Delving Into The Disconnect Between Zach Bryan Lovers & Haters

Just a few short years ago, we could only dream that an artist coming up organically through the independent ranks would be one of the most popular artists in all of country music for going on a year now, but that is exactly where Zach Bryan is today. His popularity is so immense, festivals are building their lineups around him, he’s perennially stuck near the top of all of the songs and albums charts in country, and even country radio has been forced to acquiesce and give his single “Something in the Orange” significant play.

You go to sold out Zach Bryan shows in arenas, and there are ten thousand fans screaming all the words to Zach’s songs back at him with an enthusiasm that is tantamount to modern day Beatlemania. But just like we saw with Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers, and others before them, as soon as an underground hero gets mainstream-level attention, the boo birds come out and rain on the parade.

You merely mention Zach Bryan’s name in an article, and the comments sections on social media and elsewhere fill up with folks saying, “I just don’t get it” at the most polite, and “this dude sucks and is a fraud!” at the most pointed. Some will tell you Zach is just the latest pop star construct of the industry, manufactured to suck up all the anti-Nashville sentiment and co-opt it into the fold.

Clearly though, you go beyond the vocal minority of internet comment sections and there is an extremely strong contingent of fans who love Zach Bryan. That is why he’s in the position that he’s in. So what accounts for such a wide disconnect between Zach Bryan lovers and haters?

Some of this is just the regular rhythms of independent music. Independent fans have been conditioned to be cynical and distrusting of anything successful, and they tend to think that the only way someone is allowed to rise to the top is because the game is rigged in their favor. Some independent fans are just possessive, and want to keep their favorite music for themselves. They want the music to feel exclusive, like they know something the rest of the world doesn’t. So as soon as something is popular, it’s passe.

There is also an age disconnect when it comes to Zach Bryan. There are definitely exceptions of course, but Bryan is singing about young adult concerns because he’s a young adult. That doesn’t always appeal to grizzly old Outlaw fans or Americana listeners who are looking for music that is a bit more mature or refined.

Some also grouse that Zach Bryan’s music is not exactly country. This is a fair criticism, but it’s also fair to say that Zach Bryan is more country than he is anything else. It’s earnest singer/songwriter material that fits in the country universe similar to how Guy Clark, Townes Van Zadt, and other songwriters did—though not to compare him directly to those folks. There is fiddle and banjo in Zach’s music. No, it’s not pure country, but it’s country enough, way more country than most of what’s on country radio today, and organic if nothing else.

Some of the Zach Bryan disconnect also comes from the fact that he’s so prolific, he challenges the audience to display a little patience, and to listen intently and separate the wheat from the chaff. Busy folks with a jobs and kids just don’t have time for all of that. Give them them 10 songs every two years and they’re good. Zach Bryan and his vast catalog of under-produced songs just seems like a mess.

It’s not that Zach Bryan is without fault himself. Sure, a lot of his songs “sound the same,” if only because production is rarely an imperative focus of his studio work. At times the writing is sloppy, perhaps even amateur. From a conventional point of view, Zach Bryan needs a producer and co-writers, and to edit down his material. But what people don’t understand is that if music industry handlers got a hold of Zach Bryan, the would crush everything cool about him. He got here by being just the way he is.

It’s Zach Bryan’s everyman, starry-eyed attitude that people identify with. It’s his improbable rise and backstory that builds those unbreakable connections with his audience. And the fact that Zach continues to be so prolific despite his overwhelming success is what makes him fascinating to his loyal audience. Nothing about Zach Bryan works on paper. It’s paradigm changing. And at the risk of sounding condescending, it’s okay if some don’t “get it.” Maybe it’s just not for you. But maybe it’s because you’re just not listening, haven’t experienced him live, or just haven’t heard the right song in the crush of tracks he’s released.

Whenever anyone asks why Zach Bryan resonates so resolutely with so many fans, the most crucial element that I always point to are the poignant little bits of writing embedded in many of his songs that pierce straight to the heart. Isolated and written out, they may not look like much. But it’s the way Zach delivers them, and how you know they came from lived experiences that makes them resonate with listeners, and on a grand scale unparalleled by other more seasoned performers.

If there was one song out of the 44 songs Zach Bryan has released in the last year or so that best illustrates why Zach Bryan has found such phenomenon-level appeal, it might be “Oklahoma Smokeshow,” which he recently release a video for. It didn’t appear on Zach’s gargantuan 34-song American Heartbreak from last year. It came on the 9-song Summertime Blues he released a few months later.

The song has one of those lines that pierces straight to the heart in “that small-town bar scene, where small vices kill your big dreams.” It has that almost cinematic quality where listeners are transported to a very specific time and place in their mind where they can see all the characters of the story interacting, and feel the tension and drama as the tug and pull of small town life seizes upon potent moments.

Zach Bryan fans feel like he’s able to peer into the very souls—like he’s patently aware of their own life stories, and writes his songs patterned specifically for them. He puts words to emotions they’ve never known how to express, while evoking emotions in them they’ve never felt before.

If you’re on the outside looking into this phenomenon, it can seem implausible, or even phony. But don’t fool yourself into believing that’s the case. What we are witnessing is the return and the wide proliferation of earnestness and honesty in popular songwriting. And even if it’s not for you, that doesn’t mean it’s not real, and of tantamount importance to our current time in music.

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