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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

From McGlinchey’s to Music City: ‘The Great American Bar Scene’

In his fifth studio album, Zach Bryan comes to terms with where he came from and who he is morphing into, all within an hour of heavy-hearted folk.
The+album+cover+for+%E2%80%9CThe+Great+American+Bar+Scene.%E2%80%9D+%28Photo+courtesy+of+Belting+Bronco+Records+in+partnership+with+Warner+Records%29
The album cover for “The Great American Bar Scene.” (Photo courtesy of Belting Bronco Records in partnership with Warner Records)

The long-awaited album teased at select bar performances across the country, “The Great American Bar Scene,” was finally released on July 4. With Bryan’s fifth studio album came a ballad of his existence, full of a freshly-forged romance clashing with bittersweet nostalgia of his youth. And in a music industry that demands more with each day, Bryan dedicates his album to the times he’s gotten drunk, whether deep in the fields of Oklahoma or in a New England tavern. Bryan declares it all as a part of “The Great American Bar Scene.” 

“Lucky Enough (Poem)”

Since I started listening to Bryan, the best word I could use to describe his music is “fiery.” “Lucky Enough” was a pleasant and genuine surprise. Once I pressed play and heard Bryan calmly talk about his raw hopes and dreams for his future, human-to-human, it felt surreal. The piece feels less like a song and more like the start of a conversation you’d have deep into a summer night with a dear old friend. The vulnerability in Bryan’s voice pulls you closer, going deep into your soul as you squeeze every word. The quote “youth is the attic chest where every lesson lies” is perhaps the most striking. Bryan is nearing the close of his 20s, and every lesson he has learned has come from being young in the rising stardom he sits in now. This is truly a suitable opening for “The Great American Bar Scene.”

“Mechanical Bull”

Bryan uses “Mechanical Bull” almost as a memento of his youth, asking, “Are the old ways dead, livin’ in my head?” in a sense of old-school nostalgia. Bryan masterfully questions how he came to the point he stands in now, and whether he should try to hold on to what used to be.

“The Great American Bar Scene”

In the namesake track of the album, Bryan creates an atmosphere of grit and grime in his ballad of the life he’s lived. Through gambling, beat-downs and handcuffs, Bryan paints his life as a bar-goer. The slight echo accompanied by background noise made me scrunch my nose, almost smelling the tobacco-infused wood panels. Bryan immerses the listener in the adventures of his misfortunes and experiences that built him up to create the album. Even despite the “bets being tough” and the “bartenders being mean,” Bryan still seems romantic toward “The Great American Bar Scene.”

“28”

With a song that has a guitar that punches as hard as the love story, you know you’re in for something spectacular. I have always loved when Bryan goes wild on the guitar in an emotional catharsis, and “28” is no exception. “28,” referencing his age, has Bryan confessing to his current spouse, Brianna LaPaglia. Bryan references finally enjoying life with her as he sings heart-gripping lyrics that made me want to sing, cry, sway and all of the above at once. The strung lyrics about the dive bars they once went to develop a bittersweet feeling of joyful nostalgia that Bryan masters so well. Overall, this was my favorite track from the entire album — the rushing sense of intimate, romantic nostalgia plus the addition of violin make this track hands-down stunning.

“American Nights”

In all honesty, “American Nights” reminds me of what would happen if you fused deep Southern country with 1950s-era rock ‘n’ roll. The electric guitar shocks you the first time you hear it as Bryan punches out “wet, hot American nights” and you can’t help but move your feet. Bryan tells the stories of others through his music as well, from someone leaving their hometown to his friend getting caught counting cards. You feel a part of the small town within “American Nights” as you develop nostalgia for each character. 

“Oak Island”

Bryan keeps the high-tempo tunes a-rollin’ with “Oak Island,” the beat picking up and roaring with such consistency that it reflects the raging train cars called out in “Tishomingo” years ago. As the beat rolls down the tracks, all you feel is a tightness prick in your chest as Bryan sings about the friends he knew in North Carolina. You hang on to the lyrics detailing Oak Island in the sense of storytelling that Bryan continues to perfect throughout the track. Overall, this was not the most interesting track of the album, but it’s still a gem to hear once in a while.

“Purple Gas”

With the title referencing a tax break for farmers, the lyric describing the purple gas as the only break Bryan can catch is incredibly fitting. The track highlights a staple lesson of Southern living: the importance of surviving even when everything is rough. Noeline Hoffmann’s higher-pitched voice harmonizes well with Bryan’s baritone voice, creating a sense of homemade music that is easy to digest instrumentally but beautifully challenging to digest lyrically at times. Her addition was a truly excellent choice by Bryan.

“Boons”

Boons” is where Bryan goes calm. After the emotional roller coaster of the album so far, “Boons” is a relieving break of Bryan voicing his thankfulness for success. The term “dyin’ in the boons” quite literally means Bryan is resting in the blessing his career has given him, but it invokes an image of a swamp in my mind, similar to a bog. In this bog, Bryan wants to separate himself from everything his career forces him to do, to rest away from the crowds to purely appreciate the many blessings his life has given. In his rest, he wants to separate himself, to escape a grind that many people could relate to, as he calls out Music City as being too corporate for his liking. In summary, Bryan does what we all must: appreciate the fireworks of the Fourth of July as they fly and remember to rest away from it all every so often.

“The Way Back”

“The Way Back” is ultimately a tune of hope. Even when the world is coming towards you, Bryan reminds you that “we’ll always find the way back” home over a flowy piano tune that develops a homemade style to the track. The track references realistic small-town living, from the car photographed in Kodachrome with championship bumper stickers to Tom and Jerry on the television. “The Way Back” feels like a sibling calling out to another to go back home even if they fear what will come. The beauty of Bryan’s ability to get intimate with the listener is highlighted here: the softness in his voice as he repeats the reassuring words that you will find a way feels like a warm hug after walking through miles of rain. 

