Zach Bryan Brings In Bruce Springsteen for a Feature on ‘The Great American Bar Scene,’ a Record Steeped in the Boss’ Quieter Side: Album Review

Zach Bryan album
Warner Records

In the title track of “The Great American Bar Scene,” the 19-track album Zach Bryan is putting out for the 4th of July, the singer-songwriter name-checks a Bruce Springsteen song, “State Trooper,” ordering that someone put it on the jukebox. He also puts in a request for “Hey Porter” in that same song, for the record, but while Bryan does not have the clout to get Johnny Cash to rise from the grave and put it an appearance, he does have the cultural pull to get Mr. Nebraska himself to show up later on his record. Their duet of the new song “Sandpaper” was not not officially announced until the album’s midnight release, but it won’t come as any surprise, after they already sang it together at a Bryan show in Brooklyn back in March. The younger singer is so steeped in the elder that it almost feels like a torch-passing, even though I imagine Springsteen really only surrendering the flame when they pry it out of his cold, dead hands.

“Sandpaper” is one of several songs on “Great American Bar Scene” to include a feature, with the others including “Better Days,” which sports some Dead-ly (as in “& Company”) electric guitar playing from John Mayer, and “Memphis: The Blues,” which makes good use of Americana hero John Moreland. That’s a reasonably healthy guest list, though you may be wondering what happened to the support for women artists that was evident in the lineup of cameos on his previous album, 2023’s “Zach Bryan.” Well, there’s a surprise in store there: although she doesn’t get featured billing, the voice of 20-year-old Canadian artist Noeline Hoffman starts blasting out of the speakers about halfway through “Purple Gas,” which impressed Bryan so much when he heard it that it became the first time he ever included a straight-up cover on one of his five albums to date. It’s a move that’s got to warm your heart toward Bryan, no matter how you feel about him coming in, that he’s willing to cede prominent real estate on a major release to an upstart who can use a leg up, as well as indulge in some make-a-wish phone calls.

Hoffman’s “Purple Gas” might even be the best song on the record, truth be told. But there’s no mistaking how much the spirit of Springsteen looms over the album, as much as it has over much of Bryan’s short, meteoric career to date — it’s like the Chekhovian gun introduced in the first act that was bound to go off in the third with an actual feature. The weird part is obviously not that a heartland guy is taking cues from Bruce, even though that’s less common than it was 30 or more years ago. It’s that he’s taking them from “Nebraska,” Springsteen’s super-stripped-down 1982 outlier album, and then still somehow managing to inspire “Born in the USA”-style mania among his stadium and arena crowds with the contemplative stuff. It doesn’t hurt that there’s no actual murder, or threat of it, here; no state troopers will be harmed in the making of this country-adjacent music. But it’s still kind of wonderfully weird that an Okie so inspired by Bruce’s ballads is turning that somewhat sullen model into chartbusting stuff. It almost gives you a reason to believe.

“The Great American Bar Scene” actually feels a lot less stark than last year’s self-titled record did. I think I’ll still end up preferring that album more, as the one that turned me on to Bryan, with its peculiar, low-fi self-production values — probably the same reason that I expect rank-and-file fans who had a few minor complaints about that will take more of a shine to this one. For better or worse, there are no live and crushingly loud bullfrogs included on the new record. (I miss ’em.) But “slicker” is a relative thing when it comes to Zach Bryan records, and even the part of his fan base that overlaps with Luke Bryan’s would probably argue that they come to him because they’re attracted to organic produce, too. And so there are plenty of tracks among the 19 that have not much more to them than acoustic guitar and the stray Dobro, with house drummer Jake Weinberg being asked to tap lightly or even sit things out so often, you’d think this was a bluegrass record. There’s no evidence Bryan is looking for a fresh banger to replace “Revival” as his inevitable show-closer; it’s kind of stunning, really, when someone who draws crowds as big Bryan’s is spending so little time manipulating the rabble-rousing dial. But I suspect he’s onto something: medium-tempo is the new barnburner.

Oh, and if you like albums that start off with a poem, “The Great American Bar Scene” begins that way, just like the previous album, albeit at several times the length. “If I’m Lucky Enough” is a statement-of-purpose and vision chart that includes aspirations from the past (“I’ll meet some kids in school that still know how to play instruments”), future (“I’ll have some kids and teach them that we are all the same / Sufferin’ the smilin’ silhouettes of every passin’ day”), and eternal (with the hope “to only die on hills that are closest to my heart”). He’s already thrown out an album’s worth of aphorisms, over an ambient guitar, in the five minutes before the singing part begins. Having been so outrightly confessional with that spoken-word overture, he turns to fiction in the first proper song, “Mechanical Bull,” the acoustic-slide-guitar-driven lament of a former rodeo cowboy who’s only likely to take rides inside barrooms from here on out. The theme isn’t especially original, but Bryan gets some great lines in, saying he gets “a little sad in the eve’nins / Knowin’ I’ll  never get a beatin’ / Like being young and dumb again.”

