Zach Bryan – self titled
In a business where we’re supposed to make artist comps, there really isn’t one for Zach Bryan. Musically, he walks the line between Americana and radio country, most similar to early Eric Church, but more heartland-ish. His prolific output rivals that of Charley Crockett, but it hews less closely to classic country. And his meteoric rise recalls Tyler Childers, but faster and with a higher ceiling – Bryan’s camp recently announced a massive stadium tour for next summer. And the crowds…I’ve never seen Red Rocks as overstuffed as it was for his June show this year, mostly with younger folks who needed something a little better than what corporate country radio has been feeding them. Bryan’s new, self-titled album, relatively sparse at “only” 16 tracks, continues what he does best – mixing the heartfelt and the anthemic to hit a sweet spot no one else in country music has been able to find.
Zach Bryan starts off where his last full album, last year’s (!) 34-song (!!) American Heartbreak ended – with a poem. And while “This Road I Know” focused on a hazy return to home and old friends, “Fear and Friday’s” (apostrophe his) focuses more on Bryan’s travels and the changes he’s seen in himself since encountering near-instant fame, all of which make for good songs – “I don’t need a music machine telling me what a good story is.” The first proper song on the record, “Overtime,” is anthemic in the truest sense, beginning with a riffy “Star Spangled Banner” before launching into a guitar and trumpet rocker that features a Bryan specialty – a slowed-down, populist chorus made for audience sing-alongs – “So hold on tight cuz I be working overtime/They told me I couldn’t and I shouldn’t even try” (cue high fives and red Solo Cup toasts all around NFL stadiums next summer).
The subtler art of Zach Bryan’s writing – and what’s almost non-existent in mainstream country and this summer’s viral flashes-in-the-pan – is vulnerability. “East Side of Sorrow,” with more trumpet, banjo and Dobro (Bryan self-produced the album, and we see him expand his musical palette ever so slightly across the record), has the singer addressing his time in the Navy, the death of a loved one and pain and addiction with a mantra of grudging resolve – “Don’t give it a reason to follow/Let it be, then let it go” (curiously, he also expresses his admiration for Turnpike Troubadours, a lyric clearly written before he decided to release his album on the same day as his fellow Oklahomans’ comeback effort). Bryan is a guy who appreciates his fame but also wrestles with its worst, unintended results – witness his real-life fight with Ticketmaster, then subsequent online scraps with fans who didn’t appreciate his attempts at a more equitable method of ticket distribution. The fiddle-laden “Ticking” finds him totaling up the cost of faster-than-anticipated fame – “I’m cutting ties with things that bind my heart to this world/I love you and I’m willing but I really have to go.” The song, like his social media feed, shows him genuinely befuddled by the fast pace and unyielding demands of his new world.
Another effect of his zero-to-hero rise has been…guest stars! Michael and Tanya Trotter of The War and Treaty stop by to lend a tinge of gospel to “Hey Driver.” Red-hot “featured artist” Sierra Ferrell kicks in some vocals on the slow burn, Shovels & Rope-esque “Holy Roller.” And Wesley Schultz and Jeremy Fraites of The Lumineers (a band that Bryan has openly, endearingly fanboyed over) add some harmonies and Colorado folk to the confessional “Spotless” – “I’m a self-destructive landslide if you want to be the hill.” But Kacey Musgraves’ appearance has fared best with Bryan’s fans on a tune the two penned (another difference between Zach Bryan fans and bro-country listeners – the welcoming of a female artist). “I Remember Everything” again nods to Bryan’s influences (“Rotgut whiskey’s gonna ease my mind” recalls Childers’ “Whitehouse Road”), but it’s the traded vocals that mirror old-school, he said/she said country, with Bryan taking the bulk of the blame – “Strange words come on out of a grown man’s mouth when his mind’s broke.” It’s the kind of big, familiar emotion that Bryan, even amidst strings and Musgrave’s gorgeous voice, can make feel intimate and personal. And right now, no one’s doing it quite as well as he so often does.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Oklahoma Son” – This acoustic ballad that wraps the album finds Bryan trying to go home again, and not doing so well once he gets there – “And money can’t buy no friend of fine/And money can’t buy me back no time.” Again, it’s that vulnerability that sets him apart.
Zach Bryan was produced by Zach Bryan, engineered by Jacob Weinberg, Jamie Hamburg and Scott Zhang, mixed by Jacquire King and Scott Zhang and mastered by Pete Lyman. All songs written by Bryan (“I Remember Everything” written with Kacey Musgraves, “Spotless” written with Wesley Schultz and Jeremy Caleb Fraites). Musicians on the album include Bryan (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, harmonica, percussion, bass), Jacob Weinberg (piano, organ, percussion, drums, bass, Wurlitzer, background vocals), Zephyr Avalon (bass, acoustic bass), Steve Clark (drums, acoustic guitar), Read Connolly (acoustic guitar, banjo, acoustic Dobro, steel guitar, percussion, Rhodes, background vocals), Noah Legros (acoustic Dobro, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, percussion, background vocals), Lucas Ruge Jones (trumpet, fiddle, percussion, background vocals), Michael Trotter Jr (vocals, piano), Tanya Trotter (vocals), Graham Bright (electric guitar), Sierra Ferrell (vocals), Kacey Musgraves (vocals), Hudson Pollack (drums), David Chae (violin, viola, cello), Jeremy Fraites (piano), Wes Schultz (vocals) and Scott Zhang (bass).
Go here to order Zach Bryan (out digitally now, LP and CD available October 13): https://store.zachbryan.com/
Check out tour dates here: https://www.zachbryan.com/tour
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: Zach Bryan at Red Rocks