Bailey Zimmerman was busy with a union job and tricking out pickup trucks in his spare time just three years ago. In less than one pandemic, the Louisville, Illinois, native is well on his way to becoming the biggest new country artist this side of Morgan Wallen, thanks to a combination of astounding streaming numbers and radio play of his hits “Fall in Love” and “Rock and a Hard Place.” Even Zimmerman can still scarcely believe it.
“It was really, really weird. All of a sudden I was in a vocal booth, singing, and then we were writing 24/7, and it’s just never stopped,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Now this is my life.”
Zimmerman, who now lives in Nashville, went straight from high school to working on the gas pipeline, a coveted job in his hometown that promised good wages and a degree of stability. As a hobby, he started customizing his GMC pickup truck, which he filmed — as so many of his generation do — to post on TikTok. That afforded him a respectable following of thousands in the world of lifted, built-out trucks. But then he posted a clip of him singing a song he’d written with his hometown friend Gavin Lucas. Overnight, it amassed more than a million views and Zimmerman decided that was going to be his life from now on. He put in a call to the union.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I’m Bailey Zimmerman, and I want to quit,’” he says. “They were like, ‘Do you want to get taken off the work list?’ I was like, ‘No, I want to shred my card. I quit. I’ll never work for you again.’”
That working-class realness comes across natural and unforced in Zimmerman’s recordings, which often combine country melodies and lyrics about heartbreak with darker, grunge-inspired rock underpinnings. There are some similarities to the youthful Wallen, with whom Zimmerman will be touring all year, but also a devout allegiance to the brooding gods of 2000s heavy rock à la Staind and Linkin Park. “All those bands made me feel something in my stomach when I was a kid,” he says. “That’s what I’m chasing now: to try to get the people to feel that.”
In October 2022, Zimmerman released his EP Leave the Light On, which went on to become the year’s most-streamed debut in all genres, as well as the biggest country streaming debut ever to that point. To date, he’s racked up more than 1.5 billion total streams — all in a scant three years.
Beyond Zimmerman’s streaming success, country radio has also fully bought in — a historical sign of longevity in the genre — propelling “Fall in Love” to Number One and “Rock and a Hard Place” to its current perch of Number Two. Standalone singles followed, including “Get to Gettin’ Gone,” “Fix’n to Break,” and a thunderous take on the doomy gospel standard “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”
This summer, Zimmerman will give fans even more things to stream with the release of his debut full-length album. The project, titled Religiously. The Album., arrives May 12 via Warner Music Nashville/Elektra and aims to connect the dots between all of his musical output so far by mixing a few of his popular singles with several brand new songs. He’s excited about it, but keenly aware of the weight of the moment.
“With this being my first album it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. This could be my Traveller,’” he says, referencing Chris Stapleton’s breakthrough while noting that he and his producer Austin Shawn have been fine-tuning and analyzing all the details in the final stretch before it’s out. He says some songs are “more poppy” this time around, while others stick closer to his folk and rock roots.
To whet fans’ appetites, the title track from Religiously is out today. Combining wistful Dobro licks with acoustic guitar before shifting to a heavier country-rock arrangement, “Religiously” faces an ongoing heartache with resolve. “You would think by now that I wouldn’t care/It’s been a couple of years and yeah I’ve had my share/of other broken-up hearts/but I only shed real tears over ours,” he sings, before acknowledging that his jump into the spotlight “don’t even feel like life” with an emo-tinged wail. He originally recorded it two years ago but wasn’t sure what to do with it.
“I didn’t know what at the time because I was only 21 and had just gotten into music,” Zimmerman says. “I kept it in my bag. I wasn’t releasing it until I knew what it really meant.”
Over time, it began to click for him why he’d liked the song so much. He’d suffered a small-town heartbreak that took some guts to face.
“It was like I wanted to run from it all the time,” he says. “Even to this day, it reminds me of hitting that heartbreak head on and getting over it. That’s what ‘Religiously’ means to me, trying to get over something and not run from it anymore.”
These days, Zimmerman isn’t doing so much running from, as being hurtled toward. With this new album and his slot on Wallen’s tour, the stage is set for him to enjoy a massive 2023.
“I‘ve been focusing on being in the moment and being here and really enjoying where I’m at,” he says. “I’m excited to see how I grow as a person. What am I going to discover about myself that I didn’t know? What am I going to learn this year?”
He’ll have his answer soon enough. There will be plenty of big moments for him this year, and he’s going to want to soak up every second.