When Zach Bryan first announced that he would release his new self-titled album on the same day (August 25th) that the Turnpike Troubadours we’re releasing their much anticipated first album in six years A Cat in the Rain, I told folks to not worry. Turnpike had the wind at their backs, and plenty of momentum after their hiatus. If anything, two monster records coming out on the same day my ultimately help both by creating a big buzz.
Well, I was wrong.
What I didn’t calculate for was just how massive the Zach Bryan release was going to be, and how it would suck most all of the oxygen out of the room for most anything else, including but not limited to the Turnpike Troubadours. Their numbers weren’t terrible or anything, but their third best release week isn’t exactly setting the world on fire like they were coming out of their hiatus. But this wasn’t all Zach Bryan’s fault.
Folks need to remember that when A Cat in the Rain was first announced, it was kind of a mess. A new single first leaked via TouchTunes— not a huge issue, but one that took a little gas out of the surprise factor. Then the day before the album was to be announced, the announcement accidentally appeared on their website. Then when a scramble drill ensued, they decided to release an exclusive announcement along with an interview with Evan Felker behind a Rolling Stone paywall, and without having any of the pre-orders or or pre-save links for the album available.
Yours truly went apoplectic at how the publicity team was fumbling this huge opportunity for the Turnpike Troubadours to have their national moment. No offense to journalist Josh Crutchmer who wrote a good enough article for Rolling Stone (he’ll take offense to me mentioning him anyway to sow clout on Twitter), but that news didn’t just need to be in one antiquated and polarizing outlet behind a paywall, but in every periodical in country music via a press release. Nonetheless, I rationalized that the Turnpike rollout would still be fine due to their massive momentum.
Well, I was wrong.
I loved A Cat in the Rain and gave it a big score. But it didn’t help that from the perspective of some fans, it was a little bit of a let down. Chalk it up to unrealistic expectations or folks just not understanding that sometimes it takes months or even years for the importance of a Turnpike Troubadours song or album to reveal itself. Trust me, years from now people will be singing “Brought Me,” “The Rut,” and “Mean Old Sun” right beside the rest of their favorites.
The Turnpike Troubadours are no longer just headliners in Texas and Oklahoma. They’re headliners nationally. You just hoped for a bigger moment for them through their album release.
But it is Zach Bryan’s world right now, and the rest of us are just living in it. Just as some were worried about Zach Bryan shading out the Turnpike Troubadours, now some are now concerned that Zach’s surprise new EP Boys of Faith will do his tour buddy Charles Wesley Godwin and his new album Family Ties dirty by depreciating it in everyone’s attention feeds. That worry is probably not an entirely misplaced.
Recently, YouTube commentator Grady Smith declared Zach Bryan’s current success country music’s “Nirvana moment.” All his commentary on the situation is spot on, including drawing parallels between hair metal and Bro-Country, and how despite our current enthusiasm for all the success of earnest and heartfelt music, all of this stuff tends to be cyclical, and we’re likely to see a regression back towards music as product at some point in the future.
My only caveat would be that people declared the moment in 2015/2016 with Sturgill Simpson’s success as a “Nirvana moment,” specially after he covered the band’s song “In Bloom.” Everything we’re experiencing today was built off the work that many independently-minded artists did before. In my opinion, what’s happening with Zach Bryan, and to an extent, Oliver Anthony and others has blown past any “Nirvana moment,” and we are now into proprietary, uncharted territory that people will refer to as the “Zach Bryan moment” in the future.
This is despite, or perhaps because of the fact that Bryan continues to release self-produced music that is fair to characterize as unrefined and in need of editing. But as Bryan has proven time and time again, it doesn’t really matter. The honest sentiments at the heart of his generational resonance shine through, and they’re finding their way to a welcoming and extremely large audience.
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The new Zach Bryan EP starts with the song “Nine Ball,” which is fictional on the surface, though perhaps very real underneath. Zach Bryan has forged his career from singing about his dearly departed mother. But his father has been very much a part of the story in regards to Zach’s entourage. It’s about time there was a song about him, however dramaticized, and it’s a great new Zach Bryan track.
As of a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Noah Kahan. But even before his pairing with Zach on the song “Sarah’s Place,” he was bigger than Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Keith Urban. Kahan is unexpectedly and undeniably massive, almost on a Zach Bryan scale. They’re pairing here is titanic, even if the track is a little wordy. It’s wordy in that Zach Bryan kind of way that his fans love though.
