Welcome ladies and gentlemen to a whole new era in the effort to eclipse the powers of country music and put artists and fans back in control, while restoring soul and heart to the songs. It was a charge first picked up by the Outlaws in the 70s, revived by Hank Williams III and independent labels like Bloodshot Records in the 90s, later championed by Sturgill Simpson, then taken to a whole new level by artists like Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and others.
But now he’s a “viral songwriter” – a new designation we had to add to the lexicon – who has gone from messing around in an AirBNB recording amateur songs with his friends, to a guy who may have on poised to become one of the hottest names in popular music with his new 34-song album American grief.
34 songs? Shit, why not. Stroke your chin and embrace all the conventional wisdom about music you want, including what Zach Bryan is pulling off here with this hard drive dump of an album that doesn’t even include vinyl copies, and doesn’t even seem have a publicist or any media push behind it. Then sit back and watch the thing rack up an insane amount of metadata thanks to Zach Bryan’s hugely engaged fanbase, and challenges for the top spots on the leaderboards once all those streams are counted. It has already set the one-day streaming record for a country album on Spotify and Apple Music.
Meanwhile, if/when you see Zach Bryan in the wild, his fans will sing every word of each of these 34 songs with him, and verbatim, along with every other song Zach Bryan has released. over the past four years. For his voracious fans, the 34 songs of American grief have been too long in coming, and still not enough. He could release another 34-song album tomorrow and they would still be here for it. It’s the American version of Beatlemania.
But how about the actual songs of American grief. Are they good? Is it even worth diving into? Where the hell do we even start? Just to ingest this thing in one sitting, you may end up estranged from your kids, having to pony up for a divorce attorney, or missing the spring semester because of the time commitment it requires.
Of course, there are rushed, by-produced, poorly recorded, and constructed tracks on this album that came out of the oven half-baked. That’s exactly what you’re going to get from Zach Bryan. It’s actually not unusual for an artist to write and/or record 34 or more songs before an album is released. It’s quite common actually. It’s just that Zach Bryan didn’t analyze anything at the end, or cut things that weren’t finished. They are his children, and he couldn’t imagine parting with any of them. And so he freed them all.
But there are also a lot of songs here that are pretty darn great, whether it’s songwriting, music, or even production. You may need to dig to find the ones you like and be patient. that is, if you’re not wrapped up in Zach Bryan mania, and it all sounds like musical windfall to you. But some more distinguished listeners may need a Sherpa. Fortunately, you know one.
As for the “best” tracks on the album, that is of course an arbitrary judgment based largely on individual tastes. But judging mostly by the songwriting – since Zach Bryan is first and foremost a songwriter – the tracks this set of ears would put the most emphasis on would be “Something in the Orange”, “Sun To Me “, “Billy Stay” and “Half Grown.”
“Something in the Orange” is the song that has already set the country music world on fire. It’s currently the No. 3 streaming song in all of country music, and Zach Bryan is the No. 1-ranked songwriter nationwide for the third week in a row when paired with another early release from the disc, “From Austin”. It depends Billboard.
But if you’ve been sitting munching on a bowl of Orville Redenbacher, watching this whole Zach Bryan thing erupt, and wondering what’s really behind it all, the one song from American grief I would advise you to consider trail #29, “Half Grown”. It really illustrates how Zach Bryan’s writing stands apart from other contributors in the way the verses interact with each other, how he takes a few simple ideas and phrases, and makes them evolve and fold into one another. others until he describes an indescribable experience of the human condition.
Despite what Zach Bryan’s critics will implore you to believe, it’s not all smoke and mirrors. The way Zach Bryan has connected with his audience of mostly young adults far removed from today’s conventional country music is to give words to their most hellish fears, anxieties and euphoric exhalations. Zach Bryan knows just how to express what he feels without loss, and what we all feel (or have felt) in a way that even the most illustrative songwriters usually struggle to do.
