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10 Things You Need To Know About Modern-Day Country Icon Zach Bryan

30 August 2023 | 2:43 am | Ellie Robinson

The trailblazing American Heartbreaker just dropped his poignant fourth album, and he looks set to tour it Down Under sooner than later.

Zach Bryan

Zach Bryan (Supplied)

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If you’re a fan of country music – hell, if you’re a fan of music at all – there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of Zach Bryan (if not fallen head over heels for him yourself). Soaring to stardom with his viral hits and luminous personality, the trailblazing American Heartbreaker is among a new generation of country music icons: his lyrics and poignant and raw, baring his soul with infectious aplomb through tones of raucous rock and twangy blues.

Just last week, Bryan stunned the scene once again with his biggest album yet, a self-titled joint that paints a striking picture of who he is and what he stands for. It’s no half-hearted effort, either: the album spans a mighty 16 tracks over just shy of an hour, with some downright enormous guest spots and a handful of musical surprises (like the folky sweetness of Tourniquet and the haunting gravity of Tradesman). But at its core, the record has no grandiose concept, nor does it serve to boost its author’s ego – it simply immortalises Bryan in his purest, most authentic form.

Explaining the album in a personal statement, he said: “I've got no grand explanation for these songs, I got no riddle in reasoning behind writing them, I don't have a bullshit roll-out plan to stuff it in front of as many people as I can. I just wrote some poems and songs that I want to share because I think they’re special. Some of them are heavy, some of them are hopeful, but more than anything what's most important to me is that they're all mine. If people listen to it, I'll be grateful, if people don't, I'll still be grateful because I got the chance in this life to be original when it mattered.”

You can listen to Zach Bryan now on all the usual platforms, or grab a physical copy from the Warner Australia webstore. There are two ways to enjoy it, both equally valid in their own ways: you can go in blind and learn about the man as his story unfolds, or brush up on the lore and go in with questions to be answered. There’s a lot to know about the one and only Zach Bryan, and while his self-titled album unpacks a fair bit of it, there’s some things you still might not be privy to.

So we’ve put together this handy guide, with ten crucial bits of info on country’s next big star. Crack a cold one, crank your speakers up, and dive right in to Countrytown’s crash course on Zach Bryan.

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1. He was born in Okinawa, Japan

Bryan couldn’t be more of a patriot, wearing the stars and stripes on his sleeve both as an artist and in his personal life – but, believe it or not, he wasn’t actually born in the U-S-of-A. Both his mother (Annette DeAnn) and father (Dewayne) served in the Navy, and the star himself was born while they were stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

The family soon moved to Oklahoma, where Bryan was raised and still views fondly as his stomping grounds – a handful of his songs (like the closing track on his self-titled album, Oklahoman Son), even directly pay tribute to the southern state. But in a recent interview with The Oklahoman, he said his frequent travels as a young’n played a pivotal role in shaping his character: “It was really cool being able to grow up like that. They say ‘Navy brat’, but I learned a lot.”

2. He’s a stickler for family traditions

Bryan’s familial lore is deeply rooted in patriotic servitude: it wasn’t just his parents that served in the US Navy, but also his uncles, grandfather and great-grandfather. Keen to keep the legacy alive, Bryan enlisted himself at the age of 17. Over eight years of active service, he rose to earn the rank of second-class Petty Officer. His Navy career ended midway through 2021, when he was honourably discharged to allow his music career to flourish.

Reflecting on his past with the Navy in an Instagram post, Bryan told his fans: “It’s all I lived, slept and ate for eight years, it’s been all I knew since I was basically a snot-nosed child. It made a man out of me, truly. I ran with some big dogs, saw a few fights, out drank the best of them, but more importantly, got to serve along side some of the best men and women I was ever blessed enough to meet.

“If it was my decision, I would never get out of the worlds greatest Navy, but here I am and they kindly honourably discharged me to go play some music. Can’t tell if I’m a coward or if I’m chasing a dream but regardless, the best eight years of my life were spent serving the best country in the whole damn world.”

3. He started writing songs at 14

While patriotism runs in Bryan’s blood, so too does country music. In his early teen years, the wide-eyed southerner realised his real passion was a musical one. He told The Oklahoman: “When I was 14, we started making these dumb songs up, me and my buddies sitting around, and I just never really expected to be a musician, ever. But I always wanted to write songs. That's what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a songwriter.”

During his tenure in the Navy, Bryan spent his spare time writing songs and honing his musical chops. His experiences on duty, his longing for home and fledging relationships formed the basis of his earliest songs, which he and his would record themselves performing on their phones.

4. He cut his teeth on YouTube

Before he had sold-out theatres swooning and became a staple on country radio, Bryan’s efforts were much more lowkey – his earliest releases were acoustic playthroughs he minted live on phones and webcams, then posted straight to YouTube. The oldest upload still live on his channel is an early version of God Speed – a standout cut from his 2019 debut album, DeeAnn – which he originally shared in March of 2018.

