The Meaning Behind Zach Bryan’s First Viral Hit “Heading South”

Just three years before releasing his 2022 breakthrough, American Heartbreak, which hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200 along with his first country No. 1, “Something in the Orange,” Zach Bryan was writing and recording songs while still serving in the Navy. Just days after releasing his 2019 debut, DeAnn, Bryan released a rough cut of a one-off song he had called “Heading South,” and shared a video for the song, which was recorded and shot on a phone near his barracks.

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His DIY video went viral on YouTube and has reached more than 21 million views (to date). Bryan eventually recorded and released the song on his second album, Elisabeth, in 2020.

The Meaning

When asked by a fan on Twitter about the meaning behind “Heading South,” Bryan shared some of his perspectives on the song. Tracing some of the growing pains, angst, and frustrations while serving in the Navy, the song also delves into dreaming of something different.

“I was at work with the Navy, a chief that used to yell at me every day when I was becoming an ordnance team leader really bugged me,” said Bryan. “I was jaded when I went home one day. I wrote out, ‘In a world full of people out to cut his young ass down’ and the rest came in three minutes.”

He was a boy who was a dreamer
And he flew so high and proud
In a world full of people out to cut his young ass down
No one ever understood a single word he said
And they cast him to the wolves when he wasn’t well and fed

Boys we’ve got a riser, a riser in our midst
And he will get the last laugh if it’s the last thing he did
And he used to roll around in that red dirt mud
But now he’s skipping town, and that riser’s out for blood

Screaming the ‘lyrics of a messed up kid’

Further into the verses, Bryan envisions performing on stage, despite all the outside judgments. “Heading South” is Bryan’s declaration to never give up on dreams.

Don’t stop goin’, goin’ South
‘Cause they’ll let you play your music real damn loud
Don’t stop headin’, headin’ South
‘Cause they will understand the words
That are pouring from your mouth

And that boy, he called his daddy to tell him what he did
As the masses screamed the lyrics of a messed up kid
And then he told that old man he was never coming back
To be cut down again in a town like that

Then he surely came to learn people come to watch you fall
But he’s out to make a name and a fool out of ’em all
They’ll never understand that boy and his kind
All they comprehend is a fucking dollar sign

“I feel like it’s a songwriter’s job to analyze everything in his head and put that out in the world how he interpreted it,” said Bryan of songwriting. “And maybe somebody else can interpret it the same way. There’s so much stuff going on around you all the time that’s so hard to explain. By writing songs you can try your best and hope people relate.” 

Charts and Streams

“Heading South” was Bryan’s first song to receive RIAA Gold certification in 2021. The song also peaked at No. 27 on the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart and has pulled in more than 240 million streams on Spotify since its release.

Photo: Trevor Pavlik / Warner Records

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