with a problematic past and superficial songs about drinking and big trucks. Other likes: Jesus. Family. The South. Getting drunk and yelling racial slurs. Meanwhile, Bryan offers a hell of a lot more substance in his craft. (FWIW, Bryan responded to the whole Wallen debacle last year by tweeting, “Didn’t know this is what @MorganWallen meant by country ass shit with country ass friends.”) American Heartbreak has more of an outlaw country appeal, with lo-fi acoustic jams overlaid with mournful harmonica and Bryan’s tearful voice. Speaking of problematic country singers — and I really hate to make this comparison — Bryan’s boyish, weathered vocal reminds me a lot of Ryan Adams. I don’t mean to suggest that singers are interchangeable, but I used to be a huge Adams fan and am happy to let Bryan fill this particular void.

Another crowd-pleasing aspect of Bryan is that he was recently an active-duty member of the Navy, positioning music as something of a very high-profile side gig. (If my years of watching The Bachelor have taught me anything, it’s that audiences really want their fame-seekers to be here for The Right Reasons™.) In 2017, Bryan started uploading music to YouTube. One of those songs, 2019’s “Heading South,” went viral and generated more than 30 million plays on Spotify, and Bryan noted he’d actually recorded it behind his Navy barracks. Last fall, Bryan was honorably discharged after eight years in the Navy and was free to embark on a very different sort of tour (his 2021 “Ain’t For Tamin'” tour).

Technically, American Heartbreak (produced by studio veteran Dave Cobb, known for his work with artists like Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson) is Bryan’s third album. But it’s only come three years after the first, 2019’s DeAnn, named for his mother, who died in 2016. DeAnn was as bare-bones as it gets, with Bryan recording in AirBnBs with just himself and a guitar. That early effort paved the way for the still-rugged but more studio-shiny Summertime Blues. Thematically, Bryan’s songs evoke strong imagery of all-American pastimes, but not the ones America likes to advertise. Instead of July 4th barbecues, trucks, bars, girls, and beer, Bryan’s songs are authentic and honest, capturing coming-of-age moments around love, family, grief, growth, heartache, work, and survival. The richest art both acknowledges and illustrates paradox, and Bryan flourishes in that space.

Summertime Blues goes down like an epilogue to American Heartbreak. The production is more crisp and sophisticated this time, but the down-home vibe stays unchanged. “Quittin’ Time” opens with delicately plucked banjo before layering on the strings and even-keeled percussion as Bryan sings about a rust-belt worker punching out and rushing home so he and his lady can go dancing. It’s worth pointing out that a lot of contemporary country singers might draw inspiration from working-class American vignettes, but Bryan brings a sense of authenticity to his storytelling. When he talks about working at a steel plant, you believe him.

Later, the gently harmonizing title track initially comes off like an innocuous warm-weather tune, but there’s a wry darkness as Bryan sings about “Hilton Head and the Hamptons, where the rich all go to die and the young kids all go get high just to pass time.” Bryan again proves his storytelling chops on the fiddle-led “Matt & Audie,” which offers a reimagined take on Bonnie & Clyde. Rather than fade into the sunset, Summertime Blues ends with an urgent flourish as Bryan observes a relationship gone south, concluding, “There’s got to be more to this than being pissed off all the time.”

The most iconic outlaw country performers earned that stamp by pushing back against Music Row’s conservative parameters, rejecting pop sheen, stripping their songs to bare bones, and welcoming influence from R&B, soul, and folk. Subgenre leader Willie Nelson already appears to have dubbed Bryan a fellow innovator, inviting him to play at this year’s Outlaw Music Festival.

Not that Bryan is trying to be subversive, exactly. Let the record show that he loves his country, and there’s no bitterness in his voice. “I wanted to be in the Navy. I love the Navy. I love the military. I love being American,” he told Today’s Country Radio with Kelleigh Bannen ahead of American Heartbreak. “But my gunner at the time, he’s from Nashville…. He looked at me one day and he was like, ‘Dude, you have to do this. If you don’t do this, millions of people who strive every day to do this are going to be disappointed in the fact that you wasted this chance.’ And he saved my butt. He looked at me and said that. And I was like, ‘You know what? You’re right.’ And he actually got me honorably discharged from the Navy because he knew that if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be helping people and getting them through their lives with songwriting. But I was meant for something different I guess.”

What Bryan identifies as, more than anything else, is a writer — a writer fueled by lived experience. “I believe that the best songs are written after the best living’s done,” he added. “Sometimes I get in my head and I’m like, ‘Oh, you got to write some music.’ And no, you don’t have to write anything. You just have to live and then write afterwards. [I] don’t get the whole sitting down to write something… I’ve never done that because it’s so strange. I have to go out and live the best that I can through family or kindness or adventure or heartbreak and all that. And that’s — it sounds weird, but I just, that’s why I write: to understand life myself.” I already can’t wait to hear Bryan’s next chapter.

