How does a 27-year-old Navy vet from Oologah, Oklahoma sell out stadiums from Boston to Tulsa to Los Angeles? Moreover, how does he do it by singing country music? How does one artist captivate the attention of both middle America and coastal elites at once? And what does that say about the shared experiences and longings of both rural and urban Americans? Zach Bryan might just have the answer.

While many have commented that he doesn’t fit neatly into a single genre, Bryan’s raw lyrics, stripped down instrumentation, and heart-wrenching ballads most closely fit into country music while bleeding into rock, folk, and Americana. (Some are even touting him as a modern Springsteen.) Inspired by other alternative country artists like Tyler Childers and Turnpike Troubadours, Bryan is hearkening back to country music’s roots while putting a new spin on the genre. For starters, his rise to the top was unorthodox in this age of the Nashville radio establishment: Bryan slingshot to the top thanks to a viral selfie video taken behind his barracks. Three years later, his songs live at the top of the charts.

You won’t find Zach Bryan on Christian radio and some churchgoers may blush at his brashness, but Christian themes roll off his tongue as smoothly as curses. He’s part of a growing number of artists in alternative folk/rock/country whose music reflects their own spiritual and religious journeys. Singer/songwriter Maggie Rogers, who has collaborated with Bryan, went so far as to earn a Masters of Religion at Harvard Divinity in order to better understand her work’s religious dimension. In their duet, which chronicles a breakup, Bryan says he should have known better because “she never said a thing about Jesus,” to which Rogers replies, in a mystical, postmodern fashion, “I should have told you twice I believe in something bigger than both of us.”

You won’t find Zach Bryan on Christian radio and some churchgoers may blush at his brashness, but Christian themes roll off his tongue as smoothly as curses.

The fascinating thing about Bryan’s use of Christian language is that it seems original to him. Rather than regurgitating the rural church clichés that plague mainstream country music, he’s using traditional Christian vocabulary and ideas to describe, process, and cope with his own lived experiences of joy, pain, contentment, and failure.

His popular song “Revival” from 2020’s Elisabeth is a perfect example of this. He sings an entire song about what is presumably a house party using almost exclusively Christian terminology. It seems that he views the house party as a joyous escape from the pain of the world, similar to a Christian revival. He also sees confession (individual and corporate) as part of the journey to this revival:

Gather round this table, boys
Bring your shame, I’ll lose my voice
Screaming at the gods about the bad we’ve done
Merle said mama tried but the prison still won

Your transgressions are mine as well
Anger grows in my bones if you could not tell
But I’ll find comfort in company
Lord forgive us, my boys and me

We’re having an all night revival
Someone call the women and someone steal the Bible
For the sake of my survival
Baptize me in a bottle of Beam and put Johnny on the vinyl

Well, the devil can scrap but the Lord has won
And I’ll talk to him under risin’ sun
His son rose and mine did too
I was coming down, but now I’m talkin’ to you

Some of Bryan’s metaphors remain elusive: the last verse is striking, a doctrinally profound expression of Christus Victor in contextualized vernacular (“The devil can scrap but the Lord has won”). Deeper than many realize, Bryan relishes in the victory of the cross while taunting the enemy.

From 2023’s eponymous album, “Ticking” echoes the wisdom of 1 John 2:15 (“Do not love the world or the things in the world”) when he sings that he’s “cuttin’ ties with things that bind my heart to this world.” He also adopts Augustine’s maxim that we are restless until we find rest in Christ; the unknowing Augustinian cowboy describes himself as “the fightin’, fiendin’, Okie son/The restless, reckless, hopeful one.” Later on the same album, “Spotless” contains more Augustinian wisdom as Bryan regularly confesses his sin:

I ain’t spotless, neither is you
For once in my life, I’m gonna see it through
If you want spotless, I’ll always lose
You gave me your love, lover, you gave me the truth

With bold gentleness, he opens the album with a spoken word poem that reads like Ecclesiastes in order to explore the good life:

I’ve learned that every waking moment is enough and еxcess never lеads to better things. It only piles and piles atop the things that are already abundantly in front of you like breathing and chasing and slow dancing and lovemaking, fighting and laughing. I am unhinged, unworthy, and distasteful to mostly everyone I meet. However, I am loyal to a fault to anyone I find kindness in. I do not and will not fear tomorrow because I feel as though today has been enough.

In “Burn, Burn, Burn,” he explores the hiddenness of God:

I see God in everything
The trees and pain and nights in the spring
So why do I still long for a home?

Indeed, a quick survey of Bryan’s music makes it clear that he’s someone who wrestles with God. It often comes out subtly, but sometimes Bryan is more blunt about it. Like Jacob wrestling with God in the night, he sings on “Hey Driver”: 

Hey, driver, pull on over, I’m in a fight with God
This Carolina shoulder seems the place I’m gettin’ off 

In a genre of music increasingly captivated by light beer, hook ups, and pickup trucks, Zach Bryan cherishes the breath of life itself. He wrestles with big questions, searching for durable joy in the face of suffering. “East Side of Sorrow” finds Bryan reflecting on the personal despair of coming home from war in the Middle-East only to lose his mom to cancer. He sings of wandering drunk on the streets of Tulsa at six in the morning “asking God where the hell he’d been.” Bryan may not be the first country artist to ask where the hell God has been but he may be the first who’s honest enough to wait for a reply. After a pause, the whole band thunders in for the hopeful awakening chorus: 

He said the sun’s gonna rise tomorrow
Somewhere on the east side of sorrow

Bryan’s unexpected rise to fame, military background, awareness of depravity, acquaintance with grief, raw lyrics, and talent with a stringed instrument seem to exemplify a sort of modern, cigarette-smoking Davidic figure. Like the small stone that conquers Goliath, Bryan’s cell phone video took over Twitter; both are unassuming yet miraculously launch an individual into fame and success. All the women of Israel danced and sang of Saul slaying his thousands and David his ten thousands. Likewise, the women of Oklahoma are dancing and singing of George Strait’s eight million monthly listeners and Zach Bryan’s 21 million monthly listeners.

Both David and Bryan have a way with words, especially when put to verse, that conveys a type of truth that prose cannot express. Their emotional verses are not at odds with their strength but rather, are the pathway to true strength which must always journey through the dark path of weakness. Both of these men are great artists, pilgrims, and “kings” of the day, though Bryan would do well to take a page from King David’s book when he prays “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Zach Bryan’s triumph amid polarized demographics goes beyond simply showcasing the cultural parallels that do exist between rural Americans and urban elites. Similarly, his success cannot be solely attributed to his musical prowess, as his compositions aren’t particularly intricate. Rather, Bryan skillfully connects with people’s deepest emotions through his poignant lyrics. This isn’t achieved through vague and ambiguous language. Instead, he paints vivid and specific portraits of intense feelings that resonate deeply with his audience. It seems that Zach Bryan, along with many of his listeners, are indeed pinin’ after God’s own heart.

1 Comment

  1. What an incredible article. So articulate and right on. Thanks for unpacking this musician I hear everywhere I turn.

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