As phenomenons go, Zach Bryan is both an anomaly and a shining example of the 21st Century. The Oklahoma native and full-time active member of the United States Navy started simply enough by posting lo-fi back porch videos of original songs that slowly but steadily engaged followers on Twitter before graduating to YouTube and racking up hundreds of thousands of followers and millions (and millions) of views. But while the viral or internet star has become an odd (and maddeningly entitled) aspiration, indeed a potential reality regardless of talent, what sets Bryan apart from the many is an actual ability possessed by few. Fact is, at 24 years old, Zach is a great songwriter, and whether he’s alone at the mercy of a cell phone mic, in the studio with one of the hottest producers in the world, or gratefully raising his eyes to the balcony in the Ryman Auditorium, that single truth blazes like a sun. His albums DeAnn (written in memory of his mother) and Elisabeth earned admirers and rave reviews for their emotion and power, and if there were some who questioned the raw production value, the Aviation Ordinanceman 2nd Class was his own worst critic and is poised to realize his own expectations with a forthcoming project in the works from Warner Records. Calling in to discuss his intentions, Bryan also shares his current status in the Navy, potential producers for his new album, and the kind of artist he hopes to be.
AI- I gotta tell you, man, this change, this transition from Twitter to the Grand Ole Opry is pretty dang amazing! You’ve talked about this being your own personal journey, but it seems that there are so many people that have seen themselves in it. Is that overwhelming for you? How are you feelin’ about it today?
ZB- It’s awfully terrifying, but it’s one that I think I’m ready for! I think God puts people where they need to be, so I feel blessed to be the guy he chose to do that! But yeah, it’s pretty freaky sometimes, a little overwhelming– but you gotta do it!
You come from a Navy family, you joined the Navy, and earlier on when people started taking notice and talkin’ to you about your musical career versus your military career, there were no immediate plans for you to look at getting out of the Navy. You talked about how much you enjoyed it. What is it that you enjoy about serving? Is it literally the service? The structure? The camaraderie?
I’ll say I’m the last person that needs structure in my life! But it’s my friends. It’s the amazing men and women that I’ve met while serving. I can’t even tell you the times I’ve had in Spain and flyin’ over Australia and the desert and all those places! I can’t get over it! I like the struggle with all your friends and serving something greater. I’ve always loved that. It’s like the best thing in the world!
Do you think you do that the same way with songs?
I do. Yeah, I think that’s the point of life is everyone getting through their own struggles and then sharin’ ’em with each other so maybe someone can be stronger later.
I see and know a lot of folks who spent so much of their time early on in music, playing music, travelin’, hittin’ the small clubs, the small bars. You just talked about being all over the world. You’ve gotten to travel and you’ve gotten to have that experience in a completely different way that informs your music. How do you see that difference and traveling in that capacity versus barnstormin’ and hittin’ up clubs and theaters all over?
I’ll tell you what, when I was in the Navy, we would go to different places like Africa or Bahrain or whatever, and our chiefs would just yell at us until we couldn’t go to the bars or we couldn’t have a good time! And they still do to this day! But I was in Houston the other night, traveling for music, and it’s a different world! Absolutely! It’s crazy! It’s like two different parallel universes! I feel like I’m livin’ a double life with the Navy and the music, travelin’ for both of ’em. It’s just pretty cool!
You do intend to keep doin’ both of them for a while?
I think so? I don’t really know! Everything in my life is kind of up in the air right now when it comes to bein’ in the Navy, with signin’ with Warner, with touring, with shows– with everything! We’re kind of just seein’ where it all falls down. In a good way too! My thing is I’m lucky to be on both fronts. A lot of people would kill to be in the Navy and a lot of people would kill to be musicians– and I’m the guy who got to do both! That’s just cool to me. So yeah, I do think that. I’m gonna keep goin’ as long as I can, ’til people get tired of me!
There’s been a lot of discussion of how you started off playin’ music, gettin’ your first guitar, writin’ strange little numbers just for fun. But when you started gettin’ into it more seriously, what was it that turned the corner for you as far as songwriting goes? Bein’ from Oklahoma, that state just has a ridiculous history with all kinds of music, really, but when you get into country and roots, you start gettin’ the line on Red Dirt, start talkin’ about The Farm in Stillwater and all those guys. Was that something you were aware of or did somethin’ else spark your interest?
I’ll tell you what, I started out just writing in general– like poems and stupid stuff. I started playin’ guitar and bein’ from where I’m from, with the friends that I have and the sounds that I’ve heard– like Oklahoma at night in the summertime– I didn’t know how to express how I felt about those things. So I just started. I needed an outlet. I needed to talk about how beautiful that stuff was to me. I started makin’ music, but I never wanted to be a part of really any group. I never even thought that more than 10 people at once would listen to my music. I never really wanted to be a part of any cult music genres like the Appalachian kind or the Red Dirt kind or the Nashville kind. I just wanted to be myself and hope it stuck!
