When an artist becomes a social media sensation, we often assume their success has been carefully manufactured by an army of strategists, meticulously planning the path to stardom. For Bailey Zimmerman, who currently boasts 1.7 million TikTok followers, such an assumption is grossly misplaced.
When the 22-year-old Louisville native speaks about October’s Leave the Light On EP, refreshingly, it seems like his creative process hasn't been victim to any kind of pre-planned arrangements or over-thinking. Perhaps this freedom is one of the reasons why Zimmerman has produced the biggest streaming country debut of all-time, along with the most streamed all-genre debut of the year.
The figures don't lie - Zimmerman is onto something. He has captured a sound that is familiar and radio-friendly, yet infused with a rawness and rasp that often steers him into arena-rock territory. He represents the meeting point between the visceral drama of classic country and the emotionally-aware narratives that appeal to Gen-Z listeners.
Zimmerman announced himself to the world by putting out a video of himself playing ‘Never Comin’ Home’ in his garage. By the time he awoke the next morning, it had already racked up more than a million plays. Each release seems to outperform the last, with his subsequent single, ‘Fall in Love’, being certified Platinum. His next single, ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, earned the year’s highest first week debut from a new country artist.
Having held down a variety of unglamorous, blue-collar jobs before making the leap into the music industry, Zimmerman has a unique ability to connect with both traditional, heartland audiences as well as younger fans. He draws wide inspiration and situates himself at the forefront of a modern, genre-agnostic wave of artists.
At eight songs long (plus a brief introduction), Leave the Light On almost feels as though it should’ve been categorised as an album, rather than an EP. But as Zimmerman affirms in our conversation, he has a plethora of new music stored up, which he is currency fine-tuning ahead of the release of his debut album in 2023.
Whether or not any of the songs from the EP will make the cut remains to be seen. But when the time comes to curate the tracklist, Zimmerman will no doubt adopt the same laissez-faire approach that he champions in the interview, and let all the pieces of his increasingly illustrious jigsaw fall happily into place.
Country music often communicates through images and metaphors. With Leave the Light On, it feels like you’re stripping away any decoration and singing straight from the heart. Epitomising this is the spoken introduction on the opening track - what inspired you to start off the project in this way?
I’ve been a big fan of rap and hip-hop for a long time, and on a lot of old rap albums you would hear them giving a short introduction to the album. Also, Koe Wetzel had just released Hell Paso, which had a really cool intro. After hearing that, I thought, ‘I’m definitely doing this’. It sets the mood for the EP.
You’re 22 years old. Everyone nominated for this year’s CMA New Artist of the Year Award is at least 30. Do you think your age gives you an edge, both sonically and in terms of the themes you want to cover?
I think being young in today’s world is so critical to reaching younger fans, because you know what they’re going through every day and the emotions they’re experiencing. I think that’s why I connect to the younger generation so well - because I am them!
Certain country artists have faced accusations of working class appropriation. Before becoming an artist, you spent time working on a gas pipeline. Does it frustrate you when artists without this kind of background sing about blue-collar culture?
Not really! I feel like we’re all storytellers. As a songwriter, I can put myself in certain situations even though I haven’t been in those situations. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to write something that will connect with people.
Your music has been called ‘farm-emo’, and it definitely feels like Leave the Light On will hit differently when winter comes into full force! How did you pin down and settle on this sound?
Over the last two years we figured out what we like, what we don’t and how we wanted the melodies to sound. When we wrote ‘Fall in Love’, I loved all the elements within it. After that came ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, and I really wanted to chase that same lane of 90s-inspired, old-school, sad country. It always makes me feel something - and I figured that if it makes me feel something, then it’s bound to make other people feel something too.
There’s a weight and a sadness to each song on the EP, but they’re also songs you want to turn up the volume to when you’re driving around. Was this a difficult balance to strike?
When we were writing these songs, it flowed out very naturally. We just vibed and hung out. They honestly just started as titles in my phone - we wrote them, we loved them and then we released them!
It’s the nature of the modern music industry that as soon as you put out a new project, it’s not long before fans are already clamouring for the next one. Do you have any new releases in the pipeline?
Man, I’m just writing for the album right now. We’re trying to write and record as many songs as we can, even though we’re touring at the same time. Next year, I definitely want to put out an album.
If every song except one on your laptop got deleted - unreleased or released - which one would you want to keep?
Probably ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, man. I still cry to that song - it’s one of my favourites! There are a couple of unreleased songs that would probably take the cake, but I can’t talk about them, because people will get mad at me…
You received a co-sign and a co-write from Morgan Wallen, who’s become somewhat of a mentor for you. What’s something you’ve learnt from him?
One day, Morg told me, "I’ve only ever cancelled one show, I’ve played shows no matter what. This is the reason you do this, you’ve got to work really hard". I’ve been trying to focus on that. Even if you’re sick, you’ve got to put on a performance because these people have paid to come and watch a good show. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve taken from him so far, but I’m sure there will be more lessons learned.
You recently made your Opry debut. In today’s world, fan validation is often distinct from the industry stamp of approval - how did it feel when you received the invitation to perform at the Opry?
The history behind the Opry is crazy - the greatest of the greats have played there. When they asked me to play, it was insane. I played ‘Rock and a Hard Place’ and ‘Fall in Love’, and the crowd stood up and clapped. That doesn't usually happen at the Opry. They loved it and I loved it, it was a huge moment. I’ll hopefully play there again soon!
The success of Leave the Light On has given you great momentum. On the flip-side, do you feel an additional sense of pressure as you create its follow-up?
Of course, you always want to have great songs, but we’ve been writing some really cool ones and just exploring this lane we’ve chosen. I just give it to God, man, and let it flow.
We love all the songs we’ve been writing, so it’s super easy to choose from them. Right now, we’re just writing to better the songs we’ve already got. I just chill, man - the people on Tik Tok will definitely let me know which songs they like and which they don’t!
Bailey Zimmerman's 2022 EP, Leave the Light On, is out now via Warner Music Nashville/Elektra Records.
Featured photo by Chris Ashlee