INDIANAPOLIS — In late May, Zach Bryan released “American Heartbreak,” a bracing and shaggily elegant 34-song country-folk opus that served as his major-label debut. It opened at No. 5 on the Billboard album chart, an astonishing mark for a singer who less than a year before had been in the Navy, putting out music on the side.
A couple of weeks later, he was riding his motorcycle with his girlfriend when he took his eyes off the road for a moment and crashed. The left side of his forehead was badly scraped, his right arm deeply gashed and his skin pockmarked with road rash. (His girlfriend, Deb Peifer, was largely unhurt.)
The two had just spent a quiet afternoon at a nearby creek. The emotional whiplash jolted Bryan, 26, into his new reality.
“The most beautiful moment that I’ve had in the last five years, and the worst moment I’ve had in the last five years, and it all happened in like 24 hours,” he said in July, in the diviest dive bar in Indianapolis, the afternoon after he performed to around 6,000 people at TCU Amphitheater at White River State Park.
“I’m like a Kerouac guy,” he continued. “Like, I think life is reckless and it should be insane. It all ends in agony. It’s all about the outcome, so like, do it, you know? Do whatever it is.”
But the accident — and the new responsibilities it underscored — chastened him. “I rode motorcycles 120 miles an hour, 130 miles an hour in my life. Now I’m on a scooter going 10 miles an hour, like, freaking out, looking back at her like, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’”
A handful of days after the crash, he returned to the stage. And not long after that, as Bryan is wont to do, he started writing through the suffering, resulting in an EP, “Summertime Blues.” “Here,” Bryan said, his eyes tightening ever so slightly. “Thanks for the pain.”
BRYAN HAS BEEN making hay from pain for the past few years, first getting attention for the muscularly intense songs he released on Twitter and YouTube while he was still in the Navy, and now as one of this year’s most sudden breakout stars. “American Heartbreak” has hovered in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 since its release, displaying staying power similar to recent albums from Kendrick Lamar, Future and Post Malone.
It is a refreshingly unpretentious album, with songs that take the shortest path from feeling to words while also deploying some alarmingly lovely turns of phrase. “When you place your head between my collar and jaw/I don’t know much, but there’s no weight at all,” he rasps on “Something in the Orange,” which has become his most recognizable hit since his early songs “God Speed” and “Heading South.” On “Sun to Me,” he vividly captures feeling unworthy of someone’s love:
Bryan is midsize, sturdy and preternaturally calm. He generally dresses comfortably — Carhartt T-shirt, a well-loved pair of Birkenstock Bostons. But onstage, singing any of a couple dozen songs about wounds and what it takes to lick them, he clenches tight, as if determined to lift an unusually heavy barbell, and nailing it.
He grew up a Navy brat — his father was a master chief, and the family was stationed in Japan. When Bryan was in the eighth grade, the family moved to Oologah, Okla., an actual one-stoplight town around 30 miles northeast of Tulsa. His parents, Dewayne and Annette, divorced when he was around 12.
Bryan was popular in school, a wrestler who was student council president. He had a rebellious streak, but also a clear idea about the man he intended to become. Graham Bright, a childhood friend who’s now his lead guitar player, recalled a night of drinking when the young men saw police lights nearby. “He goes and hides under a bed and starts crying and he’s just like, ‘I want to join the Navy. That’s all I want to do. And I’m not going to be able to!’”
Bryan enlisted when he was 17; the day he shipped off to boot camp, he hadn’t spoken with his father in weeks. “He called my wife some names and he put me on my butt,” Dewayne recalled, referring to his second wife, Anna, with whom Zach now has a strong relationship. “He’s tougher than nails.”
Even though he lived with his father, who had full custody, Bryan felt close to his mother, who had also served in the Navy: “an Oklahoma sweetheart, homecoming queen cheerleader, like a small-town freaking famous person almost.”
But Annette struggled with alcohol, straining family relationships. She died in 2016, and afterward Bryan’s songwriting deepened. “I think my mom dying really solidified the darkness in life to me,” he said. “It opened that thing in you that’s like, ‘Hey, be a man now.’”
“People say I repress,” he continued. “And I’m like, no, the person that I want to tell all this stuff to is dead. And you don’t deserve me weighing in on my feelings to you.”
Bryan’s years in the Navy left him with an emotional resilience and a sense of equanimity, even under fire. Peifer noted that “Sometimes he’s so levelheaded that I’m like, wait, you should be mad or something. Like, we need to react to this!”
Bryan’s sister, MacKenzie Taylor, said they’d “learned from our mom how to put a mask on,” adding, “And he’s a dude in Oklahoma — he’s not supposed to have emotions.”
In the military, Bryan was an aviation ordnanceman stationed in Washington and Florida, and did tours in Bahrain and Djibouti. He assembled, repaired and loaded weapons, and in his downtime, recorded songs. He was a fan of the Oklahoma country band Turnpike Troubadours — especially the songwriting of its frontman, Evan Felker — as well as Radiohead, Bon Iver, Gregory Alan Isakov and assorted “weird indie music.”