But now you find yourself bein’ categorized in that way. I mean, not necessarily a traditional country artist, but you’re sayin’ you’re tryin’ to stay away from any sort of cult status? What do you like to be considered?
If you’re gonna call me anything, it’d just be a singer-songwriter. That’s what I prefer. Or Americana. I love Americana music! If I could just make Americana music, I would!
Yeah? You know, I ask a lot of people that and I get a lot of, “Eh…” when it comes to the claim of Americana.
Exactly! But it’s hard music to play, and I never want to disrespect that by only having three chords and the truth. I think three chords and the truth is the country and Americana over here is the instruments and the beauty. I think I’m evolving. I think I’m evolving towards Americana. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I think I went from singer-songwriter to get into that realm of Americana music. So I’m excited about that!
Well, let’s talk about that evolution part. I think a step forward, there was a big premium placed when you went into the studio with Dave Cobb. What was that like for you compared to your previous experience in recording? Was it a seamless transition to that process? Did he meet you in the middle of what you had done before and what your expectations were?
Dave Cobb was probably the most welcoming person to such an amateur musician. He was tellin’ me all sorts of stuff! He was teachin’ me new guitar riffs all in the same ring as tellin’ me how we’re gonna record it. He was incredibly bossy but in the kindest way to where it was so efficient getting it recorded. I went in there for two hours, and we had two tracks already cut. I was like, “This is ridiculous that this man is this talented!” And yeah, it was a seamless transition, but I’m not gonna take credit for it. I’m gonna give him that because he made it that way for me. I was just a nervous wreck who walked in tryin’ my best to record with a great. I didn’t deserve to be there either! When I was in that room where Chris Stapleton recorded frickin’ Traveler and Dolly Parton sat the night before, I was like, “What the heck am I doin’ here?”
Well, I don’t know. Like with Clint Eastwood and Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” You find yourself with an opportunity and an opportunity in the right place…
You take it!
I think goin’ for it is the way to go! I wonder, coming at it as organically as you did– startin’ off just puttin’ videos up on social media, making that transition to a YouTube phenomenon– there are plenty of artists in the last 20 years, the 21st century, who’ve been able to utilize the tools at their disposal without a major label behind them pushing them forward. You could almost make the argument that in this day and age, the difference between having a label and not having a label is not quite as great as once it was. What led you to go with Warner Records instead of continuing to build it on your own?
The pros and cons of it. I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to pursue music when I released the last record. Honestly, I look back on that album and I wish I would have taken my time with that. And I wish I would’ve signed prior to that. I wish I would’ve taken my time and found a label and signed with them sooner. Genuinely, the label has been so good to me about everything. They’ve been so forward pushing and encouraging, and the reason I wanted to sign with a label is because I wanted to make a record that I can listen to in 40 years and have all the bells and whistles, all the players, all the little intricacies of where I wanted things.
The [last] album, I produced it all and wrote all of it. I want to be able to have the resources to make my own dreams come true so I can give that music to other people. That’s why I decided to go with the label because I wanted to make a really, really good album. I wanted to make a few. Me and my friends were not professionals. And that’s kinda terrifying too because I always want to be that Zach Bryan to people, where like, “Screw it, let’s just record in a barn!” And I also want to be an artist that I can be proud of in 20, 30 years. So it was kind of a hard road, but that’s why I decided– because I wanted to become a real musician. I was done disrespecting the music industry around me by joking around about it. That’s why I decided to [sign with a label].
You feel like stepping up and being more professional is honoring the business? Or rather I’d say the art form itself?
Exactly! I looked around when DeAnn and the other record were blowin’ up and I was listening to the songs and the production on ’em is pretty bad! My buddy [Leo] Alba produced ’em and he does his absolute best, but he just doesn’t have the expertise to make them beautiful. I was just listening to those records and I was like, “Man, these coulda been done better!” And it ate me alive! It ate me alive that those records could have been done better. But then again, that’s exactly why people liked them! It’s a really hard road to go down, but that’s why, yeah. I wanted to be more professional and I wanted to respect the music industry because there’s a lot of good musicians that would kill to be in my shoes. I didn’t wanna teeter-totter on that any longer. I wanted to prove to people that we can make a good sounding and good lyrical piece of art.
Do you think that bein’ in the Navy has given you the necessary space between you and the music business in order to make your decisions?
I do. I think it’s been a beautiful thing to have that steady paycheck like I always have. And I always have the decision to step in or step out of it whenever I please. But it’s gettin’ to that skin in the game area now. It’s time! I gotta decide! Am I gonna go back to Oklahoma and work the rest of my life? Or am I going to be a musician for the rest of my life? (Laughs) It’s gettin’ interesting!
