The Secret of Zach Bryan’s Thrilling Success

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Last week, I picked up my friend Paulie from his house in West Hollywood for a long trek to downtown Los Angeles to see 50 Cent perform at the Arena. Paulie is from Queens and is known as a lover of hip-hop, specifically dusty hip-hop, which I often tease him about. When he got in the car (unfortunately not wearing his G-Unit tank top), I was playing the new self-titled album from Zach Bryan. Paulie told me to turn it up. He knew the words. I might have been surprised by this if it was another artist, but Zach Bryan is everywhere.

Bryan is a 27-year-old Navy veteran from Oologah, Oklahoma. He wrote songs for fun while serving, posting simple videos on YouTube and TikTok of him performing outside the barracks. Eventually, a song called “Heading South” went viral. He has since released music at a steady clip: four full-length studio albums since 2019. In 2021, the Navy gave him an honorable discharge to pursue his music career. Next year, he is set to headline stadiums across North America. To me, the big question is why his music is currently coming out of Tesla speakers in Los Feliz and Sonos systems in the East Village.

Musically, Bryan is doing something familiar but authentic and, at times, annoyingly earnest. His lyrics—about family, growing up, falling in love, hanging out with the boys—are simple and relatable. He has a knack for instantly memorable hooks that play on the familiar country tropes of romance and regret. All of this has helped him bypass years of touring or self-releasing albums to quickly build a devout fan base. He’s been compared to everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Mumford & Sons, fairly obvious antecedents that are nevertheless not the ones that come to mind for me.

There is a blueprint for Bryan’s kind of twangy rock and roll—“alternative country” or “y’allternative”—and I have listened to a lot of it in my time, from Gram Parsons and Lucinda Williams to Whiskeytown, Son Volt, the Jayhawks, and Uncle Tupelo. But Bryan’s music, sorrowful with a pinch of bravado, is closer to that of Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes than Ryan Adams. I think this element is fueling his crossover. The resurgence of guitar music, combined with nostalgia for the halcyon days of heart-on-sleeve emo, has created the perfect environment for someone like him to thrive.

On top of that, Bryan has got coastal-elite cred. He hates Ticketmaster, the Nashville machine, and has spoken out against transphobia. He released “Dawns,” a duet with Maggie Rogers, earlier this year. His new single with Kacey Musgraves, “I Remember Everything,” is a melody-rich, classic, he-said-she-said country ballad, and it debuted atop the Billboard 100 last week. His new album, which itself just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, possesses a homespun intimacy that doesn’t take a music critic to suss out—it just sounds right. Even when he’s backed by a full band and string section, his music never feels overproduced. Dan + Shay this ain’t.

Bryan’s transformation from a cult favorite to a bona fide superstar has been incredible and inspiring to witness. His shows hit Taylor Swift levels of insanity, with droves of fans screaming lyrics back at him. Zach Bryan is the first rock album to hit No. 1 in over a year. Bryan is bringing people together, and it’s not a fluke. Something honest and heartfelt is working on a mass scale, and it has taken me by surprise. This may be the American realism we need.

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