Rising Country Artist Zach Top Breaks Through With His Hit “Sounds Like The Radio” And His Album, Cold Beer & Country Music

Zach Top
Zach Top
(photo credit: Kate Lamonondala)

Country music newcomer Zach Top is bringing a refreshing, traditional sound back to country music that harkens back to the ‘90s country of Keith Whitley, George Strait, and Randy Travis. He is currentlyon the Billboard charts with his breakthrough single, “Sounds Like the Radio.”

“Sounds Like the Radio” is a rollicking, upbeat country song that’s fun to listen to. It’s in a more traditional country style, and features a fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Leading the way is Top’s strong, expressive lead vocals, which also displays some humor and personality.

Growing up on a ranch in Sunnyside, Washington, a 7-year-old Top formed a bluegrass band with his siblings called Top String. He continued playing in various bluegrass bands in his teens and early 20s including Modern Tradition, winners of the 2017 SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) international band competition. He scored several hits on bluegrass radio including the chart-topper, “Like It Ain’t No Thing.”

Notwithstanding Top’s early bluegrass success, the strong musical influences of artists like Keith Whitley and George Strait drove him to pursue a career in country music. He subsequently decided to cover a song from another traditional sounding country crooner Darryl Singletary, that caught the ear of a prominent Nashville songwriter and record producer.

In 2021, Top secured a publishing deal with Bob Doyle’s Major Bob Music. Then his debut single, “Sounds Like the Radio,” became the No. 1 most added song at country radio for two consecutive weeks upon its release. Notably, Top has been on tour with artists like Luke Bryan, Lainey Wilson, Dierks Bentley, Midland and Brothers Osborne.

His debut album, Cold Beer & Country Music (released in April 2024), is co-written entirely by Top and produced by Carson Chamberlain. The 12-track album also features the songs “Dirt Turns To Gold,” “The Kinda Woman I Like” and “Use Me.”

In this new interview, Top talks about his new album, the intimidation of writing with some of songwriting’s elite, and how bluegrass music helped him become the country artist he is today.

BC: You sing and play a traditional style of country music. Why were you drawn to that older style of country music?

Here’s the video of Zach Top’s hit, “Sounds Like the Radio>”

Zach Top: My parents had a lot of great Marty Robbins music playing around the house. My dad worked in the livestock industry. So, I got to play cowboy a little bit growing up and listen to music that went along with sort of the cowboy way of life. I would by no means call myself a cowboy, but I think I wanted to be one. That was probably the first thing that drew me to that music, and I think that bug bit me and never let me go. I just ate up that music as long as I can remember.

Keith Whitley was probably the biggest influence on my singing…him and Merle Haggard and George Jones. I was always drawn to the way those guys sang and that country style of turning the phrase and throwing a little lick on something. I love that! So that’s what I always tried to do. I still listen to some of the radio in the early 2000s and up into the 2010s and all that. But that old stuff, that’s what I always kept coming back to and what I always try to emulate with my music. And that’s kind of the only thing I know how to do.

BC: You also grew up playing bluegrass music.

Top: I took my first lesson when I was five-years-old, and the teacher asked me what I wanted to learn first. I said “Amarillo by Morning” (George Strait) without hesitation. That was my favorite song. She said, “That’s a nice idea, but let’s start with something simpler like “Jesus Loves Me,” and we can work our way up.” Her name was Marie Parks, and she turned me and my whole family onto the bluegrass thing. She happened to be involved in that scene up in Washington.

We really fell in love with bluegrass. I’ve got a younger brother and two older sisters, and we had a little family band for 10 years growing up. I loved that style of music. I wanted to play like (guitarist) Tony Rice and sing like Keith Whitley, so I tried to do that as best I could. And I think it was really beneficial because the bluegrass scene is family-friendly, more so than other genres would be. It gave me an early head start on learning how to entertain people and then being comfortable onstage behind a microphone and all that. That was a way for me to get the chops up to where I could eventually make it in country music.

Here’s the video of Zach Top’s song, “Cold Beer & Country Music.”

BC: You’re off to a fantastic start, and it has happened rather quickly. You had been working in Colorado and wanted to move to Nashville one day. How did that happen?

Top:  I put a video up when Darryl Singletary passed away in February 2018…I just loved his singing. I put up a cover of “Spilled Whiskey” on Facebook. It blew up to 300,000 views in a matter of weeks. So I started getting a bunch of calls and emails from folks in Nashville.

Later in the run of that video, (songwriter/producer) Carson Chamberlain sent me an email, and he said, “Hey, my name is Carson Chamberlain. I’m not much for tooting my own horn. You can probably look me up if you want to. I’ve been in the music business a long time. I’d like to talk to you about working together.’

I saw that Carson was Keith Whitley’s bandleader and steel player for his whole career, and he tour-managed Alan Jackson and produced the early hits on Mark Wills, Billy Currington and Eastern Corbin, and I read the long list of songs he’s been a co-writer on. I called him back, and we started talking through that summer of 2018, and that fall I started flying into town, and he’d set up writes for us and showed me the ropes in the music business. I got to learn a ton from him.

I had always wanted to move to Nashville, but didn’t really know what the hell I was gonna do when I got there. I was working construction up in Colorado at the time and when I started working together with Carson, it finally felt like I’ve got an avenue that I can learn what I’m doing when I get there. I moved here full-time in the spring of 2021.

