How Zach Bryan and others are changing a historically bland genre
December 13, 2023
photo courtesy of myrecordjournal.com
2005 was an awful year—awful because then, Zac Brown Band released their infamous song “Chicken Fried.” This song represents everything that is wrong with country music. The lyrics could have been written by anyone from Georgia or within a hundred miles of the state, the hooks are fine but fail to wow anyone, and during the bridge, there is a random bout of patriotism that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the song. If I told you to think of any country song, this would be it.
However, the bland country that everyone knows still dominates charts and sales in its respective industry. Take Morgan Wallen being the current star in country: critics and everyone who does not already like country music cannot stand him. As Sam Sodomsky of “Pitchfork” stated about Wallen’s recent two-hour-long album One Thing at a Time, it “says a whole lot of nothing.”
Not even to mention the public relations problems that riddled the country industry. Women have failed to make any commercial foothold in the industry (which definitely does not help country become less bland,) the only notable exception being Kacey Musgrave’s critical success in 2018 with Golden Hour, but I doubt that the album pierced the average country fan’s enjoyment of Morgan Wallen-type artists.
Recently, however, rising star Zach Bryan has begun to step onto the scene. Bryan was one of the only country artists to have criticized Morgan Wallen for the video of him yelling the N-word. Bryan also notably collaborates often with women like Kacey Musgraves, The War and Treaty (one half of the duo being female,) etc. He is fully a country artist, but one of his main influences is Bon Iver, who collaborated with Bryan on the title track of the 2023 EP Boys of Faith. All of these influences create an exciting and fresh sound—even if Bryan’s albums have not necessarily reached critical acclaim, he’s still spurring new audiences and bringing new people in.
Another example of the country revival is Noah Kahan, who is not far from country, but fully in with folk. Like Bryan, his lyrics are soft and refreshingly confessional. Soulful, too.
In a more specific scene, Tyler Childers (who’s been going strong for several years now) is on his way to bring back outlaw country, his melodies loud and his lyrics drugged and lustful. But again, he’s confessional, honest, and most people appreciate that. His lyrics tend to be plenty more detailed; for example, “Feathered Indians” goes way beyond an average country love song….
Country music is clearly evolving away from the generally disliked songs that top the charts, and I think it’s following a similar path as rap and R&B—a preference for honest storytelling. Tyler, the Creator made the switch in 2017 with Flower Boy; Frank Ocean has taken over as one of the most highly respected musicians in decades; SZA sells out stadiums and tops charts. Just like there will always be Drake and Future, there will always be Morgan Wallen and Zac Brown Band in country, but nonetheless, the genre’s growing for the better.