Zach Top Garners Industry Buzz by Spearheading a ‘90s Country Throwback

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Newcomer Zach Top’s name has been everywhere in Nashville over the past couple of years, as the singer-songwriter from Washington state with the undeniably ‘90s country-influenced sound and resonant voice has steadily amassed milestones within Music City circles.

Top, 26, became the flagship artist at new Nashville label Leo33 and signed with Major Bob Music for management and publishing. He’s already toured with Ashley McBryde and is set to open shows this year for Lainey Wilson, Luke Bryan and Brothers Osborne.

The singer-songwriter’s debut country radio single, “Sounds Like the Radio,” which he penned with Carson Chamberlain and Wyatt McCubbin, is No. 45 on the Country Airplay chart.

Far from the accelerated TikTok-fueled rise of so many of today’s country upstarts, Top’s career follows a well-trod bluegrass-to-country path. He grew up listening to George Strait and Marty Robbins. An early guitar teacher’s affinity for bluegrass music inspired a seven-year-old Top to join his two older sisters and younger brother in forming bluegrass group Top String. Top played with the family group for a decade before spending four years with bluegrass outfit North Country, before joining Modern Tradition, which he met at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards show in Raleigh, North Carolina. The group won the International Band Contest at another prestigious bluegrass music conference, Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) in 2017.

“We had just been jamming, just having fun, and then we won the band contest and were like, ‘Well, we should probably put out some music,” Top recalls.

Having begun writing with Chamberlain, he moved to Nashville in 2021. In 2022, Top released a self-titled album, with Modern Tradition playing on the project; a song from the project, “Like It Ain’t No Thing,” topped the Bluegrass Today chart. But even then, his sights were already set on country music.

“I love bluegrass music so much and had a ball touring with bands. I’ll probably do more of that as my career goes on,” Top says. “But my heart has always been in country. My goal has always been to play the kind of country music that made me fall in love with the format — fiddles, steel guitars and telecasters twanging.”

With That, Top has progressed a legacy of artists, including Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Alison Krauss, and most recently Chris Stapleton, who have spun years playing in bluegrass circles into country gold. Thus, Top setting himself apart in the bluegrass scene serves as a harbinger for long-lasting country music impact.

Billboard spoke with Top, our February Country Rookie of the Month, about the success of “Sounds Like the Radio,” the rise of ‘90s country throwback sounds, his upcoming album and more.

“Sounds Like the Radio” has received early support at country radio. How does that feel, in a crowded field of new artists?

It’s an old 4/4 shuffle; we ain’t seen one of those on the radio in a long time. The fact that radio seems to like it, I’m really honored by that. It felt like a big sigh of relief, and sort of a validation.

You signed with Leo33 last year. I’m sure you were looking at other labels, too. What stood out about what Leo33?

There were other labels for sure. It meant a good bit to me that [Leo33 label head] Katie Dean had worked on a bunch of records that had made me fall in love with country music. Meeting with the whole team, [Leo33 A&R exec] Natalie Osborne and everyone are such go-getters. To me, this felt like a partnership. The fact that they are all veterans in this industry and they are trying this new [label], it feels like they are at square one again just as much as I am and have everything to prove.

Your debut album, Cold Beer & Country Music, is out April 5. Carson Chamberlain is a producer on it and co-wrote every track. How did you two meet?

How we met was kind of hilarious. In late 2018, he emailed me and said he wanted to work with me. I had archived the email, and my girlfriend at the time—now my wife—called me a few weeks later and said, ‘Do you remember that email from this Chamberlain fellow? I’m sending you his Wikipedia link. I think we need to email him back.’ I did and met him in early 2019, started flying to Nashville every month to do co-writes with him and then he’d set me up on other co-writes. It was full circle because I love Keith Whitley and he was best buds with Keith [Chamberlain was Whitley’s bandleader and steel guitar player].

You also co-wrote every song on the album. What are some of your favorite songs from the project?

“Cold Beer and Country Music,” just felt like a great introduction to me as an artist. It’s a great honky-tonk type of song. “There’s the Sun” feels like a classic, and just comes at a love song from a different angle. That was the first Zoom write I ever did, in the middle of all the Covid mess. Then, “Cowboys Like Me Do” feels like it puts you in a Hallmark movie. The pictures are painted real well and it puts you in the middle of a story.

You’ve written with a lot of big-name writers — Carson, Wyatt, Mark Nesler, Tim Nichols, Paul Overstreet. Did it make you nervous being in those writing rooms?

Big time. My first co-write when I came to Nashville, after I had gotten to know Carson, was with Mark Nesler. He wrote so many of my favorite songs and I don’t think I said a word the first two or three times I wrote with him. It’s a pleasure to get in the room with somebody like that and just learn everything you can, but it’ll make you shake in your boots a little bit. If you write a song by yourself, if it’s not good, nobody has to hear it. But co-writing, you’re laying your heart out there. I’m very thankful to all those guys for letting me sit in a room and learn from them.

With country music having a ‘90s sounds resurgence, as well as some interpolations of ‘90s classics, we’re seeing some songwriters benefit from that, too.

I love to see that — and some of those guys that were creating all those hits that I fell in love with, they’re still out here writing a ton of good songs, and there ain’t hardly anybody better at it than them. It feels like they’re a little revitalized, at least the guys that have been included on my project. It feels fun to be a part of that and to bring those guys back to the spotlight a little bit.

You were on tour with Ashley McBryde last year. What did you learn from being part of that tour?

Well, I mean, I hope I can sing as perfect as she does every night and never miss a note. That would be nice. Her songwriting brings back things that I’ve missed in music — talking about real stuff that real people go through and doing it in a beautiful way that makes people feel understood. And she’s a great entertainer — I just can’t say much bad about Ms. Ashley.

You got to perform with Vince Gill at the Opry. How did that happen?

I knew he was going to be on the Opry lineup the night I played, so I was hoping to meet him. I played two or three songs and I got offstage. It’s kind of dark back there off to the side, and someone hollered to me out of the corner like, “Good show, buddy.” I said, “Thanks!” and then I took a second look and was like, “Oh, Lord, that’s Vince.” He heard me from the green room and came to watch my set. He was just so nice.

Then, when he closed out the show, he came up to me a bit before he went on and said, “Do you want to come up and do ‘One More Last Chance’ with me?” I just never expected that, and he had his folks holler out after the show saying he might like to write together, which was a huge compliment. We wrote a song called, “Love Ain’t No Love Song, Baby.” I loved getting to write with him, and he said I could call him back and write again, so I hope we get to do that.

Are there any artists that fans might be surprised to know you are a fan of?

I’m a big fan of Lake Street Dive. They have this raw, funky sound. It’s hard to put their music into a box. I love classic rock, so I’m a big fan of Greta Van Fleet, too.

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