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Zach Bryan tackles love, loss and the price of fame on ‘The Great American Bar Scene’

Country star Zach Bryan performs in the first of two concerts at the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday, May 30, 2023. He due at Lincoln Finical Field on Aug. 6 and 7. Credit: Tom Gralish

Country star Zach Bryan performs in the first of two concerts at the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday, May 30, 2023. He’s due to perform at Lincoln Financial Field on Aug. 6 and 7. Credit: Tom Gralish

“Grab your beer through tears and fears, the great American bar scene.”

This message ends the first track on Zach Bryan’s fifth studio album, “The Great American Bar Scene” — which was released Thursday, after months of teasing songs on social media and while on tour — and is followed by 18 tracks of Bryan’s signature storytelling, somber singing and melodic guitar playing.

Bryan’s rise to fame has been nothing short of meteoric. In the past few years, he has released five albums — not including a live album, three EPs and numerous singles — all after serving in the United States Navy for eight years.

Bryan’s previous two records, the triple album “American Heartbreak” and his self-titled album, took him from being a minor act in country music to becoming the face of the folk-country Americana movement.

Finally, on Thursday — less than a year after Bryan’s latest album — “The Great American Bar Scene” was released and the record did not disappoint. 

The album opens with a poem by Bryan, called “Lucky Enough,” in which he conveys his hopes for the future. 

In one line he states, “If I’m lucky enough, I will get through hard things and they will make me gentle to the ways of the world.”

The track then leads into a hot streak on the album with the song “Mechanical Bull,” in which Bryan compares his existence with that of a mechanical bull’s due to his struggles with fame and the music industry at large. He relates his life to that of his friends and expresses longing for his pre-fame lifestyle with melancholic lines like “Are the old ways dead or livin’ in my head.”

The ensuing track on the album — the title track — takes the listener on a trip with Bryan to a bar filled with sounds of 8-ball being played and people laughing, along with Bryan asking questions and telling stories that vividly describe “The Great American Bar Scene.”

The next three songs are arguably the best part of the album. All three tracks — “28,” “American Nights” and “Oak Island” — were some of the most highly anticipated tunes that were teased from the album. 

The back-to-back-to-back punch of hearing the tracks in full is sure to satisfy any fan who has been following along to this album’s carefully planned rollout.

“American Nights” and “Oak Island” are the most cheerful songs on the album, with both tracks combining Bryan’s nostalgic writing with emphatic electric guitar riffs and lively drumming. 

The rest of the album is filled with variations of Bryan’s folky style as well as a star-studded cast of guest features — including John Moreland, Noeline Hoffman, Bruce Springsteen and John Mayer — as well as increased experimentation with instruments. 

Though each featured artist brings a distinct perspective to the album, the highlights are undoubtedly Bryan’s childhood heroes, Springsteen and Mayer.

On Mayer’s featured track, “Better Days,” Mayer and Bryan’s voices and guitars harmonize as they muse on fond memories while trying to figure out who they are in life. 

Bryan’s track with Springsteen, “Sandpaper,” features heartfelt lyrics as the singers describe their feelings toward a girl they still love even though they cannot be with her. Springsteen croons, “Winter was a drag and spring was a friend. I’ll love you ‘til the summer comes back again.”

Throughout Bryan’s discography, he has increased the amount of instruments played in each song. Nearly the entirety of his first two albums consist of just vocals and acoustic guitar, but for the first time ever, the piano has become a major aspect of his music-making process, as introduced in this album.

On the previously mentioned track, “28,” the piano and guitar complement each other as Bryan illustrates a picture of a week with his girlfriend Brianna LaPaglia, a podcaster at Barstool Sports. 

During the week described in the song, the couple’s dog had to get very intense surgery, something Bryan recently revealed in a July 8 X post. He describes the challenges of the week with lyrics like, “How lucky are we. It’s been a hell of a week.” 

Another piano track comes later in the album, in the song “Funny Man.” In this track, Bryan further elaborates on his relationship with LaPaglia as he sings, “Reckon God is a funny man, for putting beauty in these ugly hands.” 

Bryan also uses the piano to describe his feelings of nostalgia and his simple desire to live outside the spotlight on the track “The Way Back.” 

These feelings of leaving fame carry throughout the album in glimpses but are best seen in the closing track “Bathwater.” Notably, Bryan sings, “These songs used to free me, now there’s nothing free in this.”

At times, the album may not seem perfect — in part due to the similar-sounding qualities and melodies of most of the tracks — yet fans of Bryan are sure to enjoy his familiar, authentic writing melded with his newly expanded sounds and instrumentation. 

Rating: 4.5/5 

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