Zach Bryan has very quickly achieved Ubiquitous Pop-Mythology Origin Story status. The Oklahoma singer-songwriter’s trajectory, from Navy cadet with a preternatural talent for storytelling and a YouTube following to honorable dischargee with a massive grassroots following to, now, major-label superstar selling out 100 or so arenas a year, was both dizzyingly fast and seemingly preordained.
His self-titled follow-up to 2022’s triple-LP Warners debut American Heartbreak doesn’t necessarily advance Bryan’s story or status so much as cement it, moving past the introduction phase into something more permanent and more meaningful. One way or another, Zach Bryan—and Zach Bryan—is going to be with us for a while. The album—a lean 16 tracks compared to Heartbreak’s 34—begins with a double-barrel mission statement.
The first is the spoken-word opening track, “Fear and Friday’s (Poem),” which distills Bryan’s everyman charm and philosophy into a benediction (“I think fear and Fridays got an awful lot in common/They are overdone and glorified and always leave you wanting”).
This is followed immediately by a Hendrixesque “Star-Spangled Banner” guitar lick and the shout-along bravado of “Overtime,” complete with horn section and empowered nods to his aforementioned mythology: “They said I’s a wannabe cowboy from a cutthroat town/With tattooed skin and nobody around/Your songs sound the same, you’ll never make a name for yourself.”
Bryan’s three-year whirlwind of making a name for himself has only sharpened his eye for detail—the songs only sound the same in that they all share this quality. A slick turn of phrase like “If you need a tourniquet or if you want to turn and quit/Know that I’ll be by your side” is delivered like someone who knows what he’s doing.
The songs comfortably inhabit traditional country, Americana, and, on relative barn burners like the veteran’s tale “East Side of Sorrow” and “Jake’s Piano – Long Island,” at least one boot in Springsteen-anthem story-song terrain. And at a moment when country music, possibly more than any other genre, is roiled by reactionary entrenchment in the face of long-overdue advancement, Bryan has managed to stake himself to the center without alienating anyone or, chiefly, himself. He preaches love and tolerance and sings about hard drinking and ’88 Fords, and they don’t sound like opposing energies, because why should they?
He goes toe-to-toe with Nashville-outsider kindred spirit Kacey Musgraves on “I Remember Everything,” and even the most intimate songs, like the solo acoustic closer “Oklahoman Son,” sound built for the back row, which gets further away each tour leg. The sum of these parts is nothing less than a confident, headstrong star turn from someone who seems a little ambivalent about stardom, at least on any terms other than his own.