Zach Bryan’s music had been bubbling online for a few years. The country-adjacent singer-songwriter was serving as a Navy ordnanceman stationed in Washington state while his passionate following grew, sort of by accident. After workdays spent arming and disarming bombs or training for his next deployment, the Johnny Cash-loving kid from Oklahoma began posting cellphone-shot performance videos on social media and eventually self-released two albums of intimate, heavy-hearted acoustic songs, including his viral breakout “Heading South.”
Everything changed in 2021 when Bryan, who lived on Whidbey Island for a time, was given an honorable discharge “to go play some music,” he announced that year. No longer a World Wide Web away, Bryan’s online admirers became throngs of IRL ticket-buyers as he hit the road on a robust itinerary that eventually led back to Washington last fall, the place where Bryan wrote many of his songs.
Although Bryan doesn’t consider himself a country singer — his folky, twang-rocking tunes sang in an Okie’s drawl are more in the Jason Isbell vein — country audiences grabbed hold like a bronc rider to a bucking steer, even as Bryan has distanced himself from Nashville’s mainstream. Initially recorded in Woodinville with producer Ryan Hadlock, Bryan’s emotional sledgehammer “Something in the Orange” became the unlikely country-ish smash of the year, earning Bryan a Grammy nomination for best country solo performance with little support from country radio.
Even though he’d already left Washington, some of Bryan’s first recording sessions after signing with Warner Records took place at Hadlock’s fabled Bear Creek Studio, where marquee artists, local and otherwise, have recorded.
“[Bryan] was working in some sensitive areas in the naval base in Washington and I think he had become a little bit too much of a celebrity to be dealing with the stuff that he was dealing with,” Hadlock said. “Like, people were asking for his autograph when they went to go pick up the things that they needed from him at the munitions depot.”
From the sounds of it, it wasn’t necessarily geography that brought Bryan, who declined an interview request for this story, to Woodinville. Hadlock has a track record of working with folk-leaning artists right before they blow up (The Lumineers, Vance Joy) and a friend, Stefan Max — who happens to be an A&R boss at Bryan’s label — played studio matchmaker. Bear Creek’s pastoral environs on a 10-acre farm and the warmth of a wooden barn converted into a pro studio also seem a natural fit for Bryan’s rugged soul-baring.
The first time Bryan came out to Bear Creek, which was founded by Hadlock’s parents in the late ’70s, Hadlock knew Bryan had something special even before the analog tape started rolling.
“His charisma is off the charts,” Hadlock said. “He looked me in the eyes, he’s a solid shooter, shakes your hand and really, I got it. … Once we started working on the music, it really made sense to me.”
Over two or three trips to Woodinville, Bryan cut a handful of songs, two of which were released as singles. Though a rerecorded version of “Something in the Orange” (dubbed “Z&E’s Version”) appears on Bryan’s sprawling triple album “American Heartbreak,” swapping in harmonica and piano in place of pedal steel, it was the original Bear Creek recording that first exploded, with more than a quarter-billion streams on Spotify alone.
“With ‘Something in the Orange,’ he wanted to do something a little more raw,” Hadlock said. “So, we tracked his vocals and guitar to analog tape, which not only has a special quality in sound, but when people are playing they know that they have to give it, right? Often in digital technology, as in Photoshop, you go in and really tweak everything. But when you work with tape, there’s a feeling of urgency, because it’s a moment that’s captured.”
That urgency ripples through the achey-breaky heartwrencher, with Bryan’s emotive vocals riding over dual pedal steel tracks (one shifted an octave) like a lonesome desperado. That “dreamy,” two-pronged pedal steel is what Hadlock said “creates the rumble and the storm and the darkness” in what’s become Bryan’s best-known song, cracking Billboard’s Top 10. One of the song’s numerous standout lines is among the most oft-cited examples of Bryan’s evocative writing style: “When you place your head between my collar and jaw, I don’t know much but there’s no weight at all.”
While “Something in the Orange” was recorded with members of Bryan’s touring band, mostly longtime friends, the other track from the Bear Creek sessions to see the light of day features several Seattle players. Joining Bryan on the thunder-rolling “From Austin” are Dune Butler and William Mapp, the rhythm section for local psych groovers General Mojo’s, and Jeff Fielder, a sought-after guitar mercenary and artist in his own right.
“[Bryan] was a little concerned that ‘From Austin’ was too pop, which is funny because I don’t really do traditional pop albums ever,” Hadlock said. “But still, he felt it was a little bit pushing his envelope of what he wanted to be.”
Nevertheless, “From Austin” has become a staple of Bryan’s barnstorming live shows that are notorious for turning into full-throated singalongs from start to finish. (More than a few fans woke up hoarse after Bryan’s first major Seattle show at WAMU Theater last fall.) With its line “Remember Northwest mountains, they were snow-capped in June,” “From Austin” is among a number of Bryan tunes to conjure PNW imagery. Though Bryan’s living in Philadelphia these days, the cover of his sophomore album “Elisabeth” is a photo of Bryan and a woman on a roof with a case of Rainier and a serene Northwest landscape in the background.
Bryan certainly isn’t the first Americana star with Washington ties to come through Bear Creek. Brandi Carlile, who’s up for seven Grammy nominations this year, earned her first nod with “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” co-produced by Hadlock and Trina Shoemaker. Her 2012 “Bear Creek” album was also recorded there, taking its name from the Hadlock family studio.
Growing up, Hadlock grew accustomed to having music legends roll through their Woodinville home — everyone from Eric Clapton and Lionel Richie to Soundgarden, who did some early work on “Badmotorfinger” there while a young Hadlock served them coffee. Once in fifth grade, Hadlock woke up at 4 a.m. to help shoot a music video with Seattle rock greats Heart, who are receiving a lifetime achievement Grammy this year, before catching the bus to school.
It would have made for superb bragging rights if it didn’t sound like pure fantasy.
“Kids at school didn’t believe me,” Hadlock said. “They thought I was a liar, so I stopped talking about it.”
Despite that early taste of the music biz, Hadlock wasn’t always on track to be the second-generation steward of the renowned family studio. In one of the more unorthodox acts of teenage rebellion, Hadlock, who played in high school bands, decided he wanted a suit-and-tie job instead, so he cut his hair, enrolled in business school and joined a fraternity. “All of this stuff was kind of breaking my parents’ heart.”
Eventually a life in music came calling and after taking classes at The Evergreen State College, Hadlock cut his studio chops assisting acclaimed Seattle producers Steve Fisk and Terry Date.
One of Hadlock’s favorite parts of the job is the guard-dropping way everyone gets “swept up in the emotion of the studio,” he said, recalling how Bryan would often tear up listening back to their takes. “I don’t think there are a lot of creative environments that are that pure, you know,” Hadlock said. “The walls have to come down. I remember when I worked with Brandi Carlile, too, and we recorded ‘The Eye,’ we were all in tears.”
With any luck — and Grammy voters willing — Sunday just might bring about a few more tears of joy.
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