Zach Top on Revisiting the ’90s — ‘The Peak of Country Music’ — With Throwback ‘Sounds Like The Radio’:

To a lot of country fans, the early 1990s was the golden age of the format.

Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, Mark Chesnutt, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and George Strait were among the talents who cut unabashedly country material that was melodic, hooky and frequently energetic. And, it can be argued, 1994 was the last really good year before the era started to implode as the labels — and, in some cases, the artists themselves — began to sound like caricatures, trying to strike gold by copying what had worked before.

New Leo33 artist Zach Top didn’t experience that time frame firsthand — he wasn’t born until 1997 — but the artists from that era were in steady rotation in his household, so the ’90s formed a foundation for his own work as an adult.

“It’s probably the peak of country music in my book, you know, the stuff that I was growing up on and the stuff that made me fall in love with country,” he says. “It was a lot of that ’90s stuff, and then I went back earlier to when [Merle] Haggard, [George] Jones, all that was kind of the rage. I love all that old stuff.”

Thus, the grinding, ’90s country sound and nostalgic lyrical tone of his debut single, “Sounds Like the Radio,” is an appropriate vehicle for Top to rock the jukebox. Fortunately, he has a solid connection with someone who lived it.

Songwriter-producer Carson Chamberlain (Billy Currington, Easton Corbin) played steel guitar with late-’80s icon Keith Whitley and fashioned ’90s hits for Alan Jackson. And while brainstorming on his own a few years ago, he came up with a phrase that played up that era: “Sounds like the radio/ Back in ’94, you know.” He coupled that with an aggressive guitar line that harkened to a boot-scootin’ line dance, and every once in a while, he would bring up “Sounds Like the Radio” at a co-writing session. 

One particular co-writer, artist Wyatt McCubbin, passed on it, mostly because it didn’t fit him. But McCubbin was in the room when Chamberlain pitched it again at his kitchen table to Top during a writing session on Sept. 25, 2020. Top bought in immediately, and this time around, so did McCubbin. “With Zach’s voice, night and day, man, it was a world of difference,” McCubbin recalls.

They buckled down on the chorus, writing a quick, four-line section that started and ended with the title. It felt so good, they wrote a second half and more than doubled the stanza’s length. And when they finally determined a setup line, they had the right payoff: “My whole life/ Sounds like the radio.”

Not only did “My whole life…” set up the end of the chorus, it also paved the way for the opening line. The start of “My whole life” begins at birth, and as they toyed with that idea, McCubbin popped out a hilarious opening line that introduced the entire ’90s theme: “Well, the day I was born the doc couldn’t believe/I came out cryin’ ‘Chattahoochee.’ ”

“I was just trying to think of the dumbest thing,” McCubbin notes, “just to catch people off guard.”

They slid straight into a mullet joke — very ’90s — and then into another wry reference. “Zach really loves the tongue-in-cheek things,” says Chamberlain. “Even the back end of the first verse — you know, the pickup and the girls and all that stuff — was a tongue-in-cheek, little tip of the hat to ‘Pickup Man’ Joe Diffie.”

Other phrases sounded like ’90s references, too: “Neon light” has a “Neon Moon” vibe, “walkin’ talkin’ jukebox” approximates “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart,” and even “a little bit of fiddle/ And a whole lot of country gold” is constructed like Jackson’s album title A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ’Bout Love). Most of that was an unintended function of coupling ’90s topics with era-appropriate sonics. “All that stuff influenced me, so I don’t mind paying tribute to it,” Top says. “But I don’t want to just copy what they’re doing.”

After they finished the second verse, they decided “Sounds Like the Radio” needed a bridge to bring the story full circle. They had started with a birth and addressed “my whole life” in the chorus. It kind of needed an end-of-life moment. They accomplished it all with a two-line section that again felt like familiar songs: “When I die, lay me down in the ground” is kind of close to “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (When I Die),” and “Next to an old beer joint with a party crowd” resurrected thoughts of David Lee Murphy’s “Party Crowd.” 

They used a microphone app for iPhone to record a demo with three guitars at the end of the day, and Chamberlain made sure that it laid out his vision for the final product. “I’m just kind of a stickler for getting the arrangement the way I want it,” he says. “I want the whole thing arranged to where the guys, all they have to do is listen to that, write the chart and go, ‘OK, we get it.’”

“Sounds Like the Radio” was key to Top’s emergence over the next few years. When he met with Major Bob Music, he led off with “The Radio” and got both a publishing deal and a managing contract. More than a year after they wrote it -— on Nov. 23, 2021 — he recorded it at Nashville’s Backstage studio with a band that included guitarist Brent Mason, bassist Glenn Worf, drummer Tommy Harden, steel guitarist Scotty Sanders, pianist Gary Prim and fiddler Andrew Leftwich. Top sang a scratch vocal and played acoustic guitar, taking advantage of his rhythmic sense.

“He’s such a good guitar player,” says Chamberlain, “and his right hand is really cool and different on some things.”

The musicians knocked it out with ease, and Top sailed through the final vocal part, too. “It’s not like I’m learning the melody to somebody else’s song and trying to figure it out,” he says, “so I already knew the song, basically. There was nothing too challenging about laying down those vocals.”

It helped secure his recording deal with independent Leo33, and “Sounds Like the Radio” was an obvious choice for a single. It sounded great, ’90s country is trendy, and the title would certainly get the attention of radio programmers. “A little pandering never hurts,” suggests Top.

Leo33 released it to country radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 10, and it’s at No. 43 on the Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 24 after six weeks.

“Literally the day we wrote it, it was like that was meant to be my first single,” Top says. “It seems like an awesome introduction to me and the type of music that people are going to be getting from me. If you like it, great. If not, don’t expect nothing different.” 

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