Rising country/Americana star Zach Bryan spent most of 2022 gradually crossing over to the mainstream, as his viral success online began translating to massive streaming numbers — particularly for 34-track official debut LP American Heartbreak, which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in June and is still in the chart’s top 10 seven months later.
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This week, Bryan adds another big item to his chart resumé, as Heartbreak single “Something in the Orange” finishes its slow climb to the Billboard Hot 100‘s top 10 — 38 weeks, tied for the second-longest in chart history (behind only Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves”) — as it lands at No. 10 this week. It’s a particularly impressive rise for Bryan, who has found most of his success outside of the traditional Nashville path, with country radio in particular still appearing hesitant to fully embrace his breakout smash.
How did Zach Bryan get here? And which ascendant country artist might be next to follow in his chart footsteps? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. “Something in the Orange” reaches No. 10 in its 38th week on the chart. On a scale of 1-10, how surprised are you that this song is finally a top 10 hit?
Jason Lipshutz: A 6. As a Zach Bryan fan who has witnessed his surge in popularity and the groundswell of support around “Something in the Orange,” its slow ascent up into the top 10 doesn’t arrive as a shock. Yet sparse, heartbroken country ballads, from a relatively new artist with a muted presence at country radio, aren’t regular fixtures within the upper reaches of the Hot 100, either. Standing back from the situation, “Something in the Orange” has experienced a singular rise as a crossover smash — even if I’ve been waiting for this day to come for the past month or two.
Melinda Newman: 5. Though it’s still relatively rare for country songs to reach such heights on the Hot 100, it is becoming increasingly more common as country catches up with other genres in streaming (the Hot 100 combines sales, radio play and streaming). In the last year alone Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen (twice!) have also reached the top 10. What is surprising is that Bryan accomplished the feat after 38 weeks on the chart. On Country Airplay, such a long trek to the top 10 is commonplace, but Hot 100 drives are usually much quicker—so much so that Bryan’s climb is the second-longest trip to the top 10.
Jessica Nicholson: 3. The song has been a mainstay since debuting on the Billboard charts in May 2022, and has spent three weeks at the pinnacle of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Andrew Unterberger: Probably an 8, and it might’ve been higher if you asked me back when I first heard the song in mid-2021. This sort of rawer, rockier, Americana-leaning country has been a major part of the musical landscape for most of the last decade — but it’s had virtually no Hot 100 presence whatsoever, as artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson have notched their successes almost exclusively on the albums side of things. But streaming (and TikTok specifically) continue to rewrite the rule book on this stuff, and now you can notch a dusty heartbreak power ballad up there on the Hot 100 alongside Harry Styles and Drake/21 Savage. Not mad at it, but definitely surprised.
Christine Werthman: I am a 7. Bryan’s career has seen a rapid rise over the last year, thanks to his extensive touring and impressive streaming numbers, but I wasn’t sure if that would be enough to hoist this modest superstar into the top 10. Clearly, it was, and it’s nice to see him up there.
2. Bryan has been one of the past year’s biggest breakthrough artists — with his American Heartbreak album sticking in or around the Billboard 200’s top 10 for nearly its whole run since debuting last spring — despite being a country-rooted artist who didn’t go through the traditional Nashville machine. What’s the biggest factor you attribute his high level of success to?
Jason Lipshutz: Sometimes the songs, and the voice delivering them, simply transcend the context around them. Bryan is not your typical country star, American Heartbreak is far from an accessible project for country interlopers, and “Something in the Orange” doesn’t sound like a no-brainer breakout hit… but Bryan’s grizzled delivery is undeniable, Heartbreak has some of the most effective runs of any country album in recent memory, and “Something in the Orange” packs an emotional wallop on every listen. None of it should make sense as a commercial entity, but it doesn’t have to if the message resonates this clearly.
Melinda Newman: There is an authentic rawness and tough vulnerability to Bryan’s songs that is extremely appealing and that cuts through much of the overproduced clutter on radio — but part of American Heartbreak’s staying power in the top 10 is also a numbers game. The album has 34 tracks, and with streaming a major determining factor in chart positions, there are three times the number of tracks on many standard albums. There is still plenty there for people to discover, even seven months later.
