Zach Bryan Can’t Win for Winning

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. And right now, the crown in music is firmly ensconced on Zach Bryan’s crew cut and curiously-large corn-fed Oklahoma head. As the owner of the top slot on both the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart and the Billboard 200 Albums chart, there is nobody bigger, in country music or any other genre at the moment than Zach Bryan.

With that incredible achievement always comes an elevated level of scrutiny, as it should. It also comes with an incredibly encumbering burden for the artist to maintain their perspective and equilibrium in a world where they’re foisted into being the center of attention. That’s much easier said than done as the public and the opportunistic press leer in the shadows waiting for any and all missteps to lampoon and exploit.

There’s an old saying in country music: look out for a hillbilly with a hit record. In Zach Bryan’s case, it has nothing to do with all night benders or extravagant shopping sprees. Despite the current circumstances, Zach Bryan continues to come across as curiously grounded, humble, contrite, even starry-eyed in certain circumstances. Nobody is more aware that Zach Bryan is punching above his weight class more than Zach Bryan.

His current troubles are quite a bit different than what we’ve seen from the likes of Morgan Wallen when he was careening out of control, let alone oldtimers like George Jones and Johnny Cash when they were ballin’ out back in the day. Folks are angry at Zach Bryan because he was one of the few if only people in popular music in the modern era to actively take on Ticketmaster and offer affordable tickets. Yet when fans still couldn’t secure spots because demand still dramatically outpaced supply, they weren’t understanding of the situation and still appreciative of his efforts. They came for his head anyway.

So now Zach Bryan is saying “screw it,” and booking arenas and letting Ticketmaster do their worst. Because either way, fans were going to complain and blame him. So why expend the Herculean effort that Zach and his team underwent to take on the Ticketmaster/LiveNation monopoly when his own fans are ultimately going to go on the attack?

Sure, Zach’s Ticketmaster work around could have been rolled out and implemented better. But don’t think the fat cats at Ticketmaster weren’t cackling as Zach’s plan suffered from logistical snafus and incessant complaints from patrons. Now Zach Bryan fans are shelling out $300 for seats in the nosebleeds, if they can get them. Is that Ticketmaster’s fault, or the fault of demand? No, it’s still Zach Bryan’s. Giving up his Ticketmaster fight isn’t hypocritical. It was inevitable. Because like the law, Ticketmaster always wins.

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And then there is this arrest incident, which in truth is tantamount to a popcorn fart of an infraction if there ever was one. I have to be frank. I’m really surprised that it seems like a large share of the public sentiment has landed on the side of Zach Bryan being a self-entitled crybaby in the incident, and deserving of what he got. No doubt Zach made some mistakes in the moment, and he’s apologized vociferously for those mistakes, as well apologizing for things he probably shouldn’t have.

But the people using this as some sort of indictment of Zach Bryan’s character feel a bit out of line. In the United States, we’ve become so accustomed to the overreaching power of the police state, the idea of detaining a completely non threatening individual, restraining them with handcuffs, taking away their freedom and incarcerating them behind bars, taking a mugshot and fingerprints in the same we do murderers and rapists is just seen as commonplace. In truth, it should be scandalous and alarming every time this occurs.

Yes, I’ve seen the dash cam video. In no way did Zach Bryan interfere with the police officer, or the discharging of his duties or any investigation. Zach Bryan pulled up beside his security guard’s vehicle that had been pulled over for speeding, and he started talking to the security guard through the passenger side window. The police officer was still in his car at the time. It was the officer that got out of the patrol car and confronted Zach Bryan, not vice versa.

Zach Bryan has the right to be in that public space, and to observe and even record the police executing their duties according to Oklahoma State Law §21-540. I would understand if Zach Bryan got in the way of the officer, went to the officer’s squad car and knocked on the window, or if he’d gone over the the driver’s side of his security guard’s vehicle in a way that could impede the officer’s duties. None of this occurred.

When the police officer saw Zach Bryan approach the security guard’s vehicle, he got out of the squad car and confronted him.

