If you didn’t know, now you know: Zach Bryan is one of the biggest singer-songwriters of 2023.
The Americana artist, who has been growing his fanbase steadily for a half-decade and even scored a Billboard Hot 100 top 10 smash this year with “Something in the Orange” (from his top five-charting Billboard 200 hit 2022 album American Heartbreak), dominates Billboard‘s two marquee all-genre charts this week. His self-titled new LP bows at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 200,000 units, while the album’s Kacey Musgraves-featuring ballad “I Remember Everything” also enters the Hot 100 at pole position.
Did we see this kind of week coming for the rapidly rising Bryan? And what, if anything, does it mean for the larger country world? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Zach Bryan has already flexed a little Billboard chart muscle with his American Heartbreak album and its breakout hit “Something in the Orange,” but these are straight-up star returns for his latest. On a scale of 1-10, how surprised are you at this commercial showing for Zach Bryan?
Kyle Denis: I think I’m at a 3. Zach Bryan has been a star, and it’s great to see that properly reflected on the charts in a major way with his latest album. When I think of the way songs like “Something in the Orange,” “If She Wants A Cowboy” and “Cold Damn Vampires” subtly took over campus last year, it’s only right that the follow-up to American Heartbreak would debut with such an impressive start.
Lyndsey Havens: 7. I think his one-off single with Maggie Rogers, “Dawns,” really showed that there was an audience who wanted more of that Americana, country-rock leaning sound — especially in the form of a vulnerable collaboration with gorgeous two-part harmonies. And oh boy did he deliver on Zach Bryan. That said, quality aside, I am surprised at how the mainstream embraced this album and its lead single to the point where Bryan has simultaneously topped the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts.
Melinda Newman: 3. It’s not much of a surprise. There is a groundswell for Bryan that keeps growing. If you watch his streaming numbers and his ticket sales, he’s one of the biggest artists out there right now. Plus, predecessor American Heartbreak has spent 67 weeks in the Top 40 on the Billboard 200. There is no shortage of demand for Bryan’s material.
Kristin Robinson: 3. Zach Bryan’s fanbase has always been incredibly passionate about him. If you listen to Zach, you don’t just like him — you love him. He has his longtime fans, but he picked up a lot more with his last album and the breakout success of “Something in the Orange.” I think we should’ve anticipated this would hit No. 1 the moment Zach announced that he would be doing an arenas-and-stadiums tour with openers like Sheryl Crow and Jason Isbell. This album also obviously comes at a time where country music in general is flourishing, and that certainly doesn’t hurt.
Andrew Unterberger: Yeah, 3 seems about right. The degree of it is maybe slightly surprising — just because you can’t ever totally know for sure until it happens — but it’s long been clear Bryan was on the verge of a huge moment. Hell, the last few weeks, both his “Oklahoma Smoke Show” and “Burn, Burn, Burn” have re-entered the Hot 100, for no apparently reason other than they’re streaming fixtures now and folks were extra excited about Bryan with this new album on the way. The last new artist I remember having that level of catalog-wide excitement around them was a pre-When We All Fall Asleep Billie Eilish, and we all know how things turned out with that album.
2. Zach Bryan is something of a departure for its creator, with a rawer, self-produced sound and some more personal/direct subject matter. Do you think the album’s shifts in sound or style are related to its greater and more immediate commercial success, or is it more just a matter of timing for an artist who was already on the ascent?
Kyle Denis: I think it’s more of a timing thing. Although I will note that the shift to a rawer sound is quite logical, especially considering the success of Z&E’s version of “Orange” and the warm reception of his Maggie Rogers duet “Dawns.” The rawer, more unfiltered sound seems to enrapture his audience more than the gloss of radio-facing contemporary country and rock. Nonetheless, given the intensely personal, poetic vibe of Zach Bryan, the rawer sound is more apt anyways.
Lyndsey Havens: I do think that Bryan’s current success says just as much about him and the path he was already on as it does about the masses and what’s resonating right now; in a record-breaking year for country music on Billboard‘s all-genre charts — and during what I believe to be a renaissance of narrative-driven, folk-leaning songs, thanks in large part to Taylor Swift — a rising star like Bryan seems to be a voice everyone can get behind.