I watched your Opry performance and I have to say, you didn’t look like an amateur. You looked like you were exactly where you were supposed to be. Is there a difference for you performing for an unseen internet audience and then performing for real live people at the Ryman? Because you display the same kind of en energy, the same kind of passion in what you’re doing.
I’ll tell ya, singing for people is my favorite thing in the world! We did virtual shows in the Space Needle at the beginning of November to kind of the beginning of the year, and it was not the same. It’s fun to sit there and set your phone up and experiment and make some songs and show people online, but there’s nothin’ like playin’ live. But the Ryman? I’ll tell you what, that was the first time in my life that I thought that I was in over my head! I got on that stage and said, “I’m gonna throw up in front of all these people!” But I didn’t! It was so fun to do, and I’m so glad that I had the grit to get through it, but it was incredibly different. It was incredibly different and I loved every second of it! I feel like it was trial by fire, and if I’m ever blessed enough to play for that many people again, I’m excited because I think the nerves each time you do it get chopped down one at a time!
I’ve been tryin’ to put together a timeline and I haven’t really seen anything definitive. Have you been back in the studio to work yet? Or is that something that’s being planned?
Since I’m still in the Navy, we’re just flyin’ everyone everywhere all the time, tryin’ to figure out where producers need to be and everything like that. We’re gonna record it up in Washington because a lot happened at the beginning of the year, January, February. I had a lot of stuff going on in my life personally. The producers had a lot goin’ on too. I was supposed to get out of the Navy. I was supposed to get out of the Navy [on] April 1st, but that didn’t play out. It was nobody’s fault, but it didn’t play out. So now we’re tryin’ to logistically get the producers up to Seattle, get all the players up to Seattle, and figure out how to record a record [and] piece it together.
So you will be leaving the Navy sometime soon?
That’s the thing! It’s all up in the air! It’s up to the Navy. They’re havin’ round table meetings and everything like that and they’re deciding. It’s been beautiful too ’cause like I said, I love the Navy and I work well with everyone that I work with. So there’s not been any bad blood or anything with anyone. Either way it goes, I’m cool with it. It’s a weird place to be in, but it’s kind of awesome at the same time!
Who are the producers that you were talkin’ about working with?
I was havin’ a hard time deciding between Cobb and Eddie Spear— which is insane that I can even say that! We emailed Sturgill [Simpson’s] team too. I was gonna see if Sturgill wanted to produce something for me, but we only emailed them. He didn’t respond or anything. We didn’t hear back yet. So that’s not really a definite thing, but I would kill… I listened to that “Paradise” record that he produced for himself with [the John Prine tribute], and I was like, “That is the most beautiful sounding song I’ve ever heard!”
And there’s such a parallel there too for you and him. He kinda wrote his own ticket when it came to playin’ music and did it his own way, not to mention being a Navy man himself. I’d be interested to see what you two could put together if the opportunity arose.
That’s what everyone’s sayin’ too! That’s what I thought about it! And that was only me. ‘Cause I was in the truck the other day, just drivin’ to town, and I heard that song and I was like, “I can’t even imagine what me and that guy could put together!”
Do you have a regular band or is that something that you’re workin’ on now?
We’re a ragtag group of dudes that just try to throw each other together when we can. But I think I have a regular band now. I got my buddy Graham [Bright] playin’ guitar for me. He’s pretty damn good! He’s been takin’ lessons, but he’s played forever. I think when we go to all these festivals, we’re gonna have my buddy Graham, my actual tour manager on percussion and then this guy named Geoff [Saunders] from Nashville on bass and then me with vocals and the lead guitar. And Lucas [Ruge-Jones] out in Texas! He’s my fiddle/violin player.
You’ve got festivals lined up? You’ve got the time set up for the summer to get out there and see what you can see?
Yep, exactly! I think we got four right now. One’s in Minneapolis, one’s in Oklahoma, one’s in Kentucky and the other one is in… Somewhere else! I should probably know!
That’s all right. I’m sure they’ve got it written down for you somewhere!
You got married not too long ago, right?
I did, I did!
It’s a different thing once you say the vows and put the ring on.
Heck yeah, it is!
The music business can be invasive when it comes to artists and relationships and things like that. Is that a concern that you have?
Incredibly! Yeah, I’m terrified of it. I’m terrified of it. That’s kinda why I took a step back for a while. My whole family was goin’ through some stuff with people being invasive in our lives and my music being bigger than we all thought. So we all just took a step back. I am worried about that ’cause I was goin’ into stores and I was gettin’ followed to restaurants in Seattle and things like that! It got weird!
Well, you are recognizable! And once everybody sees your videos, it’s like, “Is that? Yeah, it is!” I can see how that could be happening and how strange that can be. But at the same time, I don’t notice that you have any intention to stop doing music.
Yeah, it’s strange in my own head too. At some point, I think I’ll probably just lay it all down and go back to Oklahoma. But at another point, I want to do it for my mom and my grandpa. See how far I can take it, you know?