From there, the singer throws in a few character sketches amid apparent portraits of his real life. In the latter category are songs like “28,” a song fresh enough to have obviously been written since Bryan turned that age in early April. “Took 28 years of blood I was lost in / To feel loved on my own birthday,” he admits, in perhaps the album’s most affecting line, expressing his affection for someone who “took a train to the south side of Boston (and) showed me where your whole heart stayed.” That fits with what we know of Bryan’s girlfriend — Boston-bred “Barstool Sports” personality Brianna Chickenfry — and other songs that suggest his upbringing wasn’t all hugs and flowers. “I was raised by a woman who was hardly impressed / And I carry that shit real deep in my chest,” he sings in “Bass Boat,” a song that starts with memories of peaceful fishing with a father, and somehow quickly moves on to acknowledging that “even with my baby sitting next to me / I’m a self sabotaging suicide machine.”

Occasionally, he’s going the more overtly “Nebraska”-ian, short-story route, like “Oak Island,” in which he identifies himself as “Mickey” and goes looking for a wayward brother who’s run afoul of some thugs, looking to straighten things out by any means necessary because “no blood in the mud I’s raised in spends life on the run.” (The contractions “I’s,” “we’s,” “they’s” and “you’s” pop up a lot in Bryan songs.)

And he has insisted that the album’s first single, “Pink Skies,” a song about a family funeral, has nothing to do with his mother’s untimely death, which he’s written about a lot in previous albums, but sprang out of his funereal imagination. In that one there’s a poignancy to the imagery about emptying a family homestead for a sale that anyone grieving the loss of a family elder may relate to: “Clear the drawers / Mop the floors / Stand tall / Like no one’s ever been here, before or at all.” For all the sadness inherent in that, “Pink Skies” has to be the most cheerful-sounding song about the rituals of gathering for last rites since Lyle Lovett’s “Since the Last Time.” Bryan believes in tears, but not tearjerking, and so a number like “Pink Skies” that flirts with tougher emotions ends up being as stoic as it is bittersweet.

If there’s a complaint to be made about any of the songwriting here, it’s that sometimes some of Bryan’s best lines feel like they could belong as much in another song as the one they’re in. He can skip around between incidents, emotions and time frames so much within a single song that it’s not always easy to tell whether he’s being deliberately elliptical or just has a case of lyrical ADHD. At 28, he’s good — very good, in fact — but still has some growth ahead of him in achieving the discipline of songwriting heroes like Springsteen and Jason Isbell. The song “Northern Thunder” feels like it’s about to become a real statement of Where Zach Bryan Is Now, with its pithy summary of his post-Navy rise to fame: “Mama, I made a million dollars on accident / I was supposed to die a military man / Chest out too far with a drink in my hand / But I’ve got folks who like hearing me rhyme.” But when just a few lines later he claims that “it ain’t been my week, ain’t been my year,” it begs more questions than the tune is prepared to answer. Maybe Bryan just means to tell us that it’s lonely at the instant-top, but the song isn’t really developed enough to explain whether his smashing breakout success really coincided with an annus horribilus, or whether these lines just tumbled out kind of randomly.

Yet there’s also a way in which the aimlessness of some of his material is a feature, not a flaw. Most of today’s pop and certainly a lot of the mainstream country that so much of his audience is listening to are schematic, to an extreme. And so probably it feels refreshing to his fans — as it can to a critic — that Bryan’s songs don’t always have a single path or destination, and that a number that begins with a memory of his dad’s “Bass Boat” surely isn’t going to stay there for more a verse, the way it would if this were high-concept Nashville fodder.

Speaking of Nashville, Bryan lets his uneasy, borderline-adversarial relationship with the mainstream country community come to the fore as possible subject matter just once, in “Like Ida,” where he seems to be addressing a woman who might’ve gone to Music City to hit it big. “When you make it to Nashville,” he sings, “You can tell by one hat tilt / That shit just ain’t my scene / I like out of tune guitars / And taking jokes too far / And my bartender’s Extra Damn Mean.” The way that he capitalizes Extra Damn Mean in the lyric sheet certainly suggests he’s making an EDM joke; who knows if it’s because he’s experienced the same thing many people in the industry have — that at so many official country music functions, the DJ is playing electronic dance music, not country. Anyway, by the end of the song, Bryan is slamming just about everything mainstream, making callouts to the “sound of that rusty door hinge” and proclaiming, “That bullshit you see on the late-night TV / Is a long way from our beatin’ hearts.”

