Album Review – Zach Bryan’s “Summertime Blues”

No rest for the weary, and no time to ruminate upon and digest the 34 tracks Zach Bryan released just a couple of months ago via his massive #1 album American Heartbreak. Make room on your plate, because here are nine more in what Zach Bryan is characterizing as an EP called Summertime Blues. No, Zach doesn’t cover the old Eddie Cochran tune of the same name. He also doesn’t evidence any drop in quality due to the prolific nature of his output. He just continues to remain in the flow state in which he commenced his career, and continues to deliver and defy the conventional wisdom for musical output.

To Zach Bryan, words are his world. They come dropping out of the sky, oozing up from the ground, swamping him with poetry, rhyme, and lyrical hooks, while his keen sense of insight is constantly cataloging the meaningfulness of moments for future use in song. The rush of words from this young man is overflowing, boundless, and effervescent, and his soul is the vessel that captures them all. This is Zach Bryan’s singular gift, and what makes him wholly unique even among some of the most accomplished and productive of songwriters. For those suffering from writer’s block, his carnival of excess seems inequitable, even impossible. That is why jealousy is a component to some of the Zach Bryan criticism.

Summertime Blues feels like a cousin or continuation to American Heartbreak in how the songs and production are approached—some with a full band sound, some more stripped down. Some love to point out that Zach Bryan really isn’t that “country.” This is true to some extent; he’s a singer/songwriter. But there are country elements in most everything he does, whether it’s in the instrumentation, or the lyrical themes. The opening song “Quittin’ Time” is driven by both banjo and fiddle, and the blue-collar story following a steel worker, soldier, and roofer through their laborious day is very much in the country music vein.

But whatever you label Zach Bryan, it’s the songs that have lit a fire whose flames have reached the very top of the country mainstream. Summertime Blues throws even more logs onto that inferno, then stokes it with accelerant. “Oklahoma Smokeshow” display’s Zach Bryan’s deft use of character to tell compelling stories that seem relevant to all of us. The casts of his songs are unique enough to be compelling, but similar enough with people we know or once knew—or ourselves—to be eerily applicable to our own lives.

Zach Bryan goes out and lives his young life, and like a sponge, soaks up all those most potent emotional moments, from utter euphoria to crippling self-doubt. While many of us may experience these moments as fleeting, he zeroes in on them. It’s his muse. Because it’s in these intense moments that you feel the most alive. Then he contextualizes them in a way few songwriters are capable of, like in the song “Twenty So” on the new album, zooming out to understand that no matter how daunting the emotions or decisions might feel now, in the future you will cherish these moment, and reflect upon them fondly.

This element of wisdom, and Zach’s ability to pull lyrical hooks seemingly out of the air that then sink straight into your soul is the reason his songwriting feels so vital. This group of songs is as good as any other Zach Bryan has released, and those groups of songs have ensconced him just behind Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs as the biggest thing in country music, and virtually without mainstream radio play or other mainstream opportunities.

Summertime Blues doesn’t come without some concerns, which is bound to happen since nothing from Zach Bryan is slow cooked. “Jamie” with his frequent tour opener and SCM Album of the Year alumnus Charles Wesley Godwin is one of the stronger tracks on the new album, but the writing and approach really wasn’t for a duet, they just sort of made it that way. Zach’s phrasing and performance on “Us Then” just feels a little tired and unrehearsed. “Matt and Audie” is a good story song, but also a common trope, which is a bit uncharacteristic for Bryan whose originality of ideas is one of his strengths. It’s the stories so many of these songs contain—including if not especially songs like “Jamie”—that make the appetite for more Zach Bryan so insatiable.

Cherish these moments Zach Bryan fans. A bumper crop has come in. This is Zach Bryan’s year, and is Zach Bryan’s moment. But you never know when drought and famine could set in. Just ask fans of Hank Williams III, who got three records in 2011, another two in 2013, and nothing but crickets since. Zach Bryan has already said his current tour may be his last. Sure, him and Barbra Streisand. But you’re never quite sure when an artist will tap out, either of quality stuff, or entirely. So savor this moment in music, because it belongs to Zach Bryan.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.3/10)

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