“Billy Stay” shows another dimension of Zach Bryan’s elevated songwriting, tackling a rather over-the-top topic of aging and Alzheimer’s disease, which is such an easy way to tug on heartstrings. But Zach knows how to avoid all clichés, while pumping up the emotion and emphasis at the right times to emphatically sell your mind and heart on the story. At their best, Zach Bryan’s songs are explosions of feelings that are hard not to capture on the mic, no matter the setting or configuration. This is how he can shut down an audience with a video taken on a broken iPhone with wind in the mic and low light. None of this matters. Sincerity and emotional power translate. That’s how we got here.
Even on some of Zach Bryan’s most average tunes, there’s still almost always a line or two that sounds like a parable, or perhaps Shakespeare in its poetic power, which makes the whole song all the more vital. Take “The Outskirts” – a perfectly fine song, taking part in the nostalgia in a well-written way and well complemented by a light approach to instrumentation. It would be a beautiful song on its own, but the simple line “Your smile surpasses the dawn” takes it to another level. It’s the kind of incisive lines that some songwriters take years to discover, and Zach seems to pick out of the air as easily as the breath that resulted in his inexplicable “viral” appeal. His fans echo all these lines. His detractors miss them completely. This is one of the many reasons for the chasm that runs through his call.
Sure, Zach Bryan is best described as a country-oriented singer-songwriter, but as a singer-songwriter first and foremost. But American grief also finds Zach trying his hand at straight country songs. The first comes very early with “Heavy Eyes”, which is right there with “Half Grown” as one of the best tracks on the record. Combining Zach’s songwriting skills with great take-off country guitar, it’s hard not to fall in love with this track, even if you count yourself among Zach Bryan’s detractors.
Another quintessentially country track is “Whiskey Fever,” which is sort of Zach’s crack at writing a wild-eyed ’70s country song. Zach Bryan whose lyrics might have needed a revision or two. It’s pretty fun, but probably good for a few listens before moving on to the album’s meatier bits. “If She Wants a Cowboy” is probably a little better written and delivered, but again, it’s a little ironic, with an Auto-tune hit at the end to supposedly appeal to country radio. It’s a hoot for sure, but those last two country songs provide the album’s comedic relief as opposed to the emotional anchors.
Apparently recorded in three different main contexts – with probably some last minute homemade tracks as well – the majority of songs by American grief make it like Heartland rock. Eddie Spear receives the lion’s share of producer credits, along with Ryan Hadlock and Louie Nice as well. The writing is serious, the music is mostly rootsy and the songs are about being lost and found at the same time. Zach Bryan is still a young man and knows little more than life experience and then incorporates it into the song.
There are several reasons why the mere mention of Zach Bryan will also cause bile and malice from a small but vocal number, and one of those reasons is the age difference. At 26, Zach Bryan is a millennial, barely qualifying himself above Gen Z, making his way into a music movement full of 30s and 40s who got into that kind of Shooter, Hank3, Sturgill stuff. or Cross Canadian Ragweed, and 50-somethings that go all the way back to Ryan Adams and Reckless Kelly. Who is this damn kid playing hopscotch with everyone, headlining his favorite festivals, releasing 34-song albums and giving a damn about presentation? And why do all his fans look like they’re still in college?
Besides the generation gap, as has been said before, there is nothing more detrimental to an independent artist than success. First, Zach Bryan was a Tyler Childers impersonation. Now it’s some sort of scheme orchestrated by Music Row. Pop country. Forget those two things don’t go together, nor do they go well with Zach Bryan’s music. It also ignores the fact that anyone who works at Warner is asleep at the wheel when it comes to this release. They don’t know what to do with this album either, so they don’t do anything.
It won’t matter, because Zach Bryan fans know what to do. American grief will always emerge and present a new paradigm in independent country music, and music in general, and anoint Zach Bryan as another country music revolutionary.
We cannot judge any of this in the present. It’s too fresh, too unusual, there are too many songs to ingest, and the moments are too emotional. Unquestionably though, to dismiss or dismiss Zach Bryan and the phenomenon surrounding him as some kind of illusion, something insincere, or something not meant to last in the long run has already proven to be folly. It’s very real and reverberating, and all any of us can do is wait and see how it all unfolds. What we do know is that it’s going to be big. And probably, very big.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.3/10)
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