Zach Bryan and the Country Music Revival

For years, post-9/11 country music has dominated the airwaves and the charts thanks to exclusive play on country radio. Now, thanks to streaming services and the democratization of music creation, this is beginning to change. Zach Bryan’s unusual path to stardom is proof. 
If you’re reading this, you might listen — boastfully and unironically — to “everything but country music.” Here’s an idea: give the genre another chance. Avoiding something that everyone else avoids doesn’t make you cool, and nobody thinks you’re a Republican. 

You’re depriving yourself of one of the most culturally rich, lyrically deep, and historically significant musical genres. It’s not your fault. Nobody that likes everything but country music does so on purpose.

You’re not to blame, either. You’ve been exposed to an incomplete representation of the genre. When you hear country, you might think cold beer, blonde girls, and big trucks. 

Who’s to blame? In a phrase, country radio. More broadly, Nashville and the structure of country music distribution for the last half-century. 

When people today discuss their disdain for country music, they are likely — and without realizing —referring to an over-represented phenomenon dubbed “post-9/11 country.” This subgenre is home to half-time-show-singing, festival-headlining stars like Luke Bryan, Luke Combs, and Morgan Wallen. 

It’s fourth-of-July, there are hot dogs on the grill, and there’s a cooler of Bud Light on the tailgate of your red Ford Bronco. You might be on a beach in Florida or a lake in Oklahoma. Toby Keith serenades you from the speaker in the sand in the middle of your cornhole game.

“Hey Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue.”

Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” is the post-9/11 country song. Though fascinatingly over-the-top, most of the subgenre is more subdued. Anything is compared to that. Sometimes the genre works. Take “Chicken Fried” by the Zach Brown Band. Brown sings about beer and girls, but it’s relaxing and perfectly captures warm summer nights. Still, there’s this:

“I thank God for my life
And for the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly, let it ring
Salute the ones who died
The ones that give their lives so we don’t have to sacrifice
All the things we love
Like our chicken fried.”

It’s a paralyzingly strange genre identifier dropped without context into the middle of the song. It’s objectively weird — imagine hearing this is an indie rock song — but it’s typical of the genre. It would almost be weirder without it. With “Chicken Fried” on one end of the post-9/11 spectrum and “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” on the other, one can’t help but wonder what wonders lie in between. 

Somewhere in the middle lies “Boys ‘Round Here” by Blake Shelton. The video is almost as shocking (or amazing?) as the lyrics. 

“Well the boys ’round here, they’re keeping it country
Ain’t a damn one know how to do the dougie (You don’t do the dougie?)
No, not in Kentucky
The boys ’round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks
Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no sh*t
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit”

Beer? Check. Girls? Check. Trucks? Check. Bonus points for chewing tobacco and the dougie line. It’s crazy, though hardly a deep cut. “Boys ‘Round Here” peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay and Canada Country charts.

This is a small-but-loud portion of country music. Small because it’s often very produced and requires resources only available to those under substantial record deals, and loud because it’s what country radio stations like. Post-9/11 country has the largest audience because it follows Nashville’s rules. Artists sing about non-offensive topics over clean guitar riffs while staying apolitical. It’s marketable. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with post-9/11 country. Most of it is catchy and harmless. It also has a knack for delivering innocent, funny lyrics. Craig Morgan’s “Redneck Yacht Club,” Dierks Bently’s “Drunk on a Plane,” and Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her” are some of the funniest, most self-aware songs on Spotify. It might not be art music, but it’s easy to listen to. 

The problem with this subgenre is its overrepresentation. Again, country radio shoulders the blame. Before the streaming-service revolution, country radio and major Nashville labels held a monopoly on what people heard.

For all of recent history, if an artist wanted to make it in the country scene, they needed to go to Nashville and find representation. Their label would then guide them toward what radio execs wanted to hear, and the artist would comply—it was their only choice. If everything went well, they’d get radio play and develop an audience. If an artist failed to follow this path, they were left with few alternatives. 

