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Analysis | Zach Bryan doesn’t need country radio. He just needs your heartstrings.

At a sold-out concert in late March, with a resale ticket more than $1,000, Zach Bryan sang: “They’ll never understand that boy and his kind. All they comprehend …”

He paused, and the roughly 20,300 fans — drinking $17 hard seltzers and wearing $45 tour T-shirts in D.C.’s Capital One Arena — screamed in unison: “…IS A F—ING DOLLAR SIGN!

Bryan originally released this song, “Heading South,” on YouTube in 2019, a few days after his bare-bones debut album “DeAnn,” which was recorded in an Airbnb he converted into a makeshift studio by propping mattresses on the walls. The video is amateurish, lit poorly and shot from below Bryan’s knees at his sweaty face. He has red eye in it. And it has been viewed nearly 28 million times.

At the time, Bryan was in his sixth year as an active-duty member of the Navy, which honorably discharged him in 2021. Now, the 27-year-old is upending the country-music industry by finding his audience on social media, not the radio.

Country is the last genre still largely governed by terrestrial radio, even in the streaming era. What gets played on FM stations is what gets popular, and those airwaves are tightly guarded by station programmers who expect artists to play the game — which often involves kissing the ring on radio tours.

Bryan doesn’t do radio tours. He doesn’t do many interviews. He disparages the country machine.

And so country radio didn’t play his songs — not until he became famous, which is the inverse of how it normally goes.

Historically, artists require heavy airplay on country radio stations before they could sell out stadiums. That maxim was upended last year, according to Johnny Chiang, a SiriusXM vice president of music programming who previously spent 20 years programing terrestrial country radio.

In 2023, Bryan became the first country artist to sell out stadiums without the radio push, according to Chiang.

Instead, he reached his fans through Twitter (now X), TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. Bryan is “the genre’s first-ever viral-birthed, social-media country star,” says Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, who runs the website Saving Country Music. A social media following led to a record deal with a major label, Warner.

Coroneos thinks country radio’s stronghold on the industry is overstated but agrees that Bryan represents a seismic inversion for the industry.

“Radio is no longer the kingmaker,” he says, and Bryan is proof.

Outsiders and interlopers — from Waylon Jennings to Sturgill Simpson — have always challenged the Nashville machine. And what indie rocker doesn’t have a country-tinged record nowadays? (Please welcome Beyoncé and her cowboy hat to the stage.)

And those are the folks I tend to listen to.

For many music lovers (like me) who loathe the slick pop country that is played endlessly on country stations, Zach Bryan feels different. Something genuine, at least through the bookshelf speakers at my home.

But what about in a giant arena?

I first heard Bryan’s music not while perched on the bed of an F-150, sipping Wild Turkey under the Alabama stars, but through the screen on my Peloton stationary bicycle during a ride sound-tracked by his songs.

I was immediately hooked. Bryan reminded me of traditional country — gently strummed, with catchy-but-crushing songs that storify tough topics such as addiction and dementia. His live, full-band versions of the same songs absolutely rock. He’s Bruce Springsteen via Merle Haggard — or is it the other way around?

Dennis Morton, the instructor who taught the Peloton class, told me he chose Bryan because he doesn’t sound like modern country music, which has “become a little bit homogenous,” Morton says. “He’s barely any more country than Tom Petty.”

Bryan’s songs have country-cliché titles — “Oklahoma Smokeshow,” “Quittin’ Time,” “Highway Boys” — but they don’t fall prey to country’s worst instincts (think empty imagery of cold beer on summer nights, and pairs of jeans that fit just right).

His homespun production, his raspy voice, his heartfelt storytelling, his DIY roots: It all feels authentic. Sometimes his guitar is out of tune, even on his albums. His fingers make mistakes. This all somehow adds to his appeal.

“He has a really gritty, authentic, heart-wrenching sound,” Chiang says.

Bryan positions himself as anti-establishment, even though it isn’t 100-percent true.

His live album, recorded at the Red Rocks Amphitheater outside of Denver, is titled “All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster” — but tickets to Monday’s show in D.C. were sold through Ticketmaster. He wore a shirt that read “RIP MAINSTREAM MEDIA” onstage at the Capital One Arena — after his team gave me a ticket to receive coverage.

“They want to control you,” Bryan said on Joe Rogan’s podcast, though he didn’t say who “they” is. “That’s how I feel with everything sometimes. That’s why I get so frustrated with people. Because everything I do, everyone has an opinion.” Welcome to being an artist in the public eye, my dude.

In 2022, Bryan tweeted that he “will never want to be considered at the CMAs” because “establishments will always be weird.” He promised to hold a concert outside the Country Music Awards next year, in the way that Simpson once busked outside the show.

Bryan was nominated for a CMA in 2023 and attended the ceremony. He accepted a Grammy in 2024. He can sing all he wants against the system, but he’s now working inside it.

At his D.C. show, no one fretted over his authenticity, or wondered if Bryan is some messiah who will tear down country music’s gatekeepers. Attendees were likely not thinking about country radio. Most of them probably don’t even own a radio. They were just drinking, and screaming, and singing. Yee-haw.

The delicacy of Bryan’s lyrics, and the intimacy of his songs, was stripped away at a live show and replaced by the tumult of communal experience. Rabid fans drowned his phrasings by shouting every lyric and squealing at every chord change. The concert experience was the tonal opposite of the small Southern towns he sings about.

The stage was shaped like a giant cross. It had a microphone set up at the end of each point, so he could address different sections of the crowd, which wrapped around the arena. Between songs, he repeatedly mentioned that he didn’t understand the music business when he was starting out.

The young crowd was outfitted with cowboy hats, denim, SEC school logos, denim, sunglasses dangling on Croakies (despite it being nighttime, and despite us being inside of an arena), sundresses, knee-high boots and denim. More than one fan vomited in the men’s bathroom before Bryan’s set began.

I felt like I was back at LSU, my alma mater.

With a propulsive band behind him and the spotlight on him, Bryan’s songs felt musically fleshier but thematically emptier.

It’s hard to feel like he’s fighting the establishment when his face is projected on a screen that must be 50 feet wide. It’s difficult to consider him an underdog in a room full of fans wearing $80 hoodies bearing his likeness. It’s tricky to sing-scold people who only care about money in an arena sponsored by Capital One.

But when he ended his concert by inviting the crowd to sing along, over and over again — “Baptize me in a bottle of Beam, and put Johnny on the vinyl!” I couldn’t help myself.

I know it makes no sense to hate pop country and want to sing this at the top of my lungs. I know my culture and nostalgia as a Southerner are being exploited. I know he is wearing a T-shirt decrying my profession.

But for a moment, I didn’t care. Sometimes, the music is enough.

I bowed down, and I let the holy water roll over me.

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