Zach Bryan Won't Be Your Jukebox Hero

I happen to believe that great American novels are written by osmosis, an accumulation of the stories you hear if you spend enough time in your neighborhood bar. At least that’s my excuse. I go to the Lighthouse Tavern, where the carpets are stained, the walls hung with oars, and the regulars tell better tales than any of the hip and happening authors I read about online. This one guy I know there—long story short, he walked into his own memorial service, alive and thirsty as hell.

On the title track of his fifth album, The Great American Bar Scene, Zach Bryan tells a story that starts off like this—“I lost my money to some dirty old bookie way up in Philly”—and ends with our protagonist bleeding out on the barroom floor. You can picture Bryan telling it as his Bud Light gets warm and his American Spirit turns to ash. Then he tells another one, this time about his brother from Tulsa who’s on the run from the cops in Cheyenne. The roadhouse is where they find him, and despite his too-tight handcuffs, he puts Springsteen’s “State Trooper” on the jukebox one last time. Just behind the song’s harmonica and pedal steel you can hear fuzzy conversation, the Zen clatter of pool balls. I always get lost in stories like these, told only in bars like this. Then you blink and the sun’s coming up and you’ve written another chapter.

By the numbers, Zach Bryan is the second-biggest country musician in America, and it’s not like there’s a drought of country hits about bars: presently at #2 on the Hot 100 is Shaboozey’s boozy breakthrough hit, literally titled “A Bar Song (Tipsy).” But Bryan doesn’t really make country music, nor does he really make “hits.” His songs are writerly and intense, inclined towards nostalgia and grief; he gravitates to bare arrangements, live takes and studio banter, and has begun his two most recent albums with spoken-word poetry. To this year’s slew of summer singles he offers “Pink Skies,” a song about a funeral, presumably his mother’s. Raised in Oologah, Oklahoma, he joined the Navy at 17, posting clips of his music to Twitter and self-releasing his first two albums in his downtime. It was not by choice that he was honorably discharged to pursue music full-time in 2021, having never played a concert or set foot in a studio. And though his current tour is filling arenas on either side of the Mason-Dixon, he routinely turns down high-profile interview requests, perhaps sensing the media’s thirst for any indication of which political party might deputize him as a mascot.

To Bryan, now 28, there is no dissonance between loving your country and posting, as he did last week: “the more a person includes politics into their life anywhere besides a ballot the more I figure they don’t have anything more interesting to do or say.” (“I agree with believing in different things,” he followed up. “I also believe in the United States being united and I don’t think the conversations have led us to a peaceful place as of late.”) He often sings of hills: those he’ll die on, those he won’t. Cynics could say he’s wary of alienating potential fans, but I see it as a fear of hubris—the mortifying spectacle of claiming to have the answers. “Everyone thinks they know me now in these closed-minded, leave-me towns,” he sang on last year’s “Ticking.” “But I’m too young to even know myself.” And yet discourse on “X” this week revolved around the apparently momentous sociopolitical implications of a cameo from “Hawk Tuah girl” Hailey Welch at Bryan’s Nashville show.

Writers have found a way around Bryan’s distaste for political reduction: they compare him to Morgan Wallen, the biggest country musician in America. 49 co-writers showed up for last year’s One Thing at a Time, Wallen’s 36-track third album (and the most-streamed one of 2023) chock full of clichés of country radio conservatism. Then there’s Bryan, who warned listeners of his self-produced, self-titled 2023 fourth album: “if u come into this album thinking it will be a chart topper or if you think that was my intent in it at all you’ll be severely disappointed and I am not sorry (respectfully).” (It debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart, while its lead single, the Kacey Musgraves duet “I Remember Everything,” became the first song to debut atop the Hot 100, Hot Country Songs and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs at once.) It’s a worthy conversation inasmuch as it reveals the limits of “authenticity,” a value ascribed to both artists’ songs, as a framework for understanding art: what feels real and true to me might register to you as trite and try-hard.

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