Album Review – Zach Bryan’s “The Great American Bar Scene”

570.15 (Singer/Songwriter-inspired Americana on the Country DDS)

The real America isn’t found on Rodeo Drive in California, or Lower Broadway in Nashville, or on South Beach in Miami, or Midtown Manhattan in New York. It’s found in the forgotten interiors, amid rural blight and urban decay, in buildings that were decommissioned from their original intent decades ago, and that the alley cats of society have occupied to serve up gin and perhaps prop up a band in the corner to belch out cover tunes to spell the juke box on Saturday night.

In these dark and dank locales is where many people go to be among their true family. It’s where people forge genuine relationships with virtual strangers by spilling their guts in moments of vulnerability. It’s where immeasurable time is wasted, yet all the problems of the world are solved in conversations from the ridiculous to the profound. It’s in these places where everyone is when they should be somewhere else. But it’s the only place many feel at home.

It’s also in these places where the the best and the worst of life’s decisions are sitting on the bar stool right next to you. This is the setting pf Zach Bryan’s fifth official studio album called The Great American Bar Scene.

Zach Bryan is a Navy enlistee who was redeployed to help the cause of salvaging American music. He’s a poet who’s been relegated to playing in an Americana band due to the depreciation of value in the written word. He’s an amateur musician who became a massive superstar even though he is unwilling to sell out, but has made millions anyway in an inadvertent twist of fate.

“Please don’t ask me how these last years went,” Zach Bryan sings in the song “Northern Thunder.” “I made a million dollars on accident. I was supposed to die a military man, chest out too far with a drink in my hand … But I’ve got folks that like hearing me rhyme.”

In perhaps his most focused and thematic work to date, Zach Bryan exhibits some refinement in both his writing, his singing and playing, and the production approach. The Great American Bar Scene feels a bit more purposeful compared to his self-titled work from 2023, though remains distinctly raw and unpolished. Once again, it’s Bryan who spells it out himself in the words to one of his songs, “I like out of tune guitars and taking jokes too far.”

This is a quieter and more melancholy album, perhaps less country than previous works, and captures a maturing young man whose thoughts and problems have moved on from young adult concerns to bigger and more daunting questions. The ages of 27 and 28 are referenced specifically in songs. He still seems starry-eyed and grateful in many respects. But Zach has settled somewhat into this crazy life that has been foisted upon him, and found more equilibrium to compose his thoughts in a forward thinking manner as opposed to the fever of a given moment.

This album may not find the rabid infectiousness among Bryan’s core fans compared to previous ones as he attempts to focus more on depth, artistry, and nuance. It’s hard to hear the “hit” so to speak, even as the overall songcraft here feels elevated. Collaborations are a big part of this album just like they were with his previous one, though they also don’t feel like they lead the charge necessarily, like “I Remember Everything” did from his 2023 release.

As opposed to attempting to summarize 19 songs in a conversational review, you can find individual thoughts on each song below. But taken as a whole, The Great American Bar Scene feels like a general step in the right direction, while still capturing that raw and rabid emotion that is at the core of Zach Bryan’s appeal and importance.

That doesn’t mean that many of the criticisms you will see for this album are not valid. Most of them will be from a conventional sense. Just like Willie Nelson’s record label and many of the critics did for his iconic album Red Headed Stranger, they believed it was unfinished, a collection of demos, and not a legitimate work of country music. But as Willie went on to prove and Zach Bryan has many times over, none of those concerns matter.

This week in Nashville, executives in suits, professional songwriters with their little song ideas, session musicians with their formulaic licks all loaded up, producers with 808 beats ready to go in the cue, they will all report for duty and go about their daily routine like nothing has changed. But it has. Nothing makes sense anymore, yet it all makes more sense than it ever has. And it’s due to Zach Bryan.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

Song Reviews:

1. Lucky Enough (Poem)

This is Zach Bryan at his best. He truly is a poet stuck in an Americana band. “Lucky Enough” is incisive insightfulness, full of wisdom and enlightenment around every turn with perfect timing and pentameter. The guy is a word master, and look no further than “Lucky Enough.” (10)

2. Mechanical Bull

A bit meandering both in the writing and the music, “Mechanical Bull” also falls into that bad Zach Bryan habit of mumbling the verses to where you lose track or attention of the message. Not a bad song, but one that could have been rendered better. (7)

3. The Great American Bar Scene

Another mumble track from Zach (he’s almost at a whisper), but a good one. Without drums (similar to many of these songs) and the steel guitar set in the distance, your attention is still centered on the words. Criticize Zach Bryan’s lo-fi production all you want, but the interplay of the sound of pool balls and boots across wood floors shows a sonic depth and attention to detail Bryan often lacks. Good track, if not a great one. (8)

4. 28

A great song that seems to capture two lovers cementing the seriousness of their relationship by retracing their histories in hometowns, drawing closer in the process, and understanding the true since of home is in the presence of someone else. As fair as it is to criticize Zach Bryan for recycling melodies or barely paying attention to them, he finds a great one here to make one of the best songs of the album. The fiddle and waltz beat will be welcomed by country fans as well. (9)

5. American Nights

This feels like a companion to the title track, and continues the thread of presenting little vignettes of characters caught up in bar scenes across America. In some respects, this is Zach Bryan’s Heartland rock album, and the chorus of “American Nights” will capture quite a few ears. But the song almost feels a little too John Cougar Mellencamp to be one of those great Zach Bryan songs as opposed to just a good one. (8)

6. Oak Island

This is Zach Bryan storytelling at its best with the little details in the song really selling you on its merits. The trumpet and watery guitar tone perfectly set the mood, and the crescendo at the end may descend into chaos like some Zach Bryan songs have done in the the past unintentionally—but in this instance it’s a brilliant and effective compositional element. This will be one of the favored tracks from the album (9).