“Hey, whatcha doing?” the officer says.

“I’m wondering why it’s taking so long,” Zach answered, which is his right to inquire about.

The officer answers, “It’s not any of your business. You need to get back in your truck because you’re interfering with an officer discharging duties right now. You need to get back in your truck or go to jail, I don’t care which.”

This was a dramatic and unnecessary escalation of the situation. Zach Bryan was not being aggressive to the officer, Zach Bryan had not said anything flippant or disrespectful to the officer, Zach Bryan was not impinging upon the officer or his investigation or execution of his duties in any way, and Zach Bryan had every right—if not an obligation—to make sure his employee (the security guard) was being fairly treated.

The officer immediately took Zach Bryan’s inquiry about why the traffic stop was taking so long, and escalated it to an ultimatum of either getting back into his truck, or going to jail. The officer was not in the wrong necessarily to ask Zach to get back in his truck, but Zach Bryan didn’t have to. As long as Zach was not physically getting in the way of the police officer, he had every right to be there. The police officer could have asked Zach to move back to a reasonable distance. But he has no right demand Zach Bryan get back in his truck or face incarceration, or tell Zach where to go specifically.

When given an unfair and unreasonable ultimatum, Zach Bryan decided to stand his ground. Granted, anyone who has been in that situation before will tell you the best move is to just say “Yes sir!,” get back in the truck, and swallow any indignant feelings you might have. It’s especially easy to make that call in hindsight. But that doesn’t make the situation right. That’s just the way the American public has been conditioned. You must obey the orders, even if the orders make no sense, and even if the officer is being unreasonable or is in the wrong. You don’t want to go to jail, do you?

That is what happened here, plain and simple. Zach Bryan was given an ultimatum that is not compliant with Oklahoma law. If I were to guess, the case will be thrown out eventually, because the officer was unreasonable with his request, and was the party that escalated the situation.

It’s what happened afterwards that has many people characterizing Zach Bryan as entitled and a crybaby. Though the police officer escalated the situation initially, it’s a possibility he would have eventually taken the handcuffs off of Zach Bryan and let him go with a warning after completing the traffic stop. But Zach had to continue to complain and run his mouth, with many selecting certain things he said as an indictment of his character, including the notorious, “Do you know who I am?”

This was not Zach Bryan’s finest moment. But nobody knows this more than Zach Bryan. That’s why he immediately apologized, twice, and on the day of the incident. Even during the worst moment of Zach’s time in the front of the police car, you could tell he was having an internal conflict within himself. His impulse was to resist and be angry because he was the victim of an unjust situation. But he also had an inherent respect for the officer, as well as a survival instinct to continue to refer to him as “sir.”

The way Zach Bryan portrayed the incident and the mistakes he made in the 4-minute video he posted were mostly the way the police report reads, and how the dash cam footage unfolds. There are some timeline discrepancies maybe, but he was honest with the public and his fans about what happened, and apologized.

It’s easy for any of us to peer into this situation, pass judgement, and say we would have handled it completely differently, even if this isn’t true, especially if you were Zach Bryan, and were the biggest thing in all of music at the moment. If I was there, I wouldn’t have gotten back into the truck. I would have told the officer that I had a right to observe the situation as long as I wasn’t impeding or disrupting his actions, which Zach wasn’t doing at that time. Zach lost his cool because what transpired next seemed unjust, because it was.

This isn’t an anti-police stance to take. Overall, the officer involved seemed to be very reasonable after Zach Bryan was handcuffed and placed in the squad car, even while Zach was being interruptive. And again, the officer might have let Zach go, if only from fear of having to do a bunch of paperwork. As far as Zach Bryan’s dad saying he was going to “call the governor,” that’s just a dad being a dad. Zach Bryan’s dad has lurked in the comments section of this very website before defending Zach. That’s what dads do.