BC: Let’s talk about your songwriting. When did you first start writing?

Top:  It’s funny. When I was 14, I wrote my first song that I was proud of and wanted people to hear, and I put it on that bluegrass record a few years ago. It was a song called “Forget You.” I think I fell deeply in love at the age 14—I had my heart broke or something, and that was how I poured it out, as 14-year-olds do (laughs). At the time, writing was not big for me; I was more focused on playing and singing.

Here’s the video of Zach Top’s song, “Bad Luck.”

I think the way bluegrass works too, songwriting isn’t near as big of a focus as it is in country music. I think you’re better off playing “Old Home Place” and “Little Cabin On the Hill” in your show, and people will recognize those songs. I wasn’t as much focused on writing my own material.

Then I started trying to write a good bit when I was 18. I joined a band called North Country that was based out of Seattle. It was a bunch of guys that I had grown up going to bluegrass festivals with and had known for a while. They had lost a mandolin player, so they asked me to come play mandolin for them and sing lead. We ran around for three years.

Carson asked me if being a songwriter was important to me, and I really didn’t know at the time. I said, “I don’t know…I’d like to try it.” The connections that he had were obviously a huge blessing getting to put me in the room with top songwriters from the start. I think my first co-write in town was with Mark Nesler. I grew up loving all of them songs like “Just To See You Smile” and “Living and Living Well.” I think that was probably the most intimidated I’ve ever been, going into that first co-write.  We wrote a song that I had a chorus started on, and we went in there and finished it up with Mark and Carson.

It was a great crash course for writing. For those first six months, I got to sit in the room with guys like Mark Nesler, Michael White, Gary Harrison, and Tim Nichols, who is one of my favorite co-writers. I tried to be a sponge as much as I could early on, trying to pick up on what guys were doing and how they worked and how they worked their way through a song. I started learning as much as I could, and I started participating in and contributing.

BC: You’ve had a hand in co-writing all the songs on your new album. I noticed you even have steel guitar on your song, “Use Me.” That’s unusual in country music these days. How did that song come together?

Top: Ashley McBryde has that song “One Night Standards,” and there’s a line in the chorus that’s basically what I took for the hook. The line she had was, “Can’t you just use me like I’m using you,” and the first time I heard that I was like…Holy cow! That’s gonna be a song on its own. It’s a great line that she wrote; I just loved it. So, I keep my notes app full of song ideas on my phone, and I threw that idea out one day. I had a little piece of the chorus written on it, and that was with Carson and Tim Nichols. They seemed to like the idea, so we jumped on it. That was where the idea came from, and then I guess they say, write what you know. I won’t say too much on that, but running around on the road a different place every night…the song speaks for itself. It’s certainly one of my favorites that I’ve been a part of writing.

Here’s the video of Zach Top’s song, “There’s The Sun.”

BC: What’s the story behind “The Kinda Woman I Like”?

Top: I wrote that with Michael White, and I believe that Carson had the idea for the hook on that song. Every now and then, I’ll cover that Vince Gill song, “Liza Jane.” I just love that song. It rocks playing it on my live show, and gives me a chance to play on the guitar. I loved singing that. I was like…Man, I really want something with that feel, and so I had a bit of a melody and a groove thing worked out that I liked, and Carson said he had this idea that will go well with that. Then, it’s three dumb guys sitting in a room coming up with all the things about a woman that might make us go crazy for and that was a funny thing too. The second verse ends with the last line, “There’s one that’ll cry and take it all back; Be the first to admit she’s wrong; Yeah, that’s the kinda woman I like.” That was really fun. I think that fell out pretty quick.

BC: There are several other great songs on the album. What’s one you’d like to tell us about?

Top: One of the songs that means the most to me is “Dirt Turns To Gold.” I wrote that with Paul Overstreet and Carson, and I believe it was the first time I wrote with Paul. It’s incredible to me, the writing talent that guy has, and he’s a singer and a player. And he’s a funny guy to write with. I love him. He’s so fun in the room, but he comes at the start of it, and it seems there’s 25 ideas running around in his head, and he’ll start rapid-firing them at you and playing something on the guitar.

I think that first time, we started shooting the bull and I was talking about buying this house out here in Tennessee and how high the cost of living had gotten, and how it seems almost impossible for a young person to be able to buy their own piece of property. Somehow we started talking about that, and I think Paul threw out the line, “Man, it’s crazy how dirt seems like it’s turned to gold.” And I was like, “Dang, that could be something right there!”

About the same time, Carson threw out, “My daddy always said.” and then “Dirt, that’s only thing they ain’t making no more of.” So that’s basically the first line of the song, “Daddy said they ain’t making no more of it.” Then it comes around and hooks on the chorus with “Dirt turns to gold.” We didn’t write it about how much it cost. It was more of…you grow up in a small town or on a farm. I can resonate with this a good bit. I don’t think you know what you have when you grow up in that type of way.

I was trying to get out of there as quick as I could, and moving off and living in different places. I found myself wishing I still had some of that farm ground to work on or play around with, just to have a little space. We wrote it about how you grow up country and go move off to the city, trying to find something more exciting and bigger. And you end up coming back around to wishing I just had a little bit of land to myself and have a little space. I think that’s probably a song that folks will resonate with a lot. I’m very excited to have that out and see how folks react to it.

Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].