Or course, it was possible to eke out a living selling CDs and playing shows for cult audiences. Without mainstream radio play, however, major distribution was difficult. Some artists made it work, but their numbers paled in comparison to the George Straits and Kenny Chesneys of the world. 

Not all post-9/11 references Catholicism, the United States, and family values, but the subgenre has a reputation for being nationalist, religious, and sometimes racist. Since the subgenre is synonymous with country music as a whole, the general public passes these judgments off to the entire genre. 

That’s why you think you hate country music. Thanks to streaming, you don’t have to anymore.

The way the country music industry functions and the music it produces as a byproduct alienates large portions of the population. Country radio’s monopoly on listeners has given post-9/11 artists an exclusive right to make country music, leaving few chances for sonic divergence. Recently, however, thanks to streaming platforms, things are beginning to change. 

Streaming services have launched country music into a new era. The genre is experiencing its most significant shift since the early 2000s. Country music is cool again, and Bass Pro Shoppers shouldn’t be the only ones enjoying it. 

Services like Spotify and Apple Music grant listeners easy access to vast libraries of music. They also make it easy for artists to gain traction without conforming to industry standards. Take the SoundCloud rap boom of the mid-2010s as an example. Artists today have options beyond traditional channels. Anyone can download a free beat, record some lyrics, upload it online, and become the next Lil Peep or XXXTentacion overnight. This realization forever altered rap less than a decade ago. 

It took some time, but country music is finally coming around. Zach Bryan is the perfect example.

For proof, one need look no further than the Billboard Hot Country chart. Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” sits alone at No. 1

“To you I’m just a man, to me you’re all I am
Where the hell am I supposed to go?
I poisoned myself again
Something in the orange tells me you’re never coming home,”

Bryan sings in the mournful ballad’s chorus. 

For reference, Kane Brown and Katelyn Brown sing “thank God” 26 times on the No. 2 charting country song, “Thank God.” The thematic difference is clear—remember the post-9/11 emphasis on religion?

Bryan’s Billboard success with “Something in the Orange” is impressive, but that’s not what makes him the poster child of the country music revival. 

First, let’s set the stage. In May 2022, Bryan released his major-label debut album American Heartbreak. It broke the record for most global streams of a country album in a 24-hour period just three days after its release. It topped album charts in country, folk, and rock in the process. Bryan is one of music’s most promising young stars, and his story bodes well for fans of country music. 

Instead of gaining a small following through independent distribution, signing a record deal, and blowing up through Nashville’s country radio channels, Bryan did it by himself. 

Born in Japan and raised in the small town of Oologah, Oklahoma, nothing about Bryan’s upbringing suggests future stardom. His father Dewaayne, late mother DeAnn, and grandfather all served in the Navy. Bryan followed suit, carrying on the family’s legacy as a 17-year-old kid by enlisting. While serving, he discovered a passion for music. 

Despite his full-time commitment to the Navy, Bryan was destined to share his passion with the world. While enlisted, he began posting his music on Youtube for whoever would tune in. On September 7, 2019, he posted a video titled “Zach Bryan – Heading South.”

Today, almost 20 million people have seen the video. Nearly every comment reads “I am not a fan of country music, but …”. 

Bryan’s video went viral because it was different. It is still identifiable as country music but stripped of the cliches that transform acoustic guitars and a southern accent into today’s bro-country movement. Bryan didn’t use autotune, there was no snap track, and there were no overt call-outs to God or patriotism. He took country music and stripped it of every distraction, or everything that earns you a spot on country radio.

The video showed Bryan sitting alone in a t-shirt and shorts with a guitar on his knee. It is country music in its most authentic form. Bryan’s face is red and sweaty, his leg keeps time through aggressive stamps, and his eyes communicate what passion his lyrics can’t. His gravelly voice sings of unchecked ambition and seeking understanding while he riffs on a simple four-chord pattern. 

