Friday, August 23rd was one of those mammoth release days in country music we’ve been experiencing more and more as labels and artist managers circle certain dates on the calendar they believe to be optimal for releasing new music, and highly-anticipated records come flooding out all on the same day, taxing the attention spans of listeners. From Tanya Tucker’s first album of new music in 17 years, to Midland’s much anticipated second record, to Vince Gill and Jason Hawk Harris, and specifically in the Texas music scene with Dalton Domino, Seth James, and Kevin Fowler all releasing records, it was too much for ears to take in already. And somehow in this crowded field of top notch artists and their new titles, it was a solo acoustic record called DeAnn from a dude nobody had heard of that arguably titillated Texas and Red Dirt music fans the most.
With no label, no representation whatsoever, not even a Facebook page, let alone a proper website, DeAnn has become the late summer smash throughout the Lone Star State and beyond simply off the power of Zach Bryan’s songs, and strong word of mouth support from fans and fellow artists. This may not be Lil Nas X level, but the songs of DeAnn have received some 500,000 streams over the last week on Spotify alone (and counting), and some are already naming it one of their favorite records of the year. Followership on Zach Bryan’s Twitter account has skyrocketed virtually overnight as well, and people are crashing his YouTube channel looking for more. Never before has Texas country seen this type of an overnight sensation. And the appeal for Zach Bryan is not built from infectious ear worms and 30 second snippets on the Tik-Tok app, or any song specifically. This is all about the way the all the songs of Zach Bryan are speaking to people.
Anyone who tells you they knew about Zach Bryan beforehand is probably lying, present company included. All the effort expended at Saving Country Music headquarters running down leads on promising up-and-comers, and all the time spent out in the field sifting through the lineups of grassroots festivals and events throughout the year scouting for talent, and it would be a boldface lie to say I’d even heard his name until one of Zach Bryan’s songs called “Condemned” started swirling around YouTube a few weeks ago. Aside from the fact that he claims dual citizenship in Tulsa, OK and Seattle, WA on his Twitter account, nothing much else is known about the songwriter at this point, aside from what you can glean from his songs.
Drawing from both the bleeding edge of authenticity that has made the performers of Kentucky like Tyler Childers and others define the current country music insurgency, and the spellbinding songwriting magic of Oklahoma’s preeminent writers like Evan Felker, John Moreland, and John Fullbright, Zach Bryan stuns in one song after another in DeAnn, with lines that seem to be ripped right out of your own personal history, yet could be stuck on a bumper sticker and be universally appreciated by everyone. The songs of DeAnn are nothing short of stunners, and don’t need any window dressing for those listeners with keen ears and open hearts to fall in love with. In fact those musical suitors might insist they don’t want any further development in these songs—that the rawness of the experience is what makes it so magical.
Writing is one thing, and bringing songs to life in the imaginations of an audience is another. The voice of Zach Bryan has that “rode hard, put away wet” aspect that drips with genuineness and has you hanging on every word, just waiting for that next line that will floor you, which he delivers over and over again. The guitar playing may be basic, but the melodies and hooks are devilishly developed, even if they could use some refining and polishing. And there’s a palpable story running through the songs of DeAnn, and puts your emotional equilibrium in peril when you stare at the cover art of what appears to be Zach with his mother, and the overarching narrative all starts to make sense to you.
Any praise lumped on Zach Bryan is probably valid. But for these songs to thrive, they need water, and clothes. That’s not to in any way knock what Zach Bryan has accomplished here. By compiling these 12 songs and releasing them together, he’s already bested many professional musicians who struggle to encapsulate the inspirations for songs in the way Mr. Bryan has done. And don’t let anybody sell you on the idea that the album concept is dead. Zach Bryan just proved that songs, and lots of them, still reign supreme. With no musical accompaniment, Brown had to rely on the patience and open minds of an audience to make this project work, and he received these compliments through the power of song.
The success of DeAnn also validates the power of Texas and Red Dirt scene, and the camaraderie and grassroots support that reigns there, despite some of the sewing circle gossip that can sometimes get in the way. One of the reasons DeAnn did so well was Parker McCollum—who recently went from local songwriter to major label-signed artist himself—tweeted out his support.
But even as resonant as DeAnn has proven to be in just the last week, if it had arrived on the desk of Saving Country Music six weeks ago looking for a review, the counsel Zach Bryan would have received would be to not release this record at all, pull the plug on the launch, and seek representation. The songs are just too good, and the project is too under-developed for public consumption at the moment. Zach Bryan is not an acoustic performer in the traditional sense, like a John Moreland or James McMurtry type, at least not yet. These are songs written to eventually be fleshed out with a full band. This is where they would thrive and find the widest audience. DeAnn is basically a work tape of tunes to bring to a label or producer to gain better support and representation, not a proper album release.
Think about how people complain these days about how the live or acoustic versions of Tyler Childers songs are far superior to whatever they release for their major labels. This same phenomenon will reappear when all the folks streaming DeAnn right now hear these songs with a full band behind them. Their brains will have latched onto these basic recordings, and will reject the new version like a bad kidney. If asked, I would advise Zach Bryan to pull DeAnn from streaming services right now [audible gasps coming some from readers], take the data he’s racked up that proves how much his music resonates, and get himself some proper support and representation so he can do DeAnn right. Then again, the genie is out of the bottle now, at least it is for those who’ve listened so far, and you may never be able to get it back in.
It would be unfair to assign DeAnn a number grade, because despite the power of the songwriting, there are just some audible flaws here beyond the stripped-down nature of the recordings, and not just the purposeful unraveling at the end of the song “Condemned,” which reveals itself as one of the more endearing moments of the record. Despite how great it is, DeAnn is just not done yet. The guy needs a band, and a manager, or at least needs to refine his guitar playing and delivery if he wants to be a solo performer in the interim. But all that’s coming. Zach Bryan will have a strong career in country music if he so chooses. The power of what he’s accomplished with DeAnn decrees it. He might be miles behind many professional musicians, but he’s leagues ahead because he has all those intangibles you can’t teach, and can’t learn. In a word, he has “it.”
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