With the release of his Summertime Blues EP, Zach Bryan has shared more than 40 songs with fans in 2022 alone. The Oklahoma native has quickly become the new face of modern country with a timeless sound, and as James Shotwell explains, it’s not hard to understand what people love about the man who doesn’t miss.
There is a restlessness in my soul that I have known since birth. My mother would tell you that I get it from her father, a butcher and swap meet enthusiast who could never spend a moment sitting still. She tells me stories about how my grandmother would lament the fact he spent every moment he could roaming the open roads, searching for something he never seemed to find but always having an adventure along the way. I always imagined my grandmother wanting something simpler, but life has a funny way of giving you what you need instead.
When you work in music, you encounter many people who recognize the feeling I’ve just described. Something inside you begins to believe your body is merely a cage and that it is one of many cages keeping you from a sense of freedom you will never know yet search for your entire life. It’s like an addiction to a drug you can neither purchase nor define. Like an itch you cannot scratch, you spend each day doing your best to create something—anything—that might give you enough success or attention to warrant abandoning any sense of traditional adult life.
The catch, as you already know, is that no such freedom exists. You may enter this world alone and leave the same. While you’re here, however, you’re part of something bigger. We need one another in more ways than we understand, and that codependency gives life purpose. Your contributions to society, be it through art or manual labor, helps others survive. You need the work as much as people need you to work. The trick is finding a job that doesn’t feel like one, and if you can accomplish that, you’ll be doing far better than most.
The best you can aspire to in this life is the freedom to do what you love and make an honest living while surrounded by the people who give your life meaning. If that is a sentiment you can get behind, then Zach Bryan is writing songs for you.
Zach Bryan sings songs that the boys back home believe in. When I say “the boys,” I don’t mean young men specifically, but a way of life. The boys back home are the backbone of America. It’s the factory workers, construction crews, unions, educators, service industry, healthcare workers, and anyone doing what they can to get by in a world that often makes them feel like that isn’t good enough. His music is undeniably born of middle America, and all that growing up in the rust belt entails, but its message is universal: Let my best be enough.
Pick a song, any song, from Bryan’s quickly growing catalog, and you will find stories of lives lived on the edge guided by faith and the hope that tomorrow might be a little better than today. You’re always yearning for home or searching for it; either way, you’re a highway boy like the rest of us.
It’s a motorcycle drive by, baby dryin’ kind eyes
I think it’s about time we headed home
Walkin’ on such tight rope with my damn high hopes
Country boys don’t die alone
No one track perfectly captures the heart of Bryan’s music more than “Motorcycle Drive By,” the second cut off his Summertime Blues EP. If you can muster the strength to push Stephen Jenkins’ masterpiece of the same name aside for a moment, you’ll find Bryan’s offering bottles the feeling of fleeting youth and packages it for mass consumption. The verses speak to the present, with Bryan struggling to find peace on the road amid a chaotic year where an increasing amount of strangers know his name. He’s aching for a break, but he’s got places to be and people to please, so he clings to the things that keep him sane. Mainly—his friends and the promise of home.
Your dream carries the same costs. Though they present themselves uniquely, there is always a price to chasing a dream, and the debt never comes due until it’s too late to turn back.
In the days leading up to American Heartbreak‘s release, Bryan tweeted about the stories behind the songs (or lack thereof):
Everyone thinks I’m a sad guy when I’m happy as hell most days nowadays,” he wrote in response to a message from a fan. “I’ve just always wanted to be a poet and no one on this planet can ever hurt me enough to write anything. God is good and everyday is a privilege to be breathing.”
The stories are as true as they feel within your soul. Maybe the circumstances are different, but the hopes and dreams are familiar. You know these desires because you feel them too.
When you strip it all away and get to the root of what we’re collectively longing for, the simple things always come to light. Wealth is good, but most of us only want enough to feel like we aren’t working to merely survive. Fame isn’t worth a thing if it comes with the price of your soul. A fancy car and house are only as good as they seem if they are frequently filled with family and friends. If you believe every work week is two days too long and every weekend is shorter than they claim, Zach Bryan is writing songs for you.
The longer I’m alive, and the more time I spend in music, the more I realize that nothing will calm the restlessness many of us feel in our souls. It’s not a problem and doesn’t need a cure or solution. It’s who we are, and it’s how we operate. We don’t know what we are searching for because it’s not one thing in particular. We’re chasing the sensation of being fully present in the moment as it’s unfolding. We want to feel fully alive, pushing every unnecessary thought back into the ether, and we are constantly looking for the next thing that will make us stop in awe of the cosmic chaos of existence and the beauty it can create. For me, songs are the answer, but it might be something else altogether for you. If you haven’t found it yet, keep searching. Never give up.
If any of this rings true, please know that you’re unofficially an official highway boy. Trust yourself more. Keep on keeping on. All roads eventually lead home, so journey until your legs give out and your lungs collapse. Travel far and wide, drinking from the cup of life until you burst, and always be kind to one another because the road is hard for everyone, and none of us make it out alive.