Zach Bryan Came Out Of Nowhere
A year and a half ago, Zach Bryan was still in the Navy. Last night, he spent two hours leading what must be the loudest big-room singalongs I’ve ever heard. Popular taste is a fascinating, mercurial thing, but even by its own chaotic standards, nobody saw Zach Bryan coming. Zach Bryan didn’t even see himself coming. Nobody could accuse the 27-year-old Oklahoman singer-songwriter of being fashionable. He makes gravelly meditations on regret, and he releases them in haphazard chunks, whether it’s one song at a time or 34 tracks in one overwhelming two-hour triple-LP. Whatever Bryan is doing, it’s working. I just watched the man pack my local college-basketball arena with his devoted faithful, and I’m sold. Zach Bryan has the glow. He’s special.
If you missed Zach Bryan’s ascent, don’t feel bad. It’s been fast, and it’s still happening right now. Bryan joined the Navy right out of high school, and he served for eight years. Up until 2021, music was essentially just a hobby, a side hustle. Bryan started putting songs up on YouTube in 2015, when he was 19. Two years later, he recorded his debut album DeAnn, named after his late mother, with some friends at an Airbnb, and he put it out himself. A few of Bryan’s songs went viral on Twitter, and when lockdown lifted, he started getting booked at halls and state fairs. The venues got a whole lot bigger in a hurry.
Zach Bryan makes country music, more or less, but his version of the genre doesn’t have much in common with the slick, pop-flavored stuff that comes out of Nashville. At first, I probably got Zach confused with Luke Bryan, but those two singers are not related, and they might even be fundamentally opposed. Last year, in a rare self-aware move, Bryan released “If She Wants A Cowboy,” a vicious send-up of Nashville conventions. Bryan still won the ACM Award for Best New Male Artist yesterday. Even if he’s not ready to embrace Nashville, Nashville is ready to embrace him. The sarcasm of “If She Wants A Cowboy” aside, Zach’s whole thing is bruised, unfiltered honesty. You can see that in his early videos. The original clip for “Heading South,” the first song that really caught fire online, is filmed on a phone held vertically, with the sound of crickets audible in the background. It shows a sweaty, red-faced young man singing as hard as he can.
There’s a whole world of this stuff, the neo-traditional country-folk that gets grouped under the Americana banner, and it’s thriving right now. Jason Isbell has a steady touring machine, an HBO documentary, and a role in the new Martin Scorsese movie. Sturgill Simpson is in that same film, and his puckish middle-finger gestures at the Nashville establishment have only made him more of a cult hero. Tyler Childers and Billy Strings have become huge stars. Charlottesville, the town where I live, eats this stuff up; all of those artists regularly command huge crowds around here. But even in the context of this wave, if it even is a wave, Zach Bryan stands out.
Bryan’s music, by and large, is sad. He sings about self-destructive people trying and failing to find lasting connections with one another — the Oklahoma smokeshow who’s stuck with an asshole from back home and who will never make it out alive, the rodeo bull rider who can’t wait to meet his father in hell. Bryan sings “Something In The Orange,” his biggest song to date, from the perspective of a guy who knows that he can’t save his failing relationship. It’s gentle and evocative and utterly crushed: “When you place your head between my collar and jaw, I don’t know much, but there’s no weight at all… To you, I’m just a man. To me, you’re all I am. Where the hell am I supposed to go?”
“Something In The Orange” isn’t a cult hit. It’s a genuine hit, one that scraped the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 last year and is getting Top 40 radio airplay. Bryan released his first two albums while he was still in the Navy, and he signed with Warner around the time that he got his honorable discharge. Bryan’s major-label debut, the aforementioned triple-album monster American Heartbreak, came out last year, and it’s remained firmly entrenched in the top 20 ever since. The album’s 34-song tracklist is intimidating; the sheer size of the thing kept me away for months. In the meantime, Bryan just kept releasing music; the half-hour EP Summertime Blues followed less than two months later.
You don’t need to hear American Heartbreak all at once to appreciate it. Instead, Zach Bryan might make the most sense one song at a time. Bryan cranks out music like a rapper, but to hear him tell it, it’s not a career strategy. Talking to The New York Times last year, Bryan said that he couldn’t stop himself from compulsively putting out new songs: “I have this weird fear of like, if I don’t put this music out, someone 20 years from now isn’t going to be able to hear it. If some kid needs this in 40 years and he’s 16, he’s sitting in his room, what if I didn’t put out ‘Quiet, Heavy Dreams’? What if that’s his favorite song of all time?”