I’ve never cared for Bon Iver, and the way his 3-year-old indie rock album displaced all actual folk and Americana artists on Billboard’s Folk/Americana chart for years. The song “Boys of Faith” is equally unimpressive and distinctly unrootsy in a way that reminds you of the worst of pretentious, Pitchfork-style douche canoe shoegaze.
Criticize Zach Bryan all you want for releasing albums on the same day as other folks deserving of undivided attention, his collaborations with Kacey Musgraves, Sierra Ferrell, and The War and Treaty have been epic for their important careers. Zach Bryan was able to do what an entire industry failed at when it came to properly representing these artists. But Noah Kahan and Bon Iver aren’t exactly in need of this attention.
The song “Deep Satin” from the EP was clearly inspired by Zach’s time living in New York. The structure of the song is extremely similar to other Zach Bryan songs, and the horns and such don’t help to hide that. But the song also exemplifies what Zach Bryan does best, which is to work toward an emotional crescendo through a story that all his listeners can visualize and relate to. He then renders the song even more endearing by referencing the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”
“Pain, Sweet, Pain” might be the most country track on the EP, and benefits from a little needed tempo, even if it fails to convey it’s underlying point.
Just like the new Zac Bryan LP, this new EP is not bad. But it’s a little frustrating to witness a regression back to pre-producer quality. As Zach Bryan has proven time and time again though, the nitpicking of opinionated little critics just does not matter. It’s Zach Bryan who is setting the rules and parameters of the game at the moment.
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I’m not sure what strategy Zach’s manager Danny Kang and the rest of his team is employing by releasing an EP a few weeks after a big album just like he did in 2022. Perhaps it’s to keep Zach Bryan’s name in the news, and that certainly has worked. But if the question is if it will take ink and attention away from Charles Wesley Godwin and his new album Family Ties just like it did from the Turnpike Troubadours on August 25th, the answer is probably in the affirmative.
In Zach Bryan’s defense, he says he had no idea that Godwin was releasing a new album the same day, and it almost seems like Godwin’s new label Big Loud (Morgan Wallen, Hardy, et al) had little clue either. Physical product of Family Ties won’t even be available through most retailers until mid October. This will affect his debut numbers. They also don’t seem to be interested in servicing any of Godwin’s songs to country radio. So what’s the point of working with a big Nashville label? Because they gave you the biggest pile of cash?
Similar to the situation with the Turnpike Troubadours, you just want to see everything firing on all cylinders for these guys, and it’s frustrating when it doesn’t. But just like the new Turnpike Troubadours album, Charles Wesley Godwin’s Family Ties is a good one (read review) and will ultimately withstand the test of time.
In fairness, Zach Bryan didn’t have any physical product ready to go when he released his new self-titled LP either. But the difference between Zach Bryan and everyone else is he can make a litany of mistakes and still succeed. Some people even find the screwball nature of his operation endearing. That’s another parallel with the Nirvana moment once again.
But Zach Bryan’s success also has to do with how his music is being promoted, and how it’s not being promoted as well. He’s not relying on sanctimonious puff pieces that much of his 20-something audience would never read even if it wasn’t behind a paywall. The only people who still care about such pieces are the publicists who get judged by placements as opposed to sales and streams, and the established fans of a band who will seek out in-depth coverage of them.
Zach Bryan’s advertisement and promotion has always been the best kind because it’s free and the most effective: word of mouth. Recently, Josh Crutchmer and Rolling Stone wrote an article about Oklahoma songwriters and how they’re so hot right now (now paywalled). But the reason writers like Wyatt Flores are exploding at the moment is because their teams are focusing on getting their songs to trend on Tik-Tok as opposed to trying to get the media or country radio interested in what they’re doing. That dinosaur stuff doesn’t mean anything to Wyatt, or Zach. They’ve gone directly to the fans.
Meanwhile, Dustin Lynch is out there reworking the old classic “Drift Away” into a General Motors advertisement called “Chevrolet” like it’s still 2014 and this garbage will fly. But it’s a new day in country music, and though all of the success presents new problems like needing air traffic controllers to keep all the incredible albums coming out from getting congested at strangle points, these are good problems to have.
When the future looks back at this current moment, it will be with envy about how people got to experience when Zach Bryan, Charles Wesley Godwin, the Turnpike Troubadours, and others all released landmark albums in a span of a few weeks, recalibrating what country music is and can be, and affecting it forevermore, and to the positive.
That is the moment and era that we are living in. It’s the Zach Bryan moment. I can’t wait to see the Hall of Fame exhibit about it in 40 years, if I’m still around.