Garrett Bryan: Break The Levee
“Whatever you do, do NOT miss Garrett’s set…” I had heard Garrett Bryan’s name just prior to leaving for Mile 0 Fest back in January, so I was excited that I was going to have the opportunity to hear him live. As I walked into the crowded venue, I noticed his infectious laugh, his camaraderie with his bandmates, and crowd engagement. I looked around as I grabbed the last available seat. People were paying attention… so I did, too. I was able to catch several sets throughout the week, and was blown away every time as he moved effortlessly between guitar and keyboard, jammed with Jordan (lead guitar), Taylor (drums) and Casey (bass), and belted out some of the most soulful and rocking new music I have heard in quite a while.
Garrett was born and raised in Concordia Parrish, Louisiana. He had a guitar in his hand by the age of 4, and a dream in his heart that has guided him ever since. The word “concordia” means “harmony,” and that is strikingly evident in my description of Garrett. The lyrics and music he writes blend together in fantastic harmony, and his captivating and energetic performances with his bandmates seem seasoned well beyond his 23 years. He is truly an old soul.
I was lucky to speak with Garrett right before he was heading back out on the road, and our conversation gave me insight into the humanity he brings to his thoughtful and emotionally driven songwriting. I truly enjoyed listening as he recounted the stories behind his songs.
Garrett released his solo debut album during the summer of 2018. It was recorded at Valve Studios in Dallas, Texas, and produced by Casey DiIorio. When asked to describe “Break the Levee,” he often proclaims, “This album is a series of folk narratives with rock ambitions, sung by someone who mostly listens to Ray Charles.” Influenced by artists ranging from Jason Isbell and John Fullbright to Percy Sledge and Fleetwood Mac, “Break the Levee” is a collection of tales that highlight his own powerful storytelling across nine original tracks, all written or co-written by Garrett. He drew half of the album from an extended cache of more than forty songs he had written over a period of five years, and then wrote new material that specifically directed his path as a solo artist. He explained that because his songs come from his life, his own history and observations of the world, they were more personal and intimate than his previous writing efforts. Each song truly captivates the heart, soul and mind of his audience. While all are exceptional and worthy of praise and further discussion, I’ve selected my three personal favorites to feature.
When you drop the needle and turn up the volume on the first song of the album, you will hear “Alaska,” which was inspired by someone Garrett got to know well from the great state. The lyrics are grounded in the tale of a woman who was on her way to Alaska with someone she loved, and he decided to bail at the last minute, leaving her with a decision about her future. She travels on a one way ticket to the cold and dark setting of the winter in the “Last Frontier,” which seems to parallel the human coldness of “sending letters with no reply,” and arguments that were not resolved surrounding her solo departure. Garrett expressed that even with that painful part of her existence, she can still reflect upon and value the good times they shared before when he sings, “Bundled up warm in a winter coat…Whiskey feels warm on my throat… Sleeping bags point Bridget park…10 below you still melt my heart…” Brandy Zdan, a distinctly talented singer in her own rite, contributes harmony throughout this beautifully stirring song.
“Sharks,” also featuring Brandy Zdan's vocals, is Garrett’s favorite on his album for several reasons. It tells a personal story of supporting someone he loved very much through a difficult time in their lives together. Working through challenges brought on by crippling anxiety and depression, Garrett described the classic narrative of caring for a person who is overwhelmed with life, and truly needs someone to love her through her pain, while reminding her how to see her own self-worth. Garrett stated that when he finished writing the song late one night, he knew that it was exactly what he wanted to say. He shared it with her after the last line was written, and they were both overwhelmed by the emotions they felt. The therapeutic process of writing that song helped Garrett realize that he could look deeper within himself as a songwriter, and truly find those relatable life experiences he could share with his greater audience. Whenever he performs “Sharks,” that connection, passion and emotion he felt from the first night he wrote it comes pouring out into each note, and it is evident that he can feel that same cathartic adrenaline rush build and release as he sings the last compelling lines of the refrain all over again. “How long can we hold our breath?” “Never felt the water, but we dove right in… you’re bleeding out, the sharks surround you…”
"Trinity" is my personal favorite on the album. It haunts me, and like the others, I can’t stop listening to it. I am always captured by the first strummed chords and soulful beginning lyrics, “No one knew the damage done…” all the way to the emotional and melodically intense ending, “Give your mama something to cry about… give the papers something to write about…” The true story of a murder of a young woman in a small town, Garrett takes you through the heart-wrenching pain of her going missing suddenly and nobody knows what happened to her. Rumors swirled around town about her disappearance... until her body is discovered in the trunk of a car sunk in a dam, leaving the town to ask, “Why?” After hearing about the tragedy, which had been told to him by a friend who lived through it, he found through his research that the recounted events of what happened vary in the town, and people still have their own version to tell even decades later. This powerful story is told from the point of view of someone who witnessed the events, and listening to it sung from that perspective with such heartfelt grace, it might haunt you, too. When Garrett belts out, “When you’re young and full of dreams, someone always steps in between,” I get chills every single time.
Each one of Garrett’s songs are unique, and allows us to peer into a window of his life, or the lives of others, he has captured masterfully through his lyrics. From the upbeat, to the soulful and bluesy, to the all-out rocking, he covers and combines styles of music in a way that has me pushing play regularly on this album. Listen to the six other amazing tracks “Everything,” “Deon, Delray & Daddy,” “Next to You,” “To Point a Finger,” “Bigger than Expectation,” and “Damaged Diana” and hear how Garrett’s stories come from a place that you know is deep in his heart. He tells them with a passion and fire that stirs my music loving spirit.
Garrett just completed his first residency at the 2019 24th Annual Key West Songwriter’s Festival, where he shared his stories and songs with an audience I know appreciated his talent as much as I do. I am glad I was able to honor the hard work put into “Break the Levee.” After learning his approach a bit as a songwriter, I feel he will continue to listen, observe and write the meaningful and poignant songs about people, places and events that inspire him. I certainly look forward to more fantastic music, and more amazing shows from Garrett!
Remember his name! Listen to his songs! Attend his shows! AND You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and see what he is up to next. If you are in the area, check him out for yourself as he shares his stories live on May 29th at Growlers in Memphis, TN, and on May 30th at City Winery in Nashville, TN.
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