Bryan cares about the people who like his music, and he’s extended that philosophy to the way that he tours. On Twitter last Christmas, Bryan wrote, “I am so tired of people saying things can’t be done about this massive issue while huge monopolies sit there stealing money from working class people,” and he released a (great) surprise live album called All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster. He didn’t mention Taylor Swift, but since this came right after the notorious boondoggle of the Eras Tour ticket sales, you couldn’t help but make the connection. (I’ll be at the Eras Tour stop in Philly tomorrow night, and I can’t wait, but I’m guessing it’ll be a very different experience from the Zach Bryan show.)
In January, Bryan announced that his own American tour would circumvent Ticketmaster entirely — the same thing that Pearl Jam struggled to do years ago. Bryan isn’t playing barns, and his tour isn’t a DIY enterprise. He’s still hitting festivals, and he won’t control the ticketing for those. For his own headlining shows, though, Bryan is working through the Ticketmaster competitor AXS, and he’s making sure tickets don’t cost more than $130 and that service charges don’t creep past $20. That’s still a substantial chunk of change for a lot of people, but it’s not the same thing as a seat in a stadium going for thousands. It wasn’t easy to get tickets for last night’s tour opener. People had to enter lotteries for the chance to buy those tickets, and most of those people were denied. The people who made it into the room were ready.
Zach Bryan has played lots of big shows, but as far as I can tell, last night was the first time that he ever headlined an arena. That arena was packed to the literal rafters. Maybe as a result of the anti-Ticketmaster crusade, Bryan’s tour is mostly taking him through smaller towns like mine: Worcester, Wilkes-Barre, Grand Rapids, Tulsa, Sioux Falls. This is where Zach Bryan’s people are. The crowd at last night’s show was young. Lots of college kids. Lots of high-school kids. Few of the graybeards who I tend to associate with Americana. Maybe one out of 20 fans were wearing cowboy hats — not an overwhelming number, but enough that I was still like “damn, that’s a lot of cowboy hats.” The cowboy-boot ratio was way, way higher — maybe half the room. (Zach Bryan himself isn’t a hat guy, but two of the members of his band were wearing them last night.)
Before Bryan and his band took the stage, the massive screens showed a silhouetted rodeo cowboy and a simple all-caps message “LOUDEST SHOW IN AMERICA.” That’s not because Bryan and his band play loud — they don’t, not really. It’s because the crowd is loud. My friend Jason said that Zach Bryan’s fans reminded him of an ECW crowd, and he was totally right. Bryan’s songs might be deep and dark and heavy-hearted, but everyone in that room knew every word, and they were ready to belt these songs out like those songs were “We Are The Champions” or “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” or something. Again and again, Bryan said, “Charlottesville, I trust you.” He would then stop singing entirely and let the whole room bellow his lyrics. It was like the Dashboard Confessional MTV Unplugged — Bryan even rocks the swept-back fade and the sleeve tattoos like Chris Carrabba — except it was a whole arena full of kids in cowboy boots.
If you ever get a chance to see someone headline an arena for the first time, I heartily suggest that you take full advantage. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. Bryan’s stage is set up in the round. Like he was Justin Timberlake. Like he was Metallica. The setup can be a little awkward; for a large segment of the show, you’re going to be staring at the faraway back of Zach Bryan’s head. But I understand why he did it that way. Bryan wants to be close to his audience, so the show played out as one intimate moment after another, with one quarter of the room at a time. He had four mic stands set up around the stage, and he ran over to each of them as the spirit moved him. His band, made up of his best friends, filled the rest of the space, their camaraderie on clear display throughout.
The Zach Bryan live show isn’t entirely devoid of theatricality. He’s definitely got a lighting specialist on the payroll, and his banjo player did a fun bit where he collapsed into a giant security guy’s arms mid-solo. Still, this wasn’t a spectacle. Bryan and his bandmates wear everyday clothes, and they don’t seem all that different from the people in the audience. At the end of the show, Bryan and his bandmates exit through the audience, and then they come back the same way for the encores. It’s the Jon Moxley man-of-the-people approach — the anti-glamor opposite of the stars who enter via onstage elevator.
Bryan’s show-closer is called “Revival.” As in: “We’re havin’ an all-night revival! Someone call the women, and someone steal the Bible!” It’s not an exaggeration. Zach Bryan is a really good songwriter, and his music would still be powerful even if he was playing in front of 20 people in a bar. But he’s not. Context matters. Through some twist of fate that must be mysterious even to him, Zach Bryan has caught a wave. He’s built a massive fanbase quickly but organically, and his songs sound a whole lot better when you’re surrounded by people who are screaming along with their entire souls. The communal ecstasy sometimes feels downright Pentacostal. If you get a chance to see Bryan’s show for yourself, to be one of those people, you should do it. Zach Bryan is having a magical moment, and magical moments don’t happen every day.