In The Defense of Zach Bryan

When you study music for a prolonged period—and country music specifically—you start to deduce patterns and order in what otherwise appears to be the chaotic and mercurial nature of how the popularity of artists rises and falls. For example, there is a strongly predictable pattern where the more popular an artist that rose through the grassroots/independent ranks becomes, the more they’re vilified by those same grassroots fans.

We saw this for Chris Stapleton when he went from a relatively unknown songwriter to a massive superstar after his wins and appearance on the 2015 CMA Awards. We saw that with Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, and Jason Isbell, though some of that also has to do with polarizing political statements these men have made over the years. And this is one of the things that plagues the public sentiment about Zach Bryan. It’s not the only one. But it’s the one that isn’t self-inflicted.

Despite Zach’s arena and stadium headliner status, this hatred and misunderstanding for his music among grassroots fans is quite severe and loud, and ultimately, damaging to the independent country community and efforts that are underway to put the power of the music back into the hands of artists, and circumvent the industry and gatekeepers.

For example, whenever Saving Country Music merely mentions Zach Bryan, 70% or more of the comments are very negative. A lot of this hatred also often comes unwarranted, and from misunderstanding.

What is fair game to criticize Zach Bryan about is the lack of quality control in his music that has been present ever since his first album DeAnn (2019) that was recorded in an AirBNB DIY style went viral. Since then, Bryan has mostly maintained this DIY approach to music making and to songwriting, even as he has graduated to major label distribution. Why tweak with the formula if it is working so well? Zach Bryan is the 2nd most popular artist in country music, and an indisputable Top 10 in all of music.

But this approach results in rough and loose recordings, and songs that probably could have used a second pass in the editing process. Similarly, Zach Bryan admits that he is no professional musician or singer. He’s a former Navy enlistee who caught fire completely spontaneously while still in the service, was foisted into the spotlight, and is just trying to make sense of it all on the fly like the rest of us.

To many country music listeners, there are certain benchmarks of quality that Zach Bryan just doesn’t meet. It doesn’t mean those benchmarks are meaningless. But they are meaningless for Zach Bryan. It’s not in spite of the lack of quality control that so many people find appeal in his music, it’s because of it. In the wake of the Bro-Country era in country music, people want something raw and real. They’re heard what passed for “perfection,” with seven co-writers composing highly-produced songs in lavish studios. They’re done with that. It smacks of product, while there’s something organic and honest about Zach that appeals on a deeper level.

Zach Bryan is a generational and transformational artist to American music, and to country music specifically, rewriting all the possibilities of an artist that doesn’t receive any significant radio play. As Bryan admits himself, he’s not exactly country. But he fits more in the country realm than anything else, and country music should be proud to claim him and the transformational status he’s having on music. And even though Zach’s music may be “sloppy,” it’s the incredibly cutting and insightful lines of poetry he delivers in songs that have won him his massive audience.

It’s been highlighted before, but it bears repeating that there is a significant generational gap when it comes to the appeal for Zach Bryan that underpins the wild appeal some find in his music, and the absolute cluelessness others feel as they look on with strange curiosity or outright distaste. This generational gap isn’t steadfast. There are old people connecting with Zach Bryan as well, and young folks who couldn’t care less for him. But it’s really the age divide that defines the Zach Bryan appeal binary.

The senior high school class that just graduated in ceremonies all across the United States and elsewhere spent their freshmen year in isolation and remote learning environments due to COVID and the lockdowns. They had no choice but to interact with each other and the rest of the world on their phones. Often this took shape in sharing their feelings and experiences in very direct ways.

It’s how Zach Bryan’s music embodies these deeply emotional mechanisms that is at the heart of its wild appeal. To many young people, it feels like Zach is singing about their very lives, because in many instances, he is. Zach Bryan is going through the same emotional toils and struggles as they are, and it’s all happening in real time.

Young listeners in the millions are connecting with music in a very deep and personal way through the Zach Bryan phenomenon, and then finding other similar earnest songwriters, both from the present and the past tense, to connect to as well. These listeners are feeling things, thinking things, and expressing things in a manner previous generations never did through popular music, especially popular country. In fact, it’s been generations since we’ve seen this type of deep connection fans are having with Zach Bryan’s music.

When you watch videos from Zach Bryan concerts or experience him live yourself, so much of the crowd is singing every single word to every single song right back at Zach. It’s this Beatles-esque behavior that has some, if not many mocking the Zach Bryan experience. But these Zach Bryan fans are having very deep emotional moments through music. To cast that off is to insult the power and possibility of music to be transformative in people’s lives. Sure, maybe this is behavior you would never engage in, or never have with your favorite artists. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

There is an element of jealousy in much of the Zach Bryan hatred. You definitely see this from some of the musician/performer class who is bitter because it feels like he cut in line, and has been given opportunities well above his weight class as a musician. But you also see this with listeners who are not connecting. Instead of saying, “Hey, it’s cool that so many are finding solace and appeal in deep and thoughtful songwriter-based music,” there is an element of resentment that sometimes elevates to a seething level that isn’t just unseemly, but seriously problematic.

You don’t have to like the music of Zach Bryan. That is not what’s being lobbied for here. Musical taste is inherently subjective. And as was said before, the sloppy nature to Zach Bryan’s music is something people find as a turn off. But that doesn’t mean you have to actively oppose Zach Bryan. He is taking songwriter-based music to the area and stadium level, and he’s actively pushing back against the industry in meaningful and significant ways, like his continued attacks on Ticketmaster.

Meanwhile, he doing more for many other independent artists, including women and Black artists. He’s accomplished things for other artists that the entire country music industry has failed to do previously. With his last self-titled album, he bestowed Kacey Musgraves her first #1 song. He got The War & Treaty to #14 through their collaboration “Hey Driver.” Zach’s latest single “Purple Gas” features the original writer Noeline Hofmann. Check out Sierra Ferrell playing to a packed stadium, including on her song with Zach Bryan, “Holy Roller.” Zach Bryan made this possible.

Whereas some artists climb the music ladder and pull it up behind them, Zach Bryan is actively using his platform to help other artists probably more worthy of the spotlight than himself. Whereas some artists rise to the top and start choosing their words wisely when it comes to speaking about the industry, Zach Bryan is still calling out Ticketmaster, country radio, and major record labels on a regular basis, including his own label.

Some, if not many will read all of this (though they probably won’t), and still respond succinctly, “Yeah, but Zach Bryan sucks.” Maybe his music sucks for you, because again, music is subjective. But objectively, Zach Bryan doesn’t suck. He is perhaps the most important artist of this generation. He empirically sucks so much less that his popular country predecessors, and he’s pushing an ideal of how to approach music and life that is reshaping everything we know about music and putting the power back into the hands of the fans and artists.

If you can’t get in line to support this young man, fair enough. But don’t get in the way of it. Because where Zach Bryan is going, so is music, and life. And it’s a much better place than where we were before.

Zach Bryan is set to release his new album The Great American Bar Scene on July 4th. It will probably have too many songs, be poorly produced, and probably misunderstood by throngs of independent country fans who will line up to criticize it, and sometimes for fair reasons.

But none of this will matter. It’s Zach Bryan’s moment, and a defining moment for this generation. And no different than 30-somethings to 80-somethings also had their defining moments that the previous generations didn’t understand, history will understand this moment, and it will be a history we will look back upon and be proud of. Because ultimately, the music of Zach Bryan has meaning.

© 2024 Saving Country Music