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Zach Bryan Is Reviving Country Music. It Better Not Lose Him

For the first minute and 45 seconds of his new, self-titled album, Zach Bryan lays out his vision for a life well-lived. There are no pickup trucks, no girls in bikinis or short shorts, no football games, or fishing boats. There is only the vastness of the land, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the Empire State Building, and the simple meaning of our own actions.

“I’ve learned that every waking moment is enough,” he intones in the album-opening poem, “and excess never leads to better things.”

It’s a message that has resonated with listeners in an undeniable way. This week, Zach Bryan debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200 albums chart, moving the equivalent of 200,000 units in its first week. It simultaneously topped the rock, rock & alternative, Americana/folk, and country charts, as well as Spotify, iTunes, and iTunes Country. All 16 of its tracks landed in the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100, with “I Remember Everything,” his duet with Kacey Musgraves, debuting at Number One.

Zach Bryan is the biggest album in the country, but it’s much more than that, too.

Bryan has clearly hit on something. The buzzword so far is “authenticity.” A military brat who served in the Navy and claims Oklahoma as his home (if not his current residence), he fits the bill of a hard-working, blue-collar kid — one who not only believes in the American Dream but devoted years of his life to defending it for others.

His unlikely musical rise only fuels the narrative. Bryan’s big break came in 2019 when a shaky, self-recorded video of his song “Heading South” went viral. It was the perfect calling card, a tale of an underdog singer “out to make a name and fool of ’em all” that neatly predicted his own future.

The unvarnished quality of that song courses still through Zach Bryan and reintroduces earnestness to the genre, which just may be what country music needs right now. 

Country music, indeed, is having a moment, led by a surge in streaming. But what exactly is that moment? Morgan Wallen holds the record for the most weeks at Number One on the Billboard 200 this year thanks to One Thing at a Time, an honor duplicated on the Hot 100 with his song “Last Night.” In the past six weeks, Jason Aldean and Oliver Anthony planted the country flag atop the Hot 100 chart twice more. Each of those, however, comes with an asterisk, be it political baggage or even unadulterated dog whistling.

Placing Bryan in such company may be good for the genre’s public image, but it does him a disservice. He is, for one, decidedly apolitical in his music. Even personally, his politics are ambiguous: He’s a self-described libertarian who’s spoken out for transgender rights and waged a public war against ticket-selling monopolies. (As far as tickets go, he ultimately realized, “one guy can’t change the whole system.”)

He also doesn’t really see himself as a country artist. “I think people understand that I’m not that,” he told The New York Times in 2022. And, true enough, his music can sound as much rock, roots, folk, or Americana as it does country.

Bryan has, by and large, steered clear of the Nashville machine, and the prescribed route to today’s country stardom. He rarely does interviews, choosing to communicate with his fans on X (formerly Twitter), and he recently left TikTok to ponder if it’s “ruining our ability to think on our own.” His major-label debut, 2022’s American Heartbreak, topped the country chart, but his biggest single until now, “Something in the Orange,” landed on the Hot 100 before ever going to country radio. That album’s mammoth 34-song track list echoed Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album, a bellwether for how country can juice its streaming numbers. For Zach Bryan, however, he promptly went the other way, with less than half its predecessor’s song count.

Playing by his own rules is no doubt a matter of principle. “Give me something I can’t fake/That the rich boys can’t manipulate,” he sings on “Tradesman,” a pointed credo from the new album. “Something real that they can’t take/’Cause, Lord, I’m not your star.”

But the differences run deeper than a mere independent streak. At heart, Bryan isn’t a country songwriter. He follows the folk storytelling tradition. The tumbling verse, the cascading imagery, the footloose wanderings, the hard luck and heartaches — they’re the vernacular of a Woody Guthrie, of a Steinbeck or Faulkner, or his hero Bruce Springsteen, not Harlan Howard’s three-chords-and-the-truth. His South is Southern Gothic.

Back when Wallen first broke through, he too was touted for his authenticity, but it was of a vastly different order from Bryan’s. His lyrics hemmed to country traditionalism and its many familiar tropes and caricatures, with an added dose of redneck pride. Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” and Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” meanwhile, come from a place of disaffection and even hate, a “realness” tethered to fantasy.

There are plenty of angry characters on Zach Bryan, but they inhabit a richer, truer world. Those outbursts come alongside allusions to family illness or struggles with mental health, implying a sense of hurt or betrayal that runs deep with generational traumas. Songs like “Overtime,” “Summertime’s Close,” or “Fear and Friday’s” are illuminated by flickering moments and fading hopes, the dying embers of a once-expected life.

When the viewpoint gets more expansive, as it often does, it lends Bryan’s songwriting a romantic largesse that lesser writers lack. The epic sweep of the open road and famous American landmarks strike a contrast with the mundane and small-town, but the characters who set out on their own are always on the run, weighed down by work, loss, or disappointment. They’re dreamers, but they’re earthbound ones.

What often gets lost in conversations of country music’s mainstream presence is its rural appeal, as distinct from its presumed Southernness. There may be more Americans living in urban areas than rural ones, but geographically speaking the country is more rural than not. Wide-open spaces are part of the national identity. Country all too often tries to double down on itself. Bryan, as an Oklahoman — a state that’s both in the South and the Great Plains — understands that he can tap into the universal without losing touch with himself or where he’s from.


That fact will make it all the harder for the industry to rein him in. Not only has Bryan put down fresh roots in Philadelphia, far away from the tentacles of Nashville, he gives off the impression that he doesn’t need any of this. Creating music, perhaps, but not the fame or acclaim or celebrity that comes with it — all of which he has so far shunned. The underlying threat that he could walk away from it all at any moment only gives a greater sense of sureness to his convictions: He’s an individualist, not a rebel, after all.

There is, of course, a lesson in there for country music. Much like the hope-against-the-odds spirit of his songs, Bryan’s success presents a world of possibilities, a better version of country music than what it’s chosen to platform for so long. The question is whether it can be bothered to listen.

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