“Memphis; The Blues (feat. John Moreland)”

John Moreland was the perfect addition to this track, end of story. The silky boom in his voice is gold for country singing, especially on a track about cherishing your spouse like a drug on your “lifelong bender.” The sound of the acoustic guitar blending with the drums adds a Southern charm to the instrumental that makes it perfect for late-night drives at sundown, with the sound of Bryan and Moreland harmonizing together as the bow on top for the listener.

“Like Ida”

“Like Ida” brings a sense of longing that reminded me of his song “Something in the Orange,” with the strung-out notes at the tail of every verse. With the tune resembling something of a long-distance folk song, the magic of Bryan continues as he enters the second half of this ode to Americana and proudly proclaims how he loves when his bartenders are mean. “Like Ida” might not be the most unique in country music, but a tender love tune is always welcomed.

“Bass Boat”

Bryan has garnered fame and fortune, but he shows through “Bass Boat” that he will always remain humble under God. In an album full of barside beat-downs and youthful angst, Bryan uses “Bass Boat” to face his religion head-on in a masterful duet. Through the questioning of what his life has become and rosy memories of fishing with his grandfather, Bryan confesses that when he’s lost at the end, the best place for him is under God. 

“Better Days (feat. John Mayer)”

“Better Days” is very much a good song — not exemplary, but not horrible in terms of country music as a whole. With lyrics that reassure that everything will be alright as Bryan faces “better days,” it feels like a slightly differing version of “Boons” in terms of Bryan’s message. I would not put this as one of my top Bryan songs, but it’s still a decent track to play from time to time.

“Towers”

If I had to describe “Towers,” I would say it’s the gospel edition of “Lucky Enough.” Whereas in “Lucky Enough” Bryan declares his hopes for life, “Towers” is where Bryan asks himself what comes after. Asking whether God is a person or the subtle blessings of country life was a tear-jerking part of the track. For me, that verse reminded me of the sweet sounds of my childhood, coming downstairs every morning to a sizzling pan. “Towers” is ultimately Bryan’s ‘smell the roses, kid’ piece, and I couldn’t ask for much more from “Towers” than that. “Towers” will stand as a staple of the album alongside “28” as one of the most impactful pieces of Bryan’s work. 

“Sandpaper (feat. Bruce Springsteen)”

“Sandpaper” is an excellent example of what happens when Bryan seems to assimilate to the core of his singing partner, with the upbeat tune of Bruce Springsteen being taken in stride by the two on the track. Again, Bryan remains nostalgic about the love he once had with a girl, the memories of how much he loved her, and the “sandpaper” she is binding to his heart. You can hear the longing in Bryan’s voice as he drags out his notes, creating a calm atmosphere throughout the song as he goes back to a simplistic drum and acoustic guitar combination for the track.

“Northern Thunder”

Here is where Bryan goes back to his roots with just a guitar and soul, and that’s all he needs. Crying out about his roots as a military man who used his music to cope, Bryan shows his raw love towards his upbringing in rural life, piercing your heart as you listen to him and putting every fiber of his passion into the track. Overall, the track is about appreciating where you came from and what comes next for you, giving a sense of harmony to the chaotic changes Bryan has faced with the rise of his music career over the years.

“Funny Man”

In a discography full of longing and regrets by Bryan, “Funny Man” is a breath of fresh air. Reminding me of a groom’s wedding vows, Bryan pulls no punches as he confesses his love for LaPaglia in a track calling God a “funny man,” highlighting a sense of deep behind-the-curtain appreciation that we rarely get to see from big-time stars and making this an incredibly special piece in his discography as a whole. All I can give are top kudos for making “Funny Man” in a state of such vulnerable love. 

“Pink Skies”

“Pink Skies” touches on the idea of death, which is arguably quite touching for Bryan, who tends to sing all about living. “Pink Skies” reminds me of a man giving a eulogy directly to the dead, a letter chock-full of nostalgia and bittersweet remembrance that tugs at the heartstrings with every verse. Listening to the track, I couldn’t help but bow my head a bit: “Pink Skies” acts as an ode amidst mourning for a dead patriarch of a small-town family, and merely the strength of Bryan’s voice and lyrics command respect for the deceased. Bryan is careful to tiptoe the line between mourning and bittersweet nostalgia, reminding the listener of the legacy the dead leave us once they pass, creating a universally impactful message.

“Bathwater”

In a sunset track for “The Great American Bar Scene,” “Bathwater” acts as a poetic bow on this adventurous album in which Bryan acknowledges that the most important part of living is to live. Bryan understands that life is messy, that one day you will have drinks at the bar and another day you’ll receive a beat-down. He confesses that he even wrote an album and still lives in a perpetual fight between who he was and will be. Ultimately, Bryan tells the world that we must “get up and dance” and embrace our country-core, to take every blessing life gives us whether it be a spouse or “purple gas” — life is a personal story that must be written scene by scene, and only we can hold the pen.

Ultimately, “The Great American Bar Scene” is what country music should be. In a time where country music is sometimes trivialized as songs of muddied F-150s and beer, tender songs about what it is to be human will forever be the soul of the genre. Bryan’s discography is a down-to-earth depiction of it all, from the oorahs to the tumbles, and the hopes of “better days” ahead.

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About the Contributor
George Albu
George Albu, Staff Writer and Photographer
George Albu (‘27) is majoring in medicine, health and society in the College of Arts and Science. When not working for The Hustler, he enjoys taking long walks around campus, reading or watching video essays about anything and everything online. He can be reached at [email protected].

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