Bruce's birthday + thoughts on Zach Bryan
I can't really talk about Bruce straightforwardly yet so I tried talking about him a little bit sideways, through a different album I love
Howdy, and welcome to Good And Good For You, a newsletter about music and feelings. Pretty soon I’m gonna start putting a few things here and there behind the paywall—like, mostly stuff that’s a bit more personal. I almost did it with this one but decided not to because I know a lot of youse are Bruce-heads and I want to give the people what they want. But if you wanted to upgrade to Paid of your own volition, I certainly wouldn’t object.
It’s Bruce Springsteen’s birthday today. He is 74 years old.
Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics are inked on my arm: “C’mon, baby, the laugh’s on me.” It’s one in a highly exclusive set of two identical tattoos, the only ones like them in the whole world, belonging to two different bodies, two people who fell in love to the sound of Bruce’s voice, who have always trod their path together to Bruce’s tune, and who now diverge, roadless, but forever marked with Bruce’s words on their skin.
I went out by myself last night. On the way to East 12th, I heard Zach Bryan for the first time in my Uber. I know, I know—I’m a few weeks late. I usually try to give these non-Republican country guys a try, with mixed results: f Stapleton, marry Isbell, kill Childers, so to speak.
Anyway, his newer release “Sarah’s Place” reeled me in last night on that ephemeral, solitary ride out to the bars. “Your picnic chair is just sittin’ there in the yard / and I had to sell my old guitar,” he sings with a campy rasp that was almost an instant pass for me—but he wasted no time pulling me back in with the story, with the kind of rom-com narrative that’s like drugs to me, of a hometown guy selling his guitar to—he reveals in the last line—fly to New York to see her. Get a-load-a this guy! I thought. It seems he’s just my speed.
This morning—well, at like 2pm; I woke up mildly hungover and simply HAD to lay around for hours looking at my phone before doing anything—I put on Zach Bryan’s new-ish self-titled album for the first time. It almost immediately won me over, and I’ve been thinking about why: it’s because it reminds me of Bruce.
I’m not ready to talk about Bruce quite yet, at least not directly. The pain is like staring at the sun. But I’ll tell you how I feel about Zach. Like Bruce, he wastes no breath: there’s not a single line that feels like it’s in the song just to rhyme. Like Bruce, his voice is a little jagged. Like Bruce, you’re not really sure he’s quite as doggedly everyman as he insists, but his stories are so good you don’t trouble yourself with doubt that he’s authentic in the ways that matter.
The arrangements were the second thing that impressed me on the Zach Bryan album, after the lyrics. So much so that I actually Googled who produced it and: it was HIM! That’s right, the album was entirely self-produced. I love every bit of the mood he evokes with his modest litany of instruments. His use of fiddles and harmonicas feels refreshingly organic, and I love how the unpolished guitars and pianos make me feel like I’m just listening to a guy play in a room. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Bryan has broken the curse of mediocre mainstream folky guys that Mumford and his Sons cast on us nigh a decade ago.
Speaking of those guys from that era, I actually like the Lumineers feature on “Spotless,” although it’s probably the least memorable song on the album for me. My favorite feature, by far, is not Kacey Musgraves (although that one works beautifully), nor Sierra Farrell (also lovely)—it’s The War and Treaty on my current favorite track of the album, “Hey Driver.”
The War and Treaty are a criminally under-appreciated husband/wife folk duo comprised of Michael and Tanya Trotter, whose golden voices, particularly Michael’s, elevate Bryan’s yearning ode to the South. Another thing I love about this song is that it’s (surely intentionally?) a nod to Johnny Cash’s “Hey Porter”: perhaps not melodically, but thematically. “Hey driver, I’ve been feelin’ like there ain’t no point at all / the Klonopin ain’t kicked in and I missed my sister’s call,” Zach sings, refracting Cash’s homesick sentiments into a 2023-tinged lament. Connecting things back to Johnny Cash songs is my secret superpower. Hey driver, hey porter. Take me back to what I fear I can’t go back to; prove me wrong. I’m lost and far from home and, like Zach says, I’ve been gamblin’ with more than just my cards. Why wouldn’t I when I’ve got nothing left to lose.
I’m thinking about Bruce on his birthday. I hope he’s doing okay, in light of some health struggles that prompted him to cancel a run of shows this last month. We never got to see him in concert together, and that was always a fear of mine, but because I thought he wouldn’t last much longer, not the other way around.
I explained my tattoo to someone recently. It’s a line from “Dancing In The Dark,” I said. I need to work on reclaiming Bruce.
Bruce was always yours, he replied.
I hope to God that’s true, because I hear him in everything.