Zach Bryan: The Return of the Troubadour

August 04, 2023 6 min read

In 2019, this video was posted to YouTube:

The video is of Zach Bryan, who was a young man serving in the US Navy at the time this video was shot. Zach is performing his song “Heading South” in sweltering heat outside the barracks on base.

The video went viral, amassing just south of 22 million views at the time of writing. It was also one of the bricks laid on the road toward his unlikely success

From the beginning

Bryan was born with the Navy in his blood, coming into this world on April 2, 1996, in Okinawa, Japan (where his family was stationed at the time), though eventually settling in Oologah, Georgia. It was during his teen years that he got his first guitar and started writing songs, citing Jason Isbell and Evan Felker among his influences. 

Keeping with family tradition, Bryan joined the Navy at 17, eventually working his way up to Petty Officer Second Class. Though an active member of the Navy, he would continue to play and write songs when time allowed for his enjoyment.

In 2019, Bryan amassed a collection of songs written in just a couple of months. He and his friends rented an Airbnb in Florida, threw some mattresses on the walls to create a makeshift studio and recorded what was to be his debut album DeAnn (named after his late mother). It was also around this time that the YouTube video for the song “Heading South” was uploaded to YouTube. 

The album and video caught the attention of the public, garnering rave reviews for his songwriting and delivery. He would follow up that album with his 2020 record Elizabeth (recorded in a make-shift studio in a barn rather than an Airbnb), released to the same acclaim. Both of these albums are far from perfect in the sonic sense, but as Trigger from savingcountrymusic.com puts it in his review of Elizabeth: “ Most producers or industry types would be horrified at the poor recording conditions and results of Elisabeth, but it would be just those kinds of people who could screw it all up if they were put in charge with the wrong attitude.

Bryan eventually signed with Warner Music and was also honorably discharged (seemingly against his will) from the US Navy in 2021 to focus his time and energy on his music.

He posted on social media:

"I joined the Navy as a 17 year old kid. It’s all I lived, slept and ate for eight years, it’s been all I knew since I was basically a snot-nosed child. It made a man out of me, truly.

I ran with some big dogs, saw a few fights, out drank the best of them, but more importantly, got to serve along side some of the best men and women I was ever blessed enough to meet.

If it was my decision, I would never get out of the worlds greatest Navy, but here I am and they kindly honorably discharged me to go play some music.

Can’t tell if I’m a coward or if I’m chasing a dream but regardless, the best eight years of my life were spent serving the best country in the whole damn world. Thank you guys and I’ll see you on tour. -Z."

These moments were all leading to the release of his major label debut, 2022’s American Heartbreak, successful tours, his Ryman debut, a cameo during season five of Yellowstone and the 2023 Academy of Country Music Award for New Male Artist of the Year. His single “Something in the Orange” from American Heartbreak also hit the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs charts.

The Songs

Bryan has always identified himself as a songwriter more than a performer and he is certainly a student of the craft. When most country music is polished, his lyrics are rough around the edges with an honesty that is more “authentic” than the typical song. Take this example from the song “Heading South”:

And that boy, he called his daddy to tell him what he did
As the masses screamed the lyrics of a messed up kid
And then he told that old man he was never coming back
To be cut down again in a town like that

Then he surely came to learn people come to watch you fall
But he's out to make a name and a fool out of 'em all
They'll never understand that boy and his kind
All they comprehend is a f***ing dollar sign

The lyrics do come from the Jason Isbell school of storytelling, painting pictures with sophisticated writing that seems obvious when you hear it. Compare the above with “Elephant” from Isbell’s album Southeastern:

She said Andy, you're better than your past
Winked at me and drained her glass
Cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore
She said "Andy you're taking me home"
But I knew she planned to sleep alone
I'd carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from her floor
If I'd f***ed her before she got sick I'd never hear the end of it
She don't have the spirit for that now
We drink our drinks and laugh out loud
Bitch about the weekend crowd
And try to ignore the elephant somehow

The subject of both songs is different, but it’s the writing we should look at. Both show a very skilled pen and way with words that are beyond what most people hear on Country and Americana radio. The pictures in our minds are way more vivid and detailed, which makes for a richer experience for us. 

The presentation of Bryan’s music, particularly on his first two albums, really helped put that writing front and center. DeAnn was just guitar and vocals, while Elizabeth had a bit more instrumentation, but the recording was rough around the edges. It’s far from perfect (these were DIY undertakings, after all), but it puts the songs front and center. Thankfully, they can stand independently without the frills and trappings of modern production.

The outlier

There are a few things that make Bryan stand out in what can be argued as a very formulaic genre.

For one thing, he writes his songs and is often credited as the sole songwriter on his records. While this might not seem so important, it’s a big deal when you consider the country scene. Nashville’s country-making machine is very segregated in that you have writers and performers. If the performer is writing songs, it’s usually a co-write with someone else (or several someones). There are occasions where songwriters become artists in their own right (Chris Stapleton being one of them, who wrote several songs for other artists before breaking out on his own). Bryan is quite an exception because he didn’t come from any of those moulds. He was a singer-songwriter who struck it hard in country music right off the bat with his material.

The other noticeable difference is the number of songs he includes on an album. In a world where songs are shorter than they once were, and where artists are habitually releasing more singles and EPs rather than a typical album of 10 to 12 songs, Bryan decides to go big. His 2019 debut DeAnn counts 12 songs, 2020’s Elizabeth has 18 songs on it (both of these albums were self-released), and his major label debut, 2022’s American Heartbreak has a whopping 34 songs! Maybe best taken in bites, but each is just as delicious as the last.

Country music, as a genre, has become very repetitive over the past few years. Chord progressions, themes, lyrics, etc. all seem the same from one song to the next. There are exceptions, of course (the Chris Stapletons and Brothers Osbournes of the world), but to hear music this honest, rough and well-crafted is almost a breath of fresh air. The fact that it has resonated with such a large audience means that more of this is needed. In the meantime, we have Zach Bryan to lead the charge.

By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr

Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.



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