Thick southern accents and what seems like an inescapable culture of patriotism, beer and fried chicken deter many from country music’s twangy offerings, often limiting the genre to a specific audience. But this summer witnessed a steady presence of country ballads at the top of the charts. In August, four consecutive country songs, Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night,” Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” and Zach Bryan’s “I Remember Everything (feat. Kacey Musgraves),” led Billboard’s ranks at number one. The only other time this happened was 1975, and even then the songs were not consecutive. The new reach of country culture extends all the way to Middlebury, where cowboy boots and hats have become a party staple and students drive multiple hours to out-of-state country concerts.
From Nashville-based stars like Morgan Wallen and Jason Aldean to unheard-of one-hit wonder Oliver Anthony, country music staked its place in popular culture this summer. But when it comes to who can be credited with country music’s newfound appeal across the country and here at Middlebury, the answer may not even be a country artist. Armed with a fusion of musical influences, an unparalleled level of authenticity and a uniquely Oklahoman accent, Zach Bryan has redefined the boundaries of what is considered country, all while capturing the hearts of music enthusiasts far and wide.
Hailing from Oologah, Okla., Bryan has been writing songs since he was 14. In 2013, at age 17, he enlisted in the Navy and served for eight years, during which he wrote and recorded music. In 2016, Bryan’s mother passed away at the age of 49 due to complications from addiction. Her death marked a pivotal point in Bryan’s career, which he credits with deepening his songwriting. Later that year, Bryan began releasing his first singles and posting videos to social media, which garnered a growing fan base and internet virality. In 2021, Bryan was honorably discharged from the Navy to pursue his music career and immediately went on tour. Less than a year later in May 2022, he released his first full-length album, “American Heartbreak.” Bryan’s rise to fame is remarkable, inexplicable and above all, quintessentially American.
On Aug. 25, Bryan released his second full-length album, “Zach Bryan.” He had hinted at the highly-anticipated record for months but did not provide a release date until a few weeks in advance, only revealing that the album might come out sometime in August. Despite Bryan’s casual buildup to the release, the album quickly reached number one on Billboard’s Top Albums and all 16 songs found their place on the Billboard Top 50. The most popular, “I Remember Everything (feat. Kacey Musgraves),” a gloomy post-breakup duet, landed at number one. After the release, Bryan has become, by some measures, the most popular artist of our time.
Yet Bryan’s new levels of success have not allowed him a restful hiatus. Shortly after the album’s release, Bryan was arrested for obstructing an officer in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, his new relationship with internet personality Briana LaPalagia has brought its own attention and controversy. But among fans, the events seem to have had minimal impact. Spotify even used Bryan’s mugshot as the cover photo for a playlist titled “Outlaw.” If anything, his arrest has been endearing for the fans and character-building for the artist.
After issuing a sincere apology video and a dismissal of the hate towards his relationship, Bryan has maintained his momentum. In fact, the musician’s response to the events seem to have amplified his authenticity, while also building an old country persona similar to the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash’s outlaw-highwaymen antics. Maintaining his accessible, unguarded nature, Bryan spent the past weeks teasing new music with collaborators on social media. And after it all, continuing in his spirit of spontaneity, this past Friday, Bryan released a surprise EP.
The new EP, “Boys of Faith,” is the ultimate testament to Bryan’s mastery of genre-straddling, encompassing flairs of country, rock, folk and Americana. Critics have a difficult time classifying Bryan’s genre, sometimes hesitating to apply the country label. Bryan himself has made an effort to distance himself from Nashville-based country institutions, even mocking stereotypical country culture in certain songs. The new EP builds on this existing confusion with features from Vermont native Noah Kahan and indie folk band Bon Iver. On “Boys of Faith,” Bryan leans into the electric guitar but stays loyal to his staples: banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle and piano.
Middlebury’s crunchy culture is undoubtedly a hotspot for Bryan’s folk-country hybrids, and his local fan base certainly appreciates his cross-genre nature. But even more than the music itself, Middlebury students love Bryan’s lyrics.
Chris O’Connell ’24 saw Bryan perform this past summer and recently endured a hectic Ticketmaster experience to get a seat for his show next summer.
“I would say what draws me most to Zach Bryan’s music is his genuine and rich songwriting. He is able to not only set a vivid scene, but tell a story filled with emotion that comes through super clearly… He has a lot of common themes but the ones that stand out to me the most and that I connect best with are nostalgia, living in the moment and finding the little joys in life.” O’Connell said.
Caitlin Smith ’25 has been listening to Bryan’s music since 2020 when she fell in love with the song “Heading South.” Smith also cited Bryan’s lyrics as his main draw.
“I feel like the music behind the lyrics is pretty simple and relatively consistent throughout his songs but the lyrics are telling such a complex story and conveying complicated emotions. The mix of these things makes his music really beautiful and easy to listen to. He’s not trying too hard to make his music something that it’s not,” Smith said.
Smith and O’Connell are not the only ones who resonate with Bryan’s lyrics and persona. Bryan’s authenticity, spontaneity and rejection of big-time country institutions feel refreshingly youthful. When coupled with nostalgic themes and the poetic nature of his lyrics, Bryan’s work provides a suitable sound for the background of college life and much more. From my 14-year-old brother to my 50-year-old dad, it is safe to say that Bryan’s music has something to offer for everyone, even for those without the same last name.
Maggie Bryan '25 (she/her) is the Senior Arts and Culture Editor.
Maggie has previously served as Arts and Culture Editor and Staff Writer. She hails from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is double majoring in French and Environmental Policy. This spring, she will be studying abroad in Paris. During her free time, she can be found running on the TAM or teaching spin classes in the FIC.