Melinda Newman: It’s both. His fans are already so invested in him that this slight switch to more intimate material only deepened that connection and made them lean in even more. They felt they got to know him from his previous material and were ready to invest even further in his story. However, there’s no denying the timing. His fans already had a bounty of material from previous releases, but he knew they wanted more and would eagerly dive into new material and he rewarded them by pulling back the curtain a little more on himself.
Kristin Robinson: No, I think this was just a matter of timing for a rising star. If anything, this more rough-around-the-edges feel to his production might’ve made it a little harder to achieve mainstream success. Of course, there is a bit of a movement towards less glossy country right now (shout out Tyler Childers) — but if you look to the other No. 1 country album of the summer, One Thing at a Time by Morgan Wallen, it’s a lot cleaner and poppier. So to me, going for more a more minimal Americana style was a beautiful and bold statement!
Andrew Unterberger: It’s more about the timing than the album itself — but it also helps that the album is good! If Zach Bryan had felt tossed-off or compromised or just kinda flat, it certainly could’ve hindered it reaching these kinds of commercial heights. But it feels like a natural step forward for him, showcases his strengths well, and has a number of immediately striking songs that only improve with additional listens. Bryan had a moment to meet, and het met it. Pretty simple.
3. “I Remember Everything” is the breakaway hit to lead off the album, with its biggest-name guest in Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves. Does it strike you as a lasting hit, or is its early success mostly based on its higher early profile?
Kyle Denis: I think the first-day success of the song is mostly thanks to Kacey’s name recognition, but the fact that consumption was so consistent that it debuted atop the Hot 100 – especially when both artists had just one Hot 100 top ten hit between them prior to this – speaks to the quality of the song. “I Remember Everything” has all the makings of an autumn/winter breakup hit: a heartbreaking melody, verses that are in conversation with each other while showcasing each party’s side of the story, and lyrics that are equally intimate and universal.
Lyndsey Havens: As much as I love this single, since listening to the album (again and again and… again) there are other songs that have stood out a bit more. “I Remember Everything” is a stunning surprise hit, purely because it’s rare for a song so delicate to top the Hot 100 — and while I do think it will stand the test of time, I think more rollicking tracks like “Hey Driver” in particular may soon outpace “I Remember.”
Melinda Newman: It’s a lasting hit because it’s beautifully simple. It’s understated, elegant and heartbreaking. Both Bryan and Musgraves give fairly restrained performances that somehow make the gut punch all the stronger that a love has been torn apart by their own failings and they are very aware of what they have both lost… even though the relationship was likely doomed regardless. “Strange words come on out of a grown man’s mouth when his mind’s broke” is a hell of a lyric. There’s a whole novel in that one line.
Kristin Robinson: I don’t think it’s catchy and poppy enough to stay at No. 1 for too long, but I think it will be a lasting hit that ranks among the top 20 for a while. The lyrics of that song are wonderfully done, the production is timeless, Musgraves and Bryan are a natural fit. I see this being a staple of his catalog and one that is revered more than many other No. 1s.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s off to such a dynamite start on streaming that it’s sure to stick around for a while. Will it be the kind of song that ultimately towers over the rest of his catalog from this period? I don’t think I really see that yet; the song is good but it’s not even a clear standout from the set to me. One thing I will say though: This song, and its respective performers, will absolutely KILL at awards season.
4. As major as Zach Bryan’s chart success has been already, he still has yet to gain much of a foothold on country radio — the extremely rare true star country (or country-adjacent) artist with no real presence on the genre’s airwaves. Is that going to come with this album — or later — or is he just destined to operate outside of that part of the Nashville machine?
Kyle Denis: I would be disappointed if country radio doesn’t at least give “I Remember Everything” a fair shot – but I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised. “Holy Roller” and “Hey Driver” also have potential, but I won’t hold my breath. Most of Zach Bryan just doesn’t sound like your most-spun songs on country radio right now. I think an artist like Zach will continue to cultivate the lane that he’s already in while bringing new fans into the fold with each release. He’s already proven that he doesn’t need radio to reach people, but I’m sure the radio hits will come at some point – whether that’s through his own songs or a featured turn on someone else’s track.
