How Bailey Zimmerman’s breakup songs made him country’s breakout star

Bailey Zimmerman wasn’t looking to become a country star on the night he posted the video that made him one.

Having built a sizable following on TikTok with clips about custom-built trucks, the small-town Illinois native says he was just trying to help out a songwriter pal by recording himself performing a tune they’d written together.

“I was like, ‘I’ve got views, so maybe we could get your songs to somebody to sing ‘em,’” Zimmerman, 23, recalls today. Instead, the no-frills performance of “Never Comin’ Home” — a grungy kiss-off to a cheating ex that he co-wrote in late 2020 with his friend Gavin Lucas — went viral overnight and quickly led to Zimmerman’s moving to Nashville, Tennessee, and signing a record deal of his own. Less than three years later, he’s scored three consecutive No. 1 singles at country radio with “Fall in Love,” “Rock and a Hard Place” and “Religiously,” the namesake track from his debut LP, “Religiously. The Album,” and is on the road opening stadium concerts for Morgan Wallen. He’s also widely tipped as a contender for a best new artist nomination at the Grammys.

Quite a ride for a guy who not long ago was working on a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia.

Zimmerman, who’s high on the bill for next year’s Stagecoach festival, called from Wisconsin to talk about it between tour dates.

Q: Nashville is often described as a 10-year town, in that it takes a decade to get a career going. But for you it’s happened much faster. What kind of conversations have you had with artists who’ve taken that more typical path?

A: It’s kind of a gray area because I never want to make them feel like I think I know everything, because I know nothing. Lainey Wilson, Morgan, Hardy, Jelly Roll — I want them to think of me as a little brother. I’m always like, “If you have any advice, please help me because I’ve been thrown to the wolves here and I’m trying to learn.”


Q: Have you always been open to being taught?

A: Growing up, definitely not. I hated school. But as soon as I got to pipelining, I was like, OK, if I learn faster than everybody else and I work harder than everybody else then I’ll be able to get my own crew truck and be a straw boss. I taught myself how to read blueprints.

Q: What music did you and your co-workers listen to?

A: We’d pump Machine Gun Kelly into Moneybagg Yo into Drake. But then also we were listening to Luke Combs and stuff like Bryan Martin and Cody Jinks — guys who talk about working on the lines. Pretty relatable.

Q: You’ve said that the hair-metal group Tesla, whose heyday was well before you were born, is your favorite band. Why?

A: Dude, it was my mom. She was raucous when I was a kid — smoking cigarettes, spiky hair, Harley-Davidson everything — and she got me into Kid Rock and Avenged Sevenfold and Nickelback. Tesla was my first show — really the only show I ever went to before I started singing. I was 12 and there was beer all over the place. It was also the first time I’d ever seen boobs in real life. I was on my mom’s shoulders, and Jeff Keith from Tesla pointed towards the back. When I looked, there was a real old lady with her boobs out. It was legendary.

Q: You first found an audience on TikTok, where you’re still very active. Does it ever seem like an obligation?

A: An honest answer is that sometimes it feels like a job. Some days you just wanna sit but you know you can’t because you need to post. But I just had a talk with myself last night about how it’s not harder than it is: “You’re just being yourself and posting videos, and you really need to get back to that.”

Q: Your look is as crucial to your TikTok presence as your voice is.

A: This is what I tell people: When I grew up we had a lot of money at first — had this big house and we had clothes and we were taken care of. But then my parents got divorced and there was basically a flip of the script. We went from being OK in life to not having $10 to our name. I only had a pair of jeans for the school year and maybe two or three shirts. So now that I’ve worked my ass off, I can afford clothes and new shoes every day.

And I think the style matters in this industry. Does the way you look match up with the show? Does it match up with your lifestyle? Like right now I’m not gonna have a girlfriend because I sing breakup songs. How weird would that be if I had somebody I loved but I’m still singing breakup songs? So everything matters. But it’s also just so much fun. I’m having a freaking blast putting together outfits and wearing chains and looking like a rock star every night. I’ve been wearing bell-bottoms lately.

Q: Who put you on to bell-bottoms?

A: I always loved skinny jeans, but then my girl who helps style me, she brought me these pants that were more straight-legged and went over my shoes. I put them on and they were so loose and flowy. Way more comfy than the skinny jeans.

Q: Country music is super-hot at the moment. What’s your take on why?

A: Because it’s feel-good music.

Q: Some of your songs are pretty pained.

A: But it still makes you feel something. Whether you’re crying and feeling good or dancing and feeling good, both do the same thing to the mind and the body. The songs that have touched people lately — Jelly Roll’s “Need a Favor” or my song “Rock and a Hard Place” — it’s music that people have really needed, you know?


Q: Maren Morris said recently that she’s leaving country music. What did you make of that?

A: I friggin’ love Maren Morris. I love her voice and I love her songs and I love what she’s doing. I just never understood [saying], “I’m changing genres.” Why would you do that? I would imagine that would make a lot of people mad that have been by your side for a long time and thought of you as this, then you say you’re not. You’re just kind of punching yourself right in the foot.

Q: You’ve said you’d love to work with Post Malone or Justin Bieber. Who else?

A: Obviously everybody wants to collab with her, but I think it could be cool if me and Taylor Swift did, like, her old-day stuff mixed with the new-day stuff — something right down the middle of a country-pop vibe. The Weeknd would be sick. I’d love to collab with G-Eazy.

Q: Did you see that Post Malone will be at Stagecoach doing a set of country covers?

A: I’m so psyched.