“Don’t stop goin’, goin’ South
‘Cause they’ll let you play your music real damn loud
Don’t stop headin’, headin’ South
‘Cause they will understand the words
That are pouring from your mouth”

The “Heading South” video launched Bryan’s career. His debut album DeAnn sparked a cult following in 2019, and his sophomore album Elisabeth furthered this momentum in 2020. After demonstrating his potential, Bryan was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2021 to pursue a career in music. He never expected to play on the world’s largest stages. He just wanted to share his passion. That’s what streaming services allow. Months after leaving the Navy, Bryan’s was a household name. 

Today, Bryan is the brightest emerging star in country music. He’s attractive because he doesn’t fall into the country stereotypes. Bryan doesn’t waste time on Bud Light and long-legged women. Instead, his lyrics stay true to his experiences as a man growing up in the 21st century. The subject matter isn’t the only thing special about Bryan. His ability to express himself poetically through song is what makes him stand out. On “Loom,” he laments,

“How do I make you fall in love with me?
And how would I let you know I care?
And how would I say that the man you’re laying with
Is not the man that should be laying there?
How would a boy like me put it?
A man with some sense probably wouldn’t
But I don’t give a damn, I am not a smart man
I’m gonna say some words I shouldn’t.”

Bryan’s stardom is comparable to Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, but his story and music are completely different. With his first two LPs and American Heartbreak, Bryan proved that anyone with a few chords and something to say can make it in the country industry. He is the poster boy for the country music revival. Though he is the best known artist popularizing this divergent sound, he is by no means the only voice. 

Tyler Childers comes to mind as another unique sound benefiting from the streaming landscape. Hailing from Kentucky, Childers sings unapologetically of Appalachian life’s harsh realities. His 2017 album Purgatory earned him a devoted following, and his popularity has grown alongside Bryan’s. Turnpike Troubadours mark another refreshing country sound gaining traction through streaming services, as do acts like Brandi Carlile, Caamp, Futurebirds, and Deer Tick. The list goes on forever—that’s the nature of streaming. 

Bryan is now mainstream, but these associated acts aren’t. Each, however, has a devoted following and earns more Spotify streams by the day. One day they might join Bryan headlining festivals across the country. Ten years ago in a world without music streaming, Bryan would still be firing at unnamed enemies somewhere overseas. 

Though country’s streaming-fueled revival features a diverse palette of sounds, the emerging subgenre can be at least loosely sonically defined. Its most obvious characteristic is its simplicity. Despite its emergence as new, there is nothing inherently radical about the music itself. 

Light acoustic melodies navigate expanses of open chords backed occasionally by eager banjo riffs. Twangy violin—fiddle—adds background texture, and it wouldn’t be country without the occasional steel guitar. Percussion is often basic if at all present. 

Country radio isn’t dead, but it’s dying. Streaming services grow more powerful by the day, democratizing music and leveling the playing field for new artists. Sites like Spotify and Apple Music aren’t perfect—they are overly greedy and make it difficult for artists to profit from streaming numbers alone—but they have changed music as a whole for better or for worse. 

In the case of country music, the change is for the better. It is about time mainstream country music divorced from stereotypical ideals of “big green tractors” and “long neck iced cold beers,” and if it takes the intervention of streaming services to accomplish this, the change is for the best. 

Post-9/11 country isn’t country music. It’s a small category of a diverse genre. Next time you say you hate country, imagine Johnny Cash taking the stage at Folsom Prison and attacking America’s prison system. Consider Willie Nelson advocating for open borders, and Woody Guthrie’s guitar sticker reading “this machine kills fascists.”

Most importantly, consider whether you have given country music a fair shot. The radio likes trucks and hunting, but the genre digs deeper if you give it a chance. Country is based around simple, relatable lyrics and charming guitar melodies. It’s been around since the dawn of the frontier, telling stories of outlaws and outcasts at every turn. If you step back and  listen, you’ll find yourself wrapped in a blanket of fiddle solos. You don’t hate country, you hate country radio.

Ethan Ott writes for .wav’s Content Team. He wrote the article. V Pond is part of .wav’s Arts Team. She made the art.