Zach Bryan: The ghost of country music past is bringing back the spirit of the sound

Photo by Katrina Paisano, taken on 23 August 2023 at Arena., Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

Country music of the past decade is often associated with overproduction, catchy lyrics and shallow messages centered around beer, trucks and girls. This was the state of country music in the mid-2010s when popular artists like Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and Sam Hunt were popular. It was all about having a good time all the time.

The Florida Georgia Line song “Cruise” encapsulates that era of country music. While a song about picking up a girl and driving around may seem pointless to the average listener, the song was the number one song on the Hot Country Billboard rankings for a record 22 weeks in a row and has since been certified platinum.

I’ve contributed my fair share to those streaming numbers. I rolled my windows down when “Cruise” came on. Those songs were fun and people enjoyed them without having to overanalyze the messages they were trying to send.

While country artists found a simple formula to make hits during that time period, the sound shifted again around 2018 to what is known as “boyfriend country”– sappy pop country music that can be overly sentimental, like the type of music you’d expect to hear over a wedding montage. Artists like Kane Brown, Dan+Shay and Brett Young capitalized off this new era of country music with songs that would become incredibly popular at weddings.

Snap tracks and artificial sounds were the calling card for country music radio while music with twang, fiddles and that “old country sound” were fading from the scene. Record labels did what made economic sense and supplied the people with the pop country tracks that they wanted.

That all changed when a YouTube video titled “Zach Bryan – Heading South” went viral in 2019. The shaky self-recorded video of an unknown man and his guitar now has over 24 million views. A stark contrast from the planned, well-directed, big-budget music videos that country stars of the time were making.

Four years later, the cost of a ticket to see the U.S. Navy veteran in concert is almost $300 and he has almost 30 million monthly listeners. On Spotify, Bryan is currently the 154th-ranked artist in the world at the time of this writing. The Oklahoman’s latest album was the number-one album in the world on the Billboard charts. His song “I Remember Everything” with fellow country star Kacy Musgraves was the number-one song in the world.

Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen have largely been considered the kings of country music for the last few years. Wallen’s album “Dangerous” which was released in 2020 has been on the charts for 140 weeks (almost 3 years) and Combs’ album “This One’s For You” which came out in 2017 has been on the chart for over 328 weeks (over 6 years).

Combs and Wallen make music that is generally more marketable to the mass audience. They fuse traditional country with modern rock and pop elements and sing about the experiences of everyday people. Wallen is known to make more “pop-country” while Combs has kept on the contemporary country path.

Bryan’s music is different. The music he makes is country, but it has a raw, vulnerable feel that people resonate with. Bryan’s stripped-down, simple folk music is unpolished and feels more real to many listeners.

That isn’t the type of music you expect to see on the charts or hear on the radio and the stories of a damaged country troubadour shouldn’t be on the radar of any major labels — but they are.

The way Bryan has been able to spread his message is unlike any person in country music. The country star makes similar music to those artists mentioned above, but Bryan’s following is incredibly dedicated and has developed at a rapid rate. Part of that could be attributed to the vulnerability of Bryan. There are dark things in Bryan’s past like divorce at a young age and a death in the family. The songs that Bryan writes have a unique way of capturing the hearts of listeners and resonate with his listeners more than any other artist. Bryan’s fanbase often has experienced similar things in their own lives. Bryan has a beautiful way of channeling that pain that people love to listen to.

Bryan’s last album, “American Heartbreak” peaked at number five and has been on the charts for over a year. He’s quickly making a case to have his name and his music spoken with the same fondness as Wallen and Combs.

His painful, vulnerable lyrics hit home for people. The single that put Zach Bryan on the map was his smash hit “Something in the Orange,” which has over 500,000 streams on Spotify. It’s a story of a man reflecting on a fleeting love as he gazes at an encompassing sunset. The themes of reflection, love, loss, and hardships are all very common in his songs and stories. These themes in country music were not greatly divergent from the popular tropes of country music during this time. The thing that Bryan changed was the scope in which people heard it.

Bryan was my buddies’ and my favorite under-the-radar artist until he wasn’t. Never did I think Bryan would see the level of stardom he’s at, but his immense popularity is truly a big step for country music. A whiskey-washed cowboy with a checkered past making low-budget folk music is now the artist that mainstream audiences want to listen to.

“Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line and “Something in the Orange” by Zach Bryan could not be any more different. Yet, both songs have served as anthems for country music fans. Bryan has changed the narrative of country music for the masses and is bringing it back to its roots.

While Bryan has some skeletons in his closet, he’s not hiding from his past. The Oklahoma native puts his heart and soul into his songs and that’s something I can respect. All he really wants is to be loved, make music and spend time with people he cares about and now Bryan gets to live that dream every day.

Zach Bryan’s emergence has opened the gate for other independent artists to find success. Instead of big productions with high-budget music videos and marketing campaigns, there are videos of guys in the woods strumming their guitars becoming hits.

Sam Barber, Dylan Gossestt and Charles Wesley Godwin all make music in the same vein as Bryan– stripped-down, deep songs– and have seen early success. I doubt launches like that could have happened without Bryan first blazing the trail.

Bryan’s music is a harsh contrast to the music of the country’s past. The beautiful lyrics and haunting melodies of Bryan’s songs have opened the mainstream country audience’s eyes to this side of country music that they were not aware of. I’ve been alongside everyone else listening to artists with a more traditional country sound. Artists like Cody Johnson, Parker McCollum and Tyler Childers have all made an impact on the country music scene. Those artists have sold records and sold out shows, but none of those artists have gained public attention like Bryan has as fast as he has.

Bryan is just a messed-up kid like the rest of us. He’s not afraid to admit it, and people aren’t afraid to relate. The Oklahoman son is burning a new trail for country music and something in the orange tells me he’s not done.

Luke Sims is a sophomore studying marketing, journalism, and data analytics.