7. Purple Gas

Zach Bryan once again uses the platform he’s been given to shine a spotlight on a deserving artist. This time it’s Noeline Hofmann, who Saving Country Music highlighted previously, and is the original writer of this song. If we’re being honest, this duet is rather sloppy, rendering the original recording by Noeline probably the superior cut of an excellent song. But the point here may not even be the performance, but putting the power of Zach Bryan behind a deserving songwriter. Strangely, Hofmann is not named in the title like Bruce Springsteen, John Mayer, and John Moreland are in their tracks. (8)

8. Boons

Zach Bryan lets the emotion and the mood try to carry this song as opposed to the writing, which is good because the idea went a little under-developed, and the music doesn’t rise to make the song remarkable either. Nonetheless, almost as an interlude, you can understand why this song about the poor side of life will find sentimentality with some, if not many, and fits the overall theme of the album. (7)

9. The Way Back

Seemingly about losing a friend too soon, possibly to addiction, Bryan leaves the big details to your imagination, and instead gives your the smaller ones to move the story along. The song utilizes a piano part that also appears in the song “Bass Boat” that comes two tracks later. But unlike “Bass Boat,” this song strains a bit to make an emotional connection, despite the emotional subject matter. (7)

10. Memphis; The Blues (feat John Moreland)

Though some love to compare Zach Bryan to Tyler Childers, fellow Oklahoman John Moreland and his very earnest songwriting is truly the precursor to Bryan’s breakout, and so it feels both appropriate and venerating for Moreland to be included here. “Memphis; The Blues” is not the album’s best, with the writing seeming to plug lines in as opposed to coming from direct inspiration like so many other Zach Bryan songs. Not completing the chorus with “…like Memphis [needs the] blues” keeps the song from feeling cliché. But this song misses those words anyway. (7.5)

11. Ida

A lot going on in this song, including what appears to be a double entendre created from the proper name “Ida,” and numerous of those Zach Bryan one-liners that fans will be excited to yell out live like, “That bullshit you see on the late-night TV is a long way from our beatin’ hearts.” This is also the song where Zach takes the polished nature of Nashville to task while admitting to his own sloppiness, saying,

When you make it to Nashville, you can tell by one hat tilt
That, that shit just ain’t my scene
I like out-of-tune guitars and takin’ jokes too far
And my bartender’s extra damn mean

12. Bass Boat

A song like “Bass Boat” is the reason Zach Bryan is where he is. It deftly makes use of the songwriting mechanism of not actually making the song about the title or opening/ending verse, but something much deeper. The payoff of lines like “I got need to find trouble when things are alright,” and “I was raised by a woman that’s hardly impressed. And I carry that shit deep in my chest,” are the exact kind of moments that deeply connect Zach Bryan with his audience. The instrumentation is delightfully sparse and perfect for the writing. Backup singer is Morgan Meinhart. (9)

13. Better Days (feat. John Mayer)

One lesson to pull from the Zach Bryan experience is gratefulness. When he walks out on arena and stadium stages still starry-eyed that so many people have shown up to see him, it feels sincere, and he seems to take nothing for granted. This in part is what “Better Days” is about. John Mayer doesn’t really add anything exceptional to the song, aside taking it from sounding like a Zach Bryan song to a song you’re more accustomed to hearing on an album, thanks to Mayer’s slick, but rather cliché guitar lines. (8)

14. Towers

This song starts off exploring the idea that certain things aren’t as beautiful if you don’t have someone you love to share them with. It ends on the musings of the nature of God that dovetail with the later song “Funny Man.” Sometimes Zach Bryan songs feel like repositories for random ideas as opposed to cohesive thoughts. Adding a gospel choir to this track wasn’t a terrible notion, but the execution made it feel like an interjection as opposed to an organic collaboration. (7)

15. Sandpaper (feat. Bruce Springsteen)

Though the lyrical hook might be just a little too obtuse for general audiences, the writing of “Sandpaper” nonetheless shines through. The unfortunate thing is the rhythm is such a spitting image of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” it immediately recalls that song that so many country artists love to cover. (8)

16. Northern Thunder

It’s Zach Bryan’s sometimes mumbly, emotion-filled lyrics that makes the deepest connection with his audience. But when he sings out clearly like he does on “Northern Thunder,” it makes a big difference. Once again we have a song where drums are virtually non-existence, and it’s a dobro that drives the music in this instance. Zach presents a lot in this song to digest. Guest vocals are performed by Bree Tranter. (8.5)

17. Funny Man

This feels like a song capturing Zach Bryan’s feeling of gratefulness to be with his girlfriend, social media influencer and podcaster Brianna “Chickenfry” LaPaglia, intertwined with musings on the nature of God that dovetail with the song “Towers.” Instead of setting a groove, “Funny Man” attempts to work off of swells of emotion. The song feels a little busy, and sometimes the words are hard to hear. But the sentiment shines through. (7)

18. Pink Skies

The lead single from the album is about adult children returning home for a funeral, though Zach Bryan has clarified the song is not about his late mother DeAnn. The track on the album is different from the single, and they’ve been released as two separate songs. The album cut includes an additional stanza by Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin of the band Watchhouse, formerly known as Mandolin Orange. Watchhouse also plays on the song. (8)

19. Bathwater

This is an incomplete song, or the beginning stub of one that Zach 86’d the second half of. It includes commentary on the country music industry, and perhaps the push and pull Zach experiences when trying to stay true to himself. It also calls out “808” beats, i.e. electronic drum tracks, gives a shout out to Tyler Childers, and perhaps shout outs Sturgill Simpson in some commentary about being an “Outlaw.” This track feels like it’s more about Zach getting some stuff off his chest and out into the world as opposed to a “song.”

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