Too often in the United States, routine and sometimes completely unnecessary traffic stops for driving a few miles above the speed limit, not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, or for having a busted taillight become unnecessarily conflicts between police officers and citizens, and sometimes deadly ones. This just doesn’t happen in other countries. As some have pointed out, if Zach Bryan had been Black or Brown, he probably wouldn’t have been treated nearly as well as he was. He would have been placed in the back of the patrol car, and probably not allowed to mouth off to the officers in a similar manner.

The biggest story in the United States the day after Zach Bryan’s arrest (Sept. 8th) was how Philadelphia police officer Mark Dial was arrested for the murder of 27-year-old Eddie Irizarry stemming from an attempted traffic pullover. Officer Dial shot Irizarry seven seconds after getting out of his car, firing a total of six rounds through the victim’s closed door and window. Police falsely claimed initially that Irizarry lunged at police with a weapon, and they also believed the victim had a gun. Body camera footage disproved the lunging claim, and no gun was ever found.

Over the last nine months, Saving Country Music has been investigating the case of 4-time Grammy-winning country music engineer Mark Capps, who was shot and killed himself through the closed front door of his own home after a similar and yet unproved claim that he made an aggressive move toward officers with a gun. The police have been proven to have misled the public in that case as well. But since he wasn’t famous, or a minority, there’s not an appetite in Nashville to even report on the matter, let alone to be outraged or make it to the national news. No charges have been filed, and Metro Nashville has not even admitted to the mistakes made.

The police are out there putting their lives on the line every day too, and they deserve our respect, and compliance in certain circumstances. But the citizens deserve respect back as well. As Zach Bryan said during the incident, he’s just a kid. It sounds like he said he was 24, but he’s actually 27. Either way, he served our country for seven years in the Navy. As he told the officer during the incident, he’s shown respect for law enforcement over the years and comped them tickets to his show. He’s no menace to society. We’re not protecting anyone by incarcerating him behind bars and taking his mugshot.

Who knows what any of us would have done, and how embarrassing we would have acted in that situation ourselves. At least for most of us, it wouldn’t have made it on all the major nightly news broadcasts. We’re not famous enough for that. But just like it’s distinctly American to incarcerate people over the most petty and sometimes non-existent infractions, it’s also distinctively American to overinflated average individuals through stardom, and when they make even the slightest misstep, tear them down and lampoon them to make us feel better about ourselves and our own puny little lives.

Zach Bryan will be fine. And instead of reminiscing back about how bad he handled the situation, he’ll be lampooned for how his “Outlaw” moment was so tame compared to the previous infractions of country music stars.

It all reminds me of a song by another artist from Oklahoma, the extraordinary JJ Cale. In 1972 he released the song “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma” on his album Really. It’s since been covered by numerous artists from Oklahoma and beyond, including Cody Canada.

If you’re ever in Oklahoma
You better move around the law
They got fines and they got plenty
They’ll hold you up for days on end
Threaten your life and take your money
Make you think you’re there to stay

Over 50 years ago JJ Cale was warning you about the overreaching and punitive nature of Oklahoma’s law enforcement. Some things never change, especially in northeast Oklahoma. But maybe they should. And maybe just like Willie Nelson and Paul Cauthen showing their wrists to the police when they were arrested for possession of a plant, which is now legal in Oklahoma and many other states, this Zach Bryan incident should be used as an example of how ridiculous some of our interfacing with law enforcement is in the United States.

Whether it was the Tickemaster monopoly, or a situation where the police in Oklahoma were running a speed trap and harassing otherwise law-abiding citizens, Zach Bryan saw something that he believed was unjust, and spoke up. This is what we should want from our music stars. We should want them to use their positions of power to challenge the system. That is what Zach Bryan has done with his career as a country artist decidedly outside of the mainstream country Music Row system upsetting the apple cart through his success.

Zach Bryan is not perfect. None of us are. But blaming him for taking on the Ticketmaster system and then giving up when his fans proved to be self-entitled whiners, or standing up to the cops and their silly little speed trap? Nah. I’ll save my criticisms for the music.

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