DeeAnn followed in August 2019, and featured one other song that we first heard when Bryan played it acoustically in his living room: the nostalgic and heartfelt Snow, which also got posted in March 2018. Some other early cuts, like Messed Up Kid and Washington Lilacs – first posted in April 2018 and May 2019, respectively – made it onto his second album, 2020’s Elisabeth (named for his first wife, Elisabeth Rose Madden).

5. His first viral moment came in 2019

Bryan’s first “official” single was Heading South, which upon its proper release in September 2019, became a veritable hit on radio (peaking at #27 on the US’ Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart) and racked up some 30 million streams on Spotify alone. But it was an early demo of the track that initially catapulted Bryan into the mainstream – a loose acoustic performance he recorded live behind his Navy barracks. Sweaty, sunburnt and heavy-eyed, Bryan poured his heart and soul into the jam – and the internet (particularly TikTok) couldn’t get enough of it.

“I'm trying to keep a level head about it,” he told The Tennessean in response to the song’s explosion in popularity. “I believe in God's timing, so I'm taking it like that. I feel like the luckiest man on the planet.” The version of Heading South released as a single – and eventually repurposed as an album cut on Elisabeth – went on to be certified Platinum thrice over (twice Stateside and once in Canada).

On Twitter, Bryan explained that Heading South was written to reflect his frustrations with the Navy – particularly “a chief that used to yell at me everyday when I was becoming an ordnance team leader [and] really bugged me”. He continued: “I was jaded when I went home one day, I wrote out, ‘In a world full of people out to cut his young ass down’ and the rest came in three minutes.”

6. He made his second album in an old horse barn

Bryan didn’t exactly have “Warner Bros. money” at the turn of the new decade, so both of his first two albums were tracked in rather lowkey, DIY setups. DeeAnn was recorded over a few days at an AirBnB in Florida, where Bryan and his friends used mattress forts to dial in the acoustics. For the process of tracking Elisabeth, he utilised his home in Washington, converting an old horse barn into a makeshift studio with help from his friends and family (including the album’s producer, Leo Alba).

The setup was referenced directly in the album cut Me And Mine, where Bryan sings on the first verse: “They tell me I can sell my soul for a dream and a couple shows / I don't think they understand how deep loyalty goes / For some boys I got in a barn we built out of pure Douglas fir / Badly written songs next to horses' shit is what an Okie boy prefers.”

7. He’s not the biggest fan of Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster have long been controversial for their ethically dubious practices, from charging exorbitant fees and mismanaging their “Verified Fan” service to emboldening scalpers on the resale market. Bryan spoke out about his gripes with the company last December, surprise-releasing a live album called All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster – which he recorded at a sold-out show from the Red Rocks amphitheatre in Colorado – on Christmas Day.

Unpacking his beef with the ticketing giant, Bryan wrote in a statement shared on Twitter: “Seems there is a massive issue with fair ticket prices to live shows lately. I have met kids at my shows who have paid upwards of [$400] to be there and I’m done with it. I’ve decided to play a limited number of headline shows next year to which I’ve done all I can to make prices as cheap as possible and to prove to people tickets don’t have to cost $450 to see a good and honest show. To clarify, I am playing a few festivals which I have no control over.

“I believe working class people should still be able to afford tickets to shows… I am so tired of people saying things can’t be done about this massive issue while huge monopolies sit there stealing money from working class people. Also, to any songwriter trying to make “relatable music for the working class man or woman” should pride themself on fighting for the people who listen to the words they’re singing.”

8. He’s a trans ally

Transphobia is dismally rife in country music, as proved by some of the downright abhorrent comments that emerged after trans model Dylan Mulvaney partnered with Bud Light earlier this year. Several artists, like Kid Rock and Travis Tritt, boasted their bigotry by publicly boycotting the beer brand. Bryan, however, isn’t a laughable coward, and instead took a stand for the trans community on social media. “I just think insulting transgender people is completely wrong,” he Tweeted in April, “because we live in a country where we can all just be who we want to be.”

9. He has some pretty famous friends

Bryan didn’t need features to crack the mainstream, but now that he’s done it, he’s fully embraced the art of collaboration. His first collaborative single came back in January, when he linked up with Maggie Rogers for the standalone effort Dawns. And on his newly issued self-titled album, you’ll find four songs (or a quarter of the tracklist) with A-list guests on deck: Hey Driver features The War And Treaty, Holy Roller features Sierra Ferrell, I Remember Everything features Kacey Musgraves, and Spotless features The Lumineers.

10. He’s (hopefully) coming to Australia soon

Bryan has been touring non-stop across the States, but according to a Tweet from back in February, he’s gearing up to share his idiosyncratic twang with the rest of the world – and his first two priorities are Europe and Australia. It’s been a little over six months since he promised that tour dates would be “coming soon”, so we’re hoping they arrive sooner than later. He doesn’t have a lot planned for the first couple months of next year, after all…

Zach Bryan’s new album, Zach Bryan, is out now via Belting Bronco / Warner Records.