Jessica Nicholson: His excels at translating his life’s journey into poetic, vulnerable lyrics with a sparse production, which is a change from the slick, homogenous productions and sometimes surface-level lyrics that have dominated many radio and streaming hits over the past decade or so. At the same time, he’s been fairly prolific in releasing new music, adding his Summertime Blues EP and December’s All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster (Live From Red Rocks) album to his American Heartbreak album — something that hyper-consuming, streaming-oriented fans have appreciated.
Andrew Unterberger: I dunno if it’s the biggest factor, but I gotta say that since I’ve been catching up on Yellowstone — the most popular melodrama on TV right now, though you might not know it from critics’ lists or social media buzz — Zach Bryan’s mega-success is starting to make a lot more sense to me. His windswept lonely-traveler anthems have made the perfect soundtrack for the show’s Montana sunset vibe on multiple occasions, both adding to his exposure and giving his aesthetic a foothold at the center of pop culture. It’s raised the commercial ceiling for Bryan and likeminded artists, at the very least.
Christine Werthman: Bryan is a 26-year-old Navy veteran who writes from the heart and isn’t afraid to share his pain and loss in his music, elements that make him relatable to a wide swath of people. He also knows how to get a crowd going, as you can hear on the live album he put out at the end of 2022, and he gave fans upward of 60 chances to see him on the road last year. He also put out a 34-song album, which never hurts your streaming count if you’ve got the listeners to tune in. These might not be the surest options for some new artists trying to get off the ground, but all these factors combined to grow Bryan’s audience and help him map a viable detour around Nashville.
3. While “Something” continues to scale the Hot 100, Bryan has multiple other songs also currently climbing on streaming — including fellow Heartbreak tracks in “From Austin” and “Sun to Me,” as well as his original viral breakout hit, 2019’s “Heading South.” Do either of them feel to you like they could cross over like “Something” has, or will a potential next hit have to wait for his follow-up album?
Jason Lipshutz: “From Austin” sounds like the one that could potentially take off next: it sports the fragile production and well-worn lyricism of “Something in the Orange” in its verses, but then opens up into a swelling chorus, which eventually crests when horns come crashing in. A song that’s reminiscent of “Orange,” then takes a left turn towards more rousing territory, sounds like the perfect blueprint for a follow-up hit for Bryan — and although his path to fame has been far from traditional, “From Austin” remains unassailable in this context.
Melinda Newman: “Heading South” is the obviously successor here given its streaming numbers, which are far ahead of “From Austin” and “Sun To Me.” Plus, thematically, it’s different as can be from “Something,” whereas “From Austin’ and “Sun to Me” both similarly deal with relationships where Bryan is seeking some kind of salvation. The autobiographical “Heading South” is about redemption of another kind- the kind that comes from following your dreams. It packs a different kind of emotional wallop than the quietly devastating “Something.”
Jessica Nicholson: “Sun to Me” trades the anguish found in “Something in the Orange” for an aura of gratitude, but is still filled with detailed imagery and stirring lyrics, such as “Find someone who grows flowers in the darkest parts of you.” The song has gained traction on the Hot Country Songs chart and the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart, meanwhile, his “Oklahoma Smoke Show,” currently in the top 30 on the Hot Country Songs chart, also shows potential for big chart success.
Andrew Unterberger: Feels weird to say about a song that’s already four years old — and probably the first song a lot of current folks heard of his — but it’s “Heading South.” It’s got an anthemic, almost fist-pumping quality that makes a proper contrast to the more mournful “Orange,” and to the thousands (millions?) of new fans who came around to Bryan because of that song and Heartbreak, it may as well be a brand-new single. Plus, if you hear the version found on Bryan’s excellent new live set All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster, you’ll know the power the song has in enrapturing large crowds.
Christine Werthman: I do love “Heading South,” but I think “From Austin” is the next potential hit. It’s nostalgic, sweet and finds Bryan facing his demons, or as he says, “repression is my heaven, but I’d rather go through hell.” With a driving rhythm, meaty guitars and a growling chorus, this could be a country banger.