That sentiment borders on being the heartland version of indie rabble-rousing. But it’s hard to doubt for a second that Bryan really means it when he declares that he’s marching to the beat of his own heart’s different drummer. And when someone like him comes along who’s determined to do things his own way and not via the accepted media and industry channels, you have to wonder if his notoriously system-bucking qualities will inspire fans to embrace him as a mere complement to the Luke Bryans of the world, or, for a few of them anyway, as an actual replacement.

“The Great American Bar Scene” is not a glad-handing kind of record. It’s not even an album that goes out of its way to ingratiate itself as, like, bar music. (Bryan promoted the album by giving some of the songs out in preview form to 23 bars across the nation, and you may wonder whether the bartenders had to turn up these mostly quiet numbers extra-loud to be heard over the din.) The singer-songwriter loves his band, who he’s brought along from his Oklahoma days, as anyone who’s seen his concerts know. But he’s not always worried about putting all of them to use at once, that’s for sure. Many songs begin with acoustic finger-picking, and quite a few of them stay there. This balladic emphasis could wear out its welcome, too, without enough variation over 19 tracks, and so it’s welcome when he mixes things up a bit. “American Nights” is one of these standouts, for the way it takes a big volume jump on the second verse and ends up with a deliciously dry snare drum sound and a cool, miniaturist band feel you wouldn’t mind hearing a lot more of.

There’s more of that easygoing snare-drum shuffle in “Memphis; The Blues,” Bryan’s duet with Moreland, in which he sings the praises of that Tennessee mecca’s signature artform — calling out Beale Street and B.B. and Otis redding — without ever sounding like he’s trying to imitate a bluesman himself. This isn’t a hugely eccentric record, in its sound; as previously mentioned, that was more a characteristic of last year’s album release. But Bryan does take some interesting chances here and there, like on “Bass Boat,” in which the emphasis is on him tinkling around on the very uppermost keys of a not-so-grand piano, as if he wants us to feel, in the time-honored tradition, that the piano has been drinking.

As for the Mayer collab, the guest artist does not lend a lead vocal to his track, just lead guitar, in such short and tasteful dollops that it almost seems not indulgent enough — but “Better Days” is one of the better numbers. Springsteen’s guest spot is a vocal one, of course, on “Sandpaper,” and it’s nice to hear the master and student together — laconic on laconic — along with the addition of some baritone guitar from Chris Braun. Maybe it’s a bit peculiar to hear Springsteen, a guy who is not in his 20s, keep repeating the lyrics’ autobiographical refrain about “27 seasons,” but you could write that off as Bryan dueting with his nostalgic future self. The drums are played as light rim shots, an obvious nod to the percussion on Springsteen songs like “I’m on Fire,” even though the Jake Weinberg who plays drums in Bryan’s band is a different Jake Weinberg than the same-named drummer who is Max Weinberg’s son.

When the album gets to its climax, of sorts, that turns out to be “Pink Skies,” the teaser track that everybody’s already heard for weeks. But it’s a nice touch when the song is extended for about 50 seconds longer than what you’ve previously heard, with a coda that has a couple of Bryan’s band members taking over the lead vocals. It’s a beautiful touch that reinforces the communal spirit of the song… and of Bryan’s whole humble vibe. (It’s not the first time that Bryan pulls off this neat trick on the album; “Northern Thunder” ends with background vocalist Bree Tranter unexpectedly getting the final line all to herself.)

“Pink Skies” is followed by a lovely epilogue, “Bathwater,” which ends things on an even more subdued moment, notwithstanding the line where Bryan veritably shouts, “Boy, get up and dance.” There’s a bit more country music commentary that comes along in rounding out the album, as the song laments the “808 beats” in the “songs (that) used to free me,” and also the whole faux-outlaw imagery of the modern genre. “Now everyone knows an outlaw, country to the core,” he sings, “but the only outlaw I’ve known served in the Corps. And I ain’t heard ‘Shake the Frost’ in a couple years or more.” Closing an album out with twin nods to his military background and to Tyler Childers, with a bit of shade toward Nashville, is very Zach Bryan. And it’s a good portent of a future in which the singer-songwriter, for all of his hero worship of Springsteen and others, stands a fairly decent chance of being remembered as a one-of-one.

From Variety US