Album Review – Zach Top’s “Cold Beer & Country Music”

You have to let out a little chuckle whenever you see some knucklehead outside of the country music sphere saying that the genre is in disarray and needs saving by some superstar outside of the fold. Meanwhile in the real world, country music is going through a major resurgence with actual country music as the spearhead. Listeners young and old are awakening to the eternal relevancy of a good country song, and are supporting true country music at a level we haven’t seen in many years.

There is perhaps no better sign of this country resurgence than the surging popularity of 25-year-old Zach Top. It’s not that traditional throwback ’90s-sounding artists haven’t been around for years. Many of the original artists from the ’90s are still going strong and releasing good music too. But with Zach, his music has caught fire like he’s the next new thing, even though his sound is older than he is.

Zach Top’s big on Tik-Tok. His songs are finding traction on mainstream country radio. It’s all happening for Zach, and when we talk about “’90s country,” we’re not talking about close approximations or music “inspired” by the era. His new album Cold Beer & Country Music sounds like it is straight off a ’90s country radio playlist from artists like Randy Travis or Alan Jackson, backed by the timeless playing of folks like Brent Mason and Paul Franklin.

It might sound like something three decades removed from the present tense, but the music is all Zach’s. He co-wrote every song on the new album with producer Carson Chamberlain. Who is Carson Chamberlain? He’s the Berea, Kentucky native that played steel guitar and was the bandleader for Keith Whitley all the way up to the country legend’s death in 1989. After that, Carson worked for Alan Jackson and Clint Black. If you want to mine ’90s country gold, go directly to the source. That’s what Zach Top and Cold Beer & Country Music did.

Zach Top actually didn’t start in country, but in bluegrass. Raised on a ranch outside of Sunnyside, Washington in the rural center of the state, he started performing at the age of seven in a band with his siblings called Top String. Into his teens and 20s, Zach kept on in bluegrass, including in the award-winning band Modern Tradition before deciding to move to Nashville in 2021 to pursue his honky tonk dreams.

Cold Beer & Country Music isn’t just reminiscent of ’90s country in sound. The writing is also emblematic of the era, and of country music in general. The songs are about love and love lost, as well as underscoring country values and wisdom, like the long outlook and sense of home found in the song “Dirt Turns To Gold,” or the assuring trustworthiness of “Cowboys Like Me Do.”

But ahead of Cold Beer & Country Music, there was some concern for the quality of the songs Top was writing and choosing. That concern lingers throughout the album. No individual song is especially overwrought or under-developed, but most every song draws from an established country music trope.

When you combine this with typical ’90s music and instrumentation, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for originality to be expressed in this music. Zach Top may sound fresh and new to folks who’ve been starved of actual country for 30 years. But for those born and bred on the stuff, they may not hear anything they find particularly novel.

The first two song “Sounds Like The Radio” and “Cold Beer & Country Music” are really nothing more than country songs about country songs. “Cowboys Like Me Do” and “Lonely For Long” are songs that we’ve all heard before, just in different versions. What props them up though is Zach Top’s voice, which not only is naturally gifted to sing this kind of material, but comes with a passion and conviction for country music that you don’t just hear, but feel.

When you arrive at the 9th track on the album, the heartbreaking waltz “Use Me,” this is when the striking voice of Zach Top, the top-shelf picking and production, as well as stellar writing align to make something that gives you the same chills all those country gold selections from the ’90s did. The final song “Things To Do” also shows a bit more originality, and unbuttons the top collar so to speak, which this album needed.

Perhaps mostly importantly though, Cold Beer & Country Music is just the start, for both Zach Top, and where country music is headed overall amid a traditional resurgence. We’ve seen traditionalists pop up over the years. But few have captured the sound of traditional country so purely, along with the attention of the public so keenly as Zach Top. With the way things are headed, it feels like only a matter of time before Zach and traditional country both end up on Top in country music.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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