Darren Xu

CHART WATCH

Chris DeVille here! You will not be surprised to learn that Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti spends a fifth nonconsecutive week atop the Billboard 200 this week. Billboard reports that the album tallied 105,000 equivalent album units, again almost entirely via streaming, which means it has moved more than 100,000 units in each of its first 10 weeks. The last album to do that was Drake’s Views in 2016. Naturally, Un Verano Sin Ti is also the first album since Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album last year to spend its first 10 weeks in the top two.

Brent Faiyaz debuts at a career-best #2 with Wasteland thanks to 88,000 units, 6,000 of them via sales. Entering at #3 is Aespa’s Girls: The 2nd Mini Album, which counts 53,000 in sales among its 56,000 units, making it the week’s bestselling album. The rest of the top 10: Harry Styles, Morgan Wallen, Drake, Future, Lil Durk, the Weeknd, and Chris Brown.

Over on the Hot 100, Harry Styles is still at #1 with “As It Was” for a 10th nonconsecutive week. Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” remains at #2 and will push for the top spot next week thanks to the release of Special. Jack Harlow’s “First Class” sticks around at #3. Also steady is Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” which remains at #4 thanks to an influx of radio plays to go along with all of those streams. Could we see a song released in 1985 hit #1 in 2022? It’s already happened in other countries. The rest of the top 10: Future, Drake, and Tems’ “Wait For U” at #5, Bad Bunny and Chencho Corleone’s “Me Porto Bonito” at #6, Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” at #7, Drake and 21 Savage’s “Jimmy Cooks” at #8, Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” at #9, and Latto’s “Big Energy” at #10.

POP FIVE

Ellie Goulding – “Easy Lover” (Feat. Big Sean)
Scott said something about this being a bop when it came out and I’ll admit it: I was skeptical! The words “Ellie Goulding” and “bop” haven’t aligned since “Lights.” (Actually, scratch that, “On My Mind” rules too.) Anyway, “Easy Lover” is a spectacular return to form. I love when Goulding leans back into her strobe-lit, clubby side and away from whatever made her do “Love Me Like You Do.”

Bella Poarch – “Dolls”
The music video might be better than the actual song, which to me sounds mostly derivative of Billie Eilish, and not in a “Poarch took inspiration and put her own spin on it” sort of way. Still, the video is such great fun — is that Chloe Cherry?! — that I see no reason to discount Poarch. Girl’s clearly got vision.

Calvin Harris – “Stay With Me” (Feat. Justin Timberlake, Halsey, & Pharrell)
I really want to be on board with this funk-led summer jam, especially since Halsey’s a part of it. But Justin Timberlake gives such cringe dad vibes these days, between joining TikTok like “I guess I gotta do this now, y’all!!!” and admonishing his own feet, that the group’s beachy chillaxation goes down more like a Carnival poop cruise.

Demi Lovato – “Substance”
Punk-rock Lovato is back! On top of being an Avril Lavigne-core banger, “Substance” shows Demi’s ability to read a room as they ask, “I know we’re all fucking exhausted/ Am I in my head, or have we all lost it?”

FINNEAS – “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa”
Look, no one loves love more than I do. I’m a notoriously romantic person. But FINNEAS rolling around a luxury hotel with his beautiful real-life girlfriend, then romping together through Paris and on a beach? How do you say snore in French? FINNEAS, c’mon, I love your love, but Paris? Beaches? Am I watching The Bachelor? (Which, as noted above, I also love.) You’re more original than this.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Bennifer got married over the weekend. [New York Times]
  • Disney announced three new series with BTS. [The Wrap]
  • An impromptu Nicki Minaj meet-and-greet in London was shut down by police due to overcrowding. [Daily Mail]
  • Adele, Lizzo, and Billie Eilish programs are nominated for Emmys. [Entertainment Weekly]
  • Cardi B released a video for her Kanye West and Lil Durk collab “Hot Shit.” [YouTube]
  • Harry Styles released a video for “Late Night Talking.” [YouTube]
  • Latto shared a cat-filled video for “PUSSY.” [YouTube]
  • Yungblud cancelled his North American tour “due to unforeseen circumstances.” [Twitter]
  • In a viral video, conservative social media troll Christian Walker accosted Kehlani at a Starbucks drive-thru. [Newsweek]
  • Beyoncé joined TikTok. [TikTok]
  • In his first performance since being hospitalized for pancreatitis, Travis Barker joined Machine Gun Kelly in LA. [Twitter]
  • Pink shared a new song, “Irrelevant.” [YouTube]
  • Stranger Things’ Noah Schnapp says he apologized to Doja Cat after leaking their private DMs. [TMZ]
  • H.E.R. shared a backstage cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You.” [Twitter]
  • 5 Seconds Of Summer shared a new song, “Blender.” [YouTube]
  • Jason Derulo hopped on a remix of Duke & Jones x Louis Theroux TikTok hit “Jiggle Jiggle,” of course. [YouTube]
  • Years & Years’ Olly Alexander released a cover of Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” on his birthday. [YouTube]
  • Michael Bublé covered Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” with the BBC Concert Orchestra. [YouTube]
  • Julia Michaels deactivated her Twitter after angering Sabrina Carpenter stans. [Vulture]

CLOSING TIME

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