The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Review | Zach Bryan retains authenticity amid popularity on new album

Courtesy of Genius.

Oklahoma country musician Zach Bryan released his fifth album “The Great American Bar Scene” on July 4. The patriotic release date marks the follow-up to his well-received 2023 self-titled album which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. 

For the past year, Bryan has been touring the country, selling out shows in the largest venues the American music industry has to offer for top dollar. His meteoric rise to fame through the 2020s, even through active service in the Navy, has defied the traditional country singer trajectory, quickly making him one of the most popular artists in America.

“(Musicians) have a pipeline of ‘oh man, I played the small bars, and then I played the bigger small bars, and then I played the bigger, bigger small bars, and then I played medium venues, and then bigger medium venues’,” explained Bryan in an interview. “But when I got out of the Navy I was already there.”

Fame is infamous for changing those who acquire it, but listening to “The Great American Bar Scene,” it is evident that Bryan is yet to be affected. 

The soul in the man-and-his-guitar recordings of Bryan’s early career is still blatantly present across the album’s 19 tracks, retaining the raw and honest sound in his music. His guitar often takes the instrumental lead while avoiding pop country-esque progressions, giving Bryan his originality and, sometimes, walking the line of folk. 

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

While his earlier recordings were bare almost to a fault, Bryan’s recent releases including “The Great American Bar Scene” have expanded upon instrumentation, adding sonic layers to his heartfelt stories. 

The greatest example of this is heard on “Oak Island,” as from the first few seconds both a bass and soft electric guitar can be heard melodically plucked in the background. Once Bryan’s story of a deal gone wrong concludes, the guitar amps up and the instrumentals build with a blaring trumpet. It keeps building until the guitar and drums are playing too quickly to be coherent, and then it all falls away in controlled chaos. 

Bryan also hosts a sizable number of background singers and features that add tasteful harmony or complementary verses to the album. On the song “Towers,” choir singers echo the hard-hitting moments of the chorus, making what is otherwise a fairly simple song into a memorable piece of the album. 

Features range from Canadian singer Noeline Hofmann, who has only released a few YouTube recordings, on the duet “Purple Gas,” to one of the only indicators of Bryan’s stardom on the album, an aging Bruce Springsteen for the song “Sandpaper.”

Save for the punchy and infectious track “American Nights” and the finale of “Oak Island,” the album is filled with a mellow tone that isn’t as somber as it is reflective or reminiscent. Even with some instrumental variance, the slower pace and frequent acoustic strumming do give the album a one-dimensional sound. 

What you hear is what you get with “The Great American Bar Scene” — in the sense that once listeners finish the first few tracks, the album doesn’t come with too many surprises. For existing fans, this won’t pose an issue as Bryan’s pen and performance are as good as they’ve ever been. But if listeners aren’t current fans, the album isn’t an attempt to reel them in. 

Though many of the songs invoke a similar feel, some still do manage to stand out, such as “28.” The reminiscent air of the album is at its finest on the chorus which is easy to sing along to.

“How lucky are we/ It’s been a hell of a week/ We’re all grown now,” Bryan sings while authoritative piano chords hit the audience with welcome force. Later lines of the chorus are also tweaked throughout the song, rewarding careful listeners. 

Small additions like these lyric variations are what further set Bryan’s music apart from the rest of the field. Whether it’s the time signature change with only 21 seconds left on the track “Funny Man,” or the seamless transitions between longing singing and harmonic conversation on “Better Days,” each decision feels intentional in a sound owned and occupied by Bryan. 

“And please don’t ask me how these last years went/ Mama, I made a million dollars on accident,” Bryan sings on “Northern Thunder,” a confession that explains the success of his music that tries anything but to intentionally be popular.  

As Bryan’s touring is scheduled to continue through the summer and beyond, the release of “The Great American Bar Scene” gives the coming packed arenas a batch of new tracks they will likely hope to hear from, piling on to one of the most in-demand set lists in the country.


[email protected]

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Michael Bales
Michael Bales, Senior Copy Editor
ILLordle: Play now