It was December 2014, and Charles Bryant was shivering in his car. He had about $75 to his name — okay, probably closer to $25 because he lost the other $50 attempting to help a man stranded on the street. The singer, who’s struggled with agoraphobia since he was a teenager, had made the bold move to drive from the comforts of his home in Pasadena, Texas, to Nashville. His brother Mike, also struggling with agoraphobia, begged him not to go, and although Bryant’s anxiety had begun to manifest itself during this trip in the form of a blown-out tire and that precarious grifter on the side of the road, he was determined to make it to Music City.
On his first meltdown, after the tire repair, he drove across the street to a church in Hope, Arkansas, and, once calmed, texted his mother: “Mom, tell Mike it’s kinda like in the Bible … there’s this passage where the king gives these these three servants talents, and two use their talents to bring increase and the third buries his. Tell Mike I don’t wanna be the third guy.”
On his second meltdown, after he’d been fleeced for $50, Bryant found himself again at a church, this time in Nashville. Doubt over his decision to travel all this way was creeping in.
“The priest was giving his homily, and guess what it was about?” Bryant recalls. “The king and the three servants. And the last thing he says before he wraps up is, ‘Don’t be like the third servant. Don’t be that guy.’ The verbiage he used was the exact verbiage I’d used.”
His faith and determination paid off — and Bryant got to play not one but two songs at the famed Bluebird Cafe. For Bryant, that meant the trip was a success.
Bryant has faced additional battles — affecting both body and soul — since that trip. In 2022 alone, he lost his father, and, at present, is recovering from hip surgery after years of physical pain.
But while this year — and, let’s be honest, the last two years — has been wrought with adversity, Bryant says he thinks he just wrote the best song he’s ever written in his 40-year career. In “But Then There’s You,” he sings about his parents’ love from his dad’s perspective, comparing his mother to Rembrandt and Shakespeare.
“I’m so grateful for that song,” Bryant says. “I can’t write that good … that had to be a miracle — a God wink — because that’s the last song my dad heard by me before he died.”
And while Bryant downplays his songwriting, the man really can write that good. Texas Music described his last album, 2018’s Kiss the Sun, as “a minor masterpiece from a true underdog” and praised his “unique, intense vision of the human condition that springs from real-life experience accompanied by some gray in the beard and crow’s feet around his skittish eyes.” And now, Bryant is back with his fourth album, Unrequited. He plans to formally announce its release on his dad’s birthday, Nov. 5.
The journey to get the album to this point is as intense as that trip to Nashville. Bryant, working with Grammy-nominated musician and producer Matt Hubbard, finished recording Unrequited in December 2019 and intended to release the album in April 2020.
Then the world shut down.
For Bryant, who really didn’t start performing publicly until he turned 50 and, in those final months of 2019, was pushing himself to do shows, the pandemic was actually a well-needed break and a retreat to where he felt safe as an artist. “Me going back to just living in my house and my room, that’s my wheelhouse,” he explains. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wanna be an agoraphobic, but I’m used to being an agoraphobic. So for me, it was a piece of cake.”
But even while he dove back into his space of personal comfort, he felt uncomfortable releasing his album at that time: “It just felt so disrespectful,” Bryant says. “Because we didn’t know … in the early days of the pandemic