Zach Bryan’s Messy, Massive Breakthrough

We review the triple album from the rising country star, ‘American Heartbreak’

On May 31, 2022
Photo by Samuel Elkins

Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is the major-label debut from country singer Zach Bryan, American Heartbreak.

The best Zach Bryan songs are messy. Not just in their sound — which is often pared down to an acoustic guitar that sounds weathered, maybe some fiddle and some backing vocals — but in the margins of their characters. The people Bryan sings about on his major-label debut American Heartbreak are struggling to pay the bills, drinking to forget an ex, chasing highs right off cliffs and, above all, are just trying to make it from one day to the next. In every song, there always seems to be some looming happiness or disaster. This is not mainstream country about nights at football games, on the river or in the sunshine; this is country music about the everyday struggle of just putting on your shoes and seeing what happens next. 

What likely happens next for Bryan is that he’s poised to become one of the biggest country stars on earth. A former U.S. Navy service member raised by Navy vets, Bryan developed a cult fan base thanks to albums and songs he recorded in Airbnbs, self-released and promoted via social media. When he started going viral, he got signed to Warner, and readied his debut LP, American Heartbreak. But since Bryan has never been one for half measures, American Heartbreak is a triple album, 34 songs that he didn’t cut down in the least. It’s the No. 1 country album in America, by a wide margin, and for good reason: Bryan is the bridge between outsider iconoclasts like Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell and the mainstream guys like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. He’s the crossover artist that’s been promised, and American Heartbreak more than lives up to the hype. 

To pick just a handful of songs to recommend among 34 feels like deciding a single chip in a bag is your favorite; it’s the experience of all 34, taken over the album’s massive two-hour run time, that makes them all hold together. But “Heavy Eyes” and “Something in the Orange” are early hits, and are ready-made for festival singalongs, as Bryan doggedly belts out their wordy and impactful choruses. “’68 Fastback” is another standout; Bryan compares himself to a busted-down car that was ridden into the ground by an ex, parted out for scrap. “Tishomingo” is a song with extended passages about train rides that builds and crescendos like an ancient train, while “Highway Boys” is a meta commentary on trying to remain truthful to himself and his subjects in his songs. 

Taken together, American Heartbreak is a triumph, not just for its shocking breadth but in how it repeatedly has the ability to knock you out, make you remember and overwhelm you. It’s not often in country you can watch a new star’s arrival happen in real time, but there are few country artists as audacious, daring and exciting as Zach Bryan.    

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, co-produced VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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