Lyndsey Havens: I foresee him operating (and succeeding) outside of the machine, much to his benefit. I think part of why Bryan is taking the music industry by storm right now is because he doesn’t “belong” to country — or to anyone or anything, for that matter. The way I see it, Bryan isn’t too concerned with playing by a rulebook, which is exactly what has helped him get to this moment.
Melinda Newman: “Something in the Orange” did reach No. 20 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, but his label hasn’t aggressively pushed him to the format yet (they didn’t service terrestrial country radio with “I Remember Everything”), so I think it’s too early to say. At this point, it’s clear that he doesn’t need radio though, and so he does not need to court radio in any way and country radio likes to be courted. He is operating outside of the mainstream in other ways: He very seldom does interviews and he doesn’t appear on television (other than on Yellowstone), so he may decide he’s doing just fine playing by all his own rules.
Kristin Robinson: It will come. They can’t ignore him any longer! But Zach will continue to be anti-establishment. He won’t go by the stations to shake hands or do interviews with them to gain favor, but he is so big now that radio stations need him.
Andrew Unterberger: I don’t know if country radio will use the occasion of the song’s No. 1 debut to embrace it (or Bryan himself). But I know that country radio is coming to a very important crossroads in its development, where it can try to reconcile its proven successes with the fact that Bryan and his peers are making the kind of country music most young people are most excited about right now, or it can just ignore them and continue milking the Lukes and Chrises of the country world until there isn’t a drop left to get from ’em. I know which way I’d go if I were them.
5. This is the fourth straight Hot 100 No. 1 to come from the larger country world this summer — but the first without any real kind of discourse or controversy surrounding either the song or the artist behind it. Does this feel like something new for this country-dominated summer, or is still all basically coming from the same place?
Kyle Denis: I wouldn’t say it’s all coming from the same place. “I Remember Everything,” for me, is more in line with “Last Night.” Yes, Morgan Wallen’s N-word scandal partially resulted in his star growing even bigger, but “Last Night” was as dominant as it was because the song connected with people, not some larger political conversation around it à la “Rich Men North of Richmond” or “Try That In A Small Town.”
If anything, this is undeniable proof that we’re in the midst of a country music renaissance in mainstream contemporary music – and there’s a testy fork in the road. Are we going to support and celebrate good country songs like “I Remember Everything,” or are we going to continue to be inundated with songs that court the political fervor of thinly veiled racism like “Small Town”?
Lyndsey Havens: I will always root for the songs that top the charts simply because they’re great f–king songs, which “I Remember Everything” sure is. Controversy and virality have of course become key factors in many a success stories, there’s no denying that and in many cases, it makes sense and pays off to lean in. I even think such discourse surrounding previous Hot 100 country No. 1s helped create the appetite for a star like Bryan. And now, I think his success will only fuel a desire for more emerging country-rock artists with stories to tell. At least, that’s the hope.
Melinda Newman: It’s basically coming from the same place and a totally different place. Bryan is as much rock as he is country (his album is the biggest rock album in equivalent album units earned in four years) and, thematically, “I Remember Everything” has nothing in common with the three songs that preceded it. But, they do all rely on basically simple, relatively unadorned instrumentation (whether acoustic or electric guitars), are slow-to-mid tempo and are carried by solo male voices (Musgraves adds a lot to “I Remember Everything,” but doesn’t appear until almost two minutes in). In many ways, these four songs topping the Hot 100 consecutively feels more like a coincidence, except that all four artists have extremely passionate fans who, whether ignited by their love for the artist or the controversy behind the songs, have loudly declared their devotion.
Kristin Robinson: I think “Last Night” by Morgan Wallen and “I Remember Everything” by Zach Bryan have a lot in common, so I don’t think this feels totally new. Both songs are streaming successes, both are apolitical with good hooks and neither made any incendiary statements alongside the release.
Andrew Unterberger: It feels a little… I don’t know, cleaner? Nothing at this level of commercial success is ever truly pure — and Bryan showed that himself this week by publicly ceding his longstanding battle with Ticketmaster — but it’s nice to see a country-adjacent artist having this kind of success without any real support from either the Nashville powers that be or the Big Red Machine of FOX News and their ilk. Hopefully he won’t be the last one.
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