Zach Bryan’s Message to Men

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Is the cure for male loneliness being in the Roman legion? Is the cure for male loneliness sailing the high seas with your bros? Is the cure for male loneliness a crusade to cleanse the stars?

Suggestions like these flew around last summer after The New York Times published an article titled “Is the Cure to Male Loneliness Out on the Pickleball Court?” The headline sounded silly, but the writer Michelle Cottle was tackling a real problem: the decades-long decline in the number of close friendships that American men report having. Her suggestion was for guys to just get a hobby, such as pickleball—a nice thought that, as the ensuing online jokes implied, left something out. Although hanging with others is important, so is sharing a sense of purpose with them.

Anyway, is the cure for male loneliness Zach Bryan? I’m kidding, but the rise of the alternative-country singer from Oklahoma does seem like a small, hopeful sign for modern masculinity. The 28-year-old former Navy ordnanceman has, in a quick few years, gone from being unknown to selling out arenas. His new album, The Great American Bar Scene, could end Taylor Swift’s 11-week reign at the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 200—which would be fitting, given how often people have quipped that he’s the “male Taylor Swift.” The point of comparison between the two is the fervor they inspire; each fosters a sense of community and even, perhaps, meaning.

Some observers have been mystified by Bryan’s success, given that he’s hardly the first artist to sing in a deep voice about trucks and whiskey over rollicking Dobro and fiddle. But Bryan’s music features a distinct blend of ruggedness and fragility, with trembling vocals and instruments that seem to fade in and out of the mix. Moreover, his persona and his songwriting add up to a distinct worldview. So much of popular culture tells us to strive for wealth, social status, or revenge against one’s enemies. Bryan makes a compelling case for what really shouldn’t be a radical idea: an ethical code, and finding worth in your relationships with others.

He’s not subtle about this. The Great American Bar Scene opens with a spoken-word poem that spells out his aspirations: to stand up for what he believes in, to have kids and teach them “that we are all the same,” and to “never [meet] a human being that I say I don’t like”—meaning, to show kindness toward all. He delivers these lines in a dignified manner, as if reciting a catechism, until his voice drops into a hoarse chuckle. He then says, “If I’m lucky enough, I’ll get high and invite a guitar player over / And he’ll play sweet notes until a New York City–rooftop sun rises,” seemingly referring to the very guitar notes that are playing in the song at that moment. The line is touching, a snapshot of platonic intimacy between two dudes.

The bromantic vibes build from there. On the album’s second track, “Mechanical Bull,” Bryan name-checks members of his band, suggesting them as aspirational figures because they care for their family or excel at their instrument. On the album’s best track, “Oak Island,” Bryan spins a fictional tale of two brothers fighting after one of them falls in with a gang of loan sharks. The guitars crackle with urgency and tragedy as Bryan considers the difference between fraternal connection and blind loyalty. His ideal of love is tough love, rooted in right and wrong.

What Bryan is subtle about is the social critique implied within these songs. He sings, for example, about guys getting their life ruined by gambling—but via shady bookies, not the more relevant menace of sports-betting apps. On “Boons,” he refers to smartphones in oblique terms: “Won’t you look up from your hands?” he asks. The closest he gets to referencing modern gender tensions is “American Nights,” which tells of ex-military men getting lost to vices while “the women that they swear are gonna be their wives” move on. He sings, “Mary got that job that she wanted out of town / She was better than the sum of all of us anyhow.” (Bryan might be talking about the Mary from “Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen, who lends his vocals to another track on the album.)

Refreshingly, Bryan’s references to female independence aren’t tinged with resentment. In an era when man-o-sphere podcasts and Drake songs present brotherhood and misogyny as the same thing, Byran excels at portraying the opposite sex as genuine partners, not rivals or possessions. “How lucky are we?” he sings to a girlfriend on the waltzing love song “28,” drawing out the we. In general, his advice to listeners is to not blame other people for your problems. “In a life having the upper hand’s a myth / Your only fighting chance is too stubborn to quit,” he sings on “Purple Gas.”

If that rhetoric sounds grandfatherly, that’s the point: Bryan loves, as he sings on “Mechanical Bull,” “the old ways.” Traditionalism—or “trad”—is trending in all sorts of forms of late, including in renewed calls for a repressive social order. But Bryan’s version is warm and inclusive, and makes room for pleasure. He’s reaching back to a vision of American community rooted in bars and businesses where people mingle with “no concern for politics,” as he sings on “Boons.” On social media, he often hears from listeners who tell him that trying to stay out of the culture wars is naive—but he thinks, as he wrote on X recently, that the political conversation has not “led us to a peaceful place as of late.”

Bryan’s popularity would seem to speak to a broad yearning for that peaceful place. Then again, The Great American Bar Scene suggests that there’s a limit to what his approach can accomplish. Five albums in, Bryan is repeating melodies, cadences, and lyrical ideas. Both for his artistry and for the country he describes, progress is going to mean, well, progressing: finding fresh and contemporary ways to keep good things alive. But Bryan’s listeners probably don’t need him to evolve; he’s doing plenty as a consoling presence in turbulent times. “American boys,” he sings at one point, “are a friend of mine.”

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