In 2015, he started posting clips of his music online, and by 2019 he was garnering attention from progressive country music websites. In Florida, some Navy buddies helped him record his first album, “DeAnn” — his mother’s middle name — which he self-released in August of that year. A second set, “Elisabeth,” followed in 2020. By 2021, still in the Navy, he made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
“I was like, don’t put your guitar down, keep going, something’s going to happen,” he said. “Not because I felt driven. Not because I wanted to be famous. Not because I wanted to be rich. I literally just would sit there and think about my mom and be like, Something is telling me not to stop doing this.”
Bryan was honorably discharged from the Navy in August of last year, and soon after set out on the road, finding a rabid fan base waiting for him.
“He wouldn’t sell meet-and-greet tickets because he is too goddamned principled, I guess,” J.R. Carroll, Bryan’s keyboard player and another Oklahoma friend, said with a light cackle. “So they would just have anybody who wanted to meet him after our show. He would just stand there and talk to these people, and they would tell him the most unbelievably dark and depressing stories for three hours.”
Now that Bryan is operating at a bigger scale, he is beginning to set boundaries for himself. “People don’t understand the pressure exerting emotion on other people exerts back on you,” Bryan said.
‘AMERICAN HEARTBREAK’ HAS 34 songs, an improbable number but not, apparently, an undigestible one. In the four months since its release, Bryan has continued to unleash music at an unconventional clip, more like a rapper than a folk singer.
“The EPs I give the label for free — I can’t stop writing,” he said. “I have this weird fear of like, if I don’t put this music out, someone 20 years from now isn’t going to be able to hear it. If some kid needs this in 40 years and he’s 16, he’s sitting in his room, what if I didn’t put out ‘Quiet, Heavy Dreams’? What if that’s his favorite song of all time?”
Considering that Bryan is now routinely selling out shows of several thousand people, he’s maintaining raw skepticism about the ruinous power of money and celebrity. He has a decidedly old-fashioned take on the music business and the ways art should be made, a throwback to the authenticity obsessed 1990s, or even the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“Songwriting is such a massive part of this,” he said. “If you’re missing out on it, what the hell are you doing? You’re just performing. You’re an actor.”
Still, he has embraced the occasional surreal moment — recording “American Heartbreak” at Electric Lady Studios; coincidentally being at the New York restaurant Carbone the night in January that Kanye West went there with Julia Fox; getting the opportunity to work out at the Ohio State football team’s facilities before the Indianapolis concert.
“People feel entitled to be famous and rich,” he said, with genuine amazement, “and I’m like, dude, you could be digging ditches, bro.”
Besides, the music business is fickle. “You don’t know if it’s cringy in the time,” Bryan said of his songs, and their success. “‘Cause what if it’s a trend? What if all this is going to be embarrassing and you’re just trying to be a genius that you’re not?”
In the current slotting of genres, Bryan falls perhaps closest to country, though it doesn’t feel like home to him. “I think people understand that I’m not that,” he said. “I want to be in that Springsteen, Kings of Leon, Ed Sheeran at-the-very-beginning space,” he said.
But some of the more partisan elements of the country audience can surface at his shows. In Indianapolis, before Bryan took the stage, parts of the crowd broke out in a vulgar chant about President Biden.
“I told people if I heard it, I would stop it immediately,” Bryan said. “Don’t come to my shows and start it. But they do it anyway.” (He describes himself as a “total libertarian.”)
Moments like that contribute to the creeping sense that his success has become too big to fully control and supervise. This was made manifest at a performance in Oklahoma in April, when someone threw a beer at Bryan when he was onstage. The audience was filled with people he knew, or somewhat knew, or somewhat knew him.
“You see all these eyes and you’re like, Y’all don’t know me anymore, man. I’ve grown. I’m reborn,” he said last month, taking a cigarette break in a Philadelphia parking lot, not far from the modest home he recently bought. Living in Oklahoma, as much as he loves it, isn’t a viable option right now.
And so he’s already retrenching a bit, aiming to make his suddenly big life just a bit more cloistered. “I’m too writing-driven to be a big star,” he said. “I’m not meant for it.”
Last month, “he had like a week and a half off,” Peifer said. “Got back, recorded some songs, and then took four days to build cabinets. And it was all of the exact same importance.”
And he has been chipping away at the final nine credits he needs to receive his bachelor’s degree, squeezing coursework in between concerts. He’s studying psychology: “I just wanted to figure out why my mom was the way she was, you know? Like the most beautiful lady of all time and also kind of tortured herself.”
On Twitter, he recently said he wouldn’t properly tour again: Next year, he plans to play around 30 shows — less than half of this year’s number — so he can leave time to potentially return to school and pursue a master’s degree, ideally in philosophy, and also to spend time with his loved ones.
“How are you going to write music that’s personal and heartfelt if you never get to see the people you love?” Carroll asked, adding that the band’s goal is simply “Letting it be beautiful.”
That means taking space, and saying no, and knowing when is enough. Bryan underscored the dilemma with what sounds like self-deprecation but is in fact a kind of stoic pragmatism. “Music’s going to die out,” he said, characteristically straight-faced. “You either keep going and you fail, or you stop while you’re ahead.”