Full-time enlisted Navy serviceman and amateur songwriter Zach Bryan stunned the roots world in August of 2019 when he released a completely homespun and totally unrepresented recording of 12 acoustic songs under the title DeAnn in honor of his dearly departed mother, and the the effort went viral from the sheer strength of the songs.
In the aftermath, Zach Bryan became one of the most sought-after musical commodities of 2019, with managers, labels, booking agents, and publicists falling over each other to get an opportunity to work with the clearly rough-hewn, but wickedly-talented songwriter. Danny Kang—known for working with Lil Nas X and others—became Zach Bryan’s manager, the prestigious WME booking agency got Zach under contract for touring, and he was even spotted in the studio with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb in Nashville.
Now with a dream team behind him, and every label itching to release what would surely be a massively-successful fully-produced debut record, what does Zach Bryan do? He assembled the same beer league recording crew of close buddies he worked with on the first album, and has released 18 new acoustic songs recorded to a laptop under the title Elisabeth.
Just as stunning in the strokes of writing as the first one, Elisabeth removes any thought that Zach Bryan was a lucky, one shot anomaly. Lightning has struck twice, and now you have to assign the attribute of “prolific” to the list of other plaudits to lump upon Zach Bryan, even if once again he requires his audience to listen intently through lo-fi recordings and production flubs. But when you get to lines such as, “I hate the man I am, but I love him when you’re mine,” you so are handsomely rewarded, it’s worth whatever adventure getting there.
At this point, there is no real way to quantify or categorize what Zach Bryan is doing, and at an enhanced level of success, even with no label or publicity team behind him. Even the most unusual musical artists still fall into an established set of archetypes, however many variables they may bring to the equation. But there is nothing, and nobody like Zach Bryan, at least nobody that has risen out of obscurity to find a level of success with such an improbable path in roots music.
In two records and 10 months, Zach Bryan has delivered more gut punching songs and lines than some professional songwriters come up with in their careers—all while putting in overtime for Uncle Sam in fatigues. At this point, it’s just stupid. You almost don’t believe what you’re hearing, like there must be a host of ghost writers behind the scenes or something. But the back story of a kid from Tulsa who lost his mom and is pouring his heart out through music checks out.
Elisabeth does feature a little bit more instrumentation compared to the first record in the form of bass drum, an out-of-tune piano procured for free on Facebook, buddy harmonies, and some sparse drum set on a few tracks. But it’s still very much just Zach and his guitar, and a rag tag assemblage of recordings. Most producers or industry types would be horrified at the poor recording conditions and results of Elisabeth, but it would be just those kinds of people who could screw it all up if they were put in charge with the wrong attitude.
And laid out right there in the lines of Elisabeth is a sworn affidavit by Zach Bryan that he will not change for want of the almighty dollar. Multiple songs address this, including what has been the biggest hit of his career so far called “Heading South,” which was first released after the first record, and was not part of the original viral moment. There is also a song called “Me and Mine” that is all about refusing to be tempted to the dark side of the music world, and about the making of this album that was recorded in a makeshift studio built in a horse barn.
They tell me they can sell my soul for a dream and a couple of shows
I don’t think they understand how deep loyalty goes
For some boys I got in a barn we built out of pure Douglas Fir
Badly written song next to horses shit is what an Okie boy prefers
We started this thing grinning boys, I think we’ve got to run.
The radio man came to fuck it up as he boasts about #1’s.
The story of how the record came together is part of the theme itself of the record itself, as well as the focus of an accompanying “documentary” about the making of the new record (and a lot about the first album) called Hope (see in full below). As endearingly rag tag as the record itself, the film nonetheless features Zach Bryan’s master plan of having no plan at all, and working with his decidedly unprofessional crew of close friends that include fiance Rose Madden, along with Leo Alba, Chris Anteen, J.R. Carroll, Zach Moffatt, and Adam Vasquez to capture magic that many artists and their million-dollar productions fail to.
The question still lingers if these songs would be presented better, and reach an even bigger audience if they were properly produced and released. Zach Bryan can’t even seem to sync up releasing his music on the various streaming services simultaneously (the album still doesn’t appear on iTunes/Apple Music at the time of posting). Though the answer is probably “yes,” the real question is how to continue capture Zach Bryan’s magic, but do it in a way that is still respectful to his passions, vision, and team.
There is not a universal consensus behind Zach Bryan as a world-class songwriter. He does have a couple of bad songs that just don’t work, and plenty see him as a Tyler Childers clone that looks like that kid from the 90’s sitcom Home Improvement. Some people can listen through the bedroom production (or in this case, horse barn) to hear the heart of the songs. In fact, some prefer it. But the vast majority of the population can’t. That’s what renders Zach Bryan’s upside potential still an incredible commodity despite the viral nature he’s enjoyed already. Few know about this kid outside of the tightly-knit scenes of Texas country and Red Dirt. National media is perfectly clueless about the Zach Bryan phenomenon.
Zach Bryan is a songwriting savant the likes we haven’t seen in this generation, or perhaps any other, with the only qualifier being his career is still very young. But he’s got a gift for words that don’t just make other songwriters jealous, it makes anyone who is a fan of words in general perk up in awe, while all the melody construction and the soulfulness of the voice is there as well. It’s just many won’t be able to hear it through the fog of the approach. That is why virtually the entirety of popular music is produced and released as it is, even if they try to fool you sometimes by making it sound rough around the edges.
Zach Bryan isn’t just an anomaly, he’s a phenomenon. Will we see more artists taking this approach emerge in the future? Where will these songs from Zach Bryan take him, and will he allow himself to go? Or will he continue to remain the songwriting Navy-enlisted wunderkind that has sparked fascination and wonder on an unprecedented level? We’ll just have to see. But so far, it’s been quite a wild and enjoyable run, filling a musical appetite we never knew we had, but one that would feel like an incredible loss if it went away.
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Grade withheld due to the nature of the album.