4. The numbers from Bryan’s rookie season certainly suggest a future superstar, but do you feel he’s gotten the national attention from the public or the media that his stats would usually merit? If not, why do you think that’s been lagging?
Jason Lipshutz: From his lack of media appearances to the decision to title a recent live album All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster, Bryan portrays himself as an outsider, and doesn’t jump through the traditional hoops that popular country music has constructed for a rising star. Of course, that approach has earned him a ton of fans — aside from his music, his image is easy to buy into and root for, particularly if you’re a country fan searching for someone with a fresh perspective. Maybe he’s been dinged within and outside of Nashville for shrugging off longstanding levels of country fame and fortune, but his stats and audience sizes suggest that any lag hasn’t really mattered — and that Bryan is going to stick with what’s worked for him thus far.
Melinda Newman: Bryan’s building an audience based on streaming and touring and it’s working. His songs have been streamed more than 2.5 million times and he’s already selling out venues like Denver’s Red Rocks. While he’s gotten some airplay, he eschews traditional promotional means including interviews — he’s talked only to the New York Times — or television. He’s performed on no late night or daytime shows. If he’s not getting the national attention he deserves, that’s simply because he’s taken himself out of that equation.
Jessica Nicholson: He certainly has a fervent fanbase — and one factor in the reason for the relative lack of national media looks is that he has chosen to connect directly to his fans first, rather than primarily through media outlets.
Andrew Unterberger: I think the national public and media are always a little slow to catch on when it comes to new country phenoms — a lot of the genre still gets silo’d from the larger musical mainstream, particularly in markets like New York and Los Angeles — and that’s particularly true with independent successes like Bryan, who don’t have a major presence at festivals or award shows or other potential crossover platforms yet. You hoped the Grammys might’ve provided that first true national look for Bryan, but given his snubbing among this year’s best new artist nominees (when he seemed like a lock for a nod), it might have to wait until next year.
Christine Werthman: Not quite, and maybe that’s lagging because he didn’t go the traditional Nashville route and is missing out on some of the levers that that machine would have been able to pull. But with a top 10 hit, it seems like the public and the media will catch up soon even without that intervention.
5. Now that Bryan has hit the top 10, what other country singer-songwriter on the rise do you think has the best shot at joining him in the Hot 100’s top tier before the end of 2023?
Jason Lipshutz: Ashley McBryde is one of the best singer-songwriters in country music with a ton of industry goodwill and even more hooks begging for massive audiences. She spent last year releasing and supporting Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, a multi-artist concept album brimming with heart and ambition; if she releases a traditional project in 2023, I’d bet that she finally crosses over with it.
Melinda Newman: Bailey Zimmerman. He’s only 22, but Zimmerman made history on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in August when he landed three career-opening entries in the top 10 simultaneously. Leading the pack was “Rock and a Hard Place,” a gritty tune about a busted relationship that also hit the top 20 on Country Airplay. He’s off to an auspicious start.
Jessica Nicholson: Bailey Zimmerman’s “Rock and a Hard Place” is currently at No. 17 on the Hot 100. He’s seen two additional songs — “Where It Ends” and “Fall in Love” — reach the top 40 on the Hot 100 over the past year, and all three of those songs reached the top 10 on Hot Country Songs chart. “Fall in Love” also topped the Country Airplay chart. However, Lainey Wilson’s “Heart Like a Truck” is also in the top 40. With her recent CMA Awards wins and additional exposure from her recent role on Yellowstone, there is potential for this track reach the top 10 as well.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s gotta be either Zimmerman or Wilson — with the former probably getting a bit of an edge due to his early head-start on streaming.
Christine Werthman: I’ve got my eye on Megan Moroney, the Georgia singer-songwriter who signed with Sony Music Nashville and Columbia Records last year. She’s got a little rasp to her voice and a heart-on-her-sleeve style, and her song “Tennessee Orange” is currently at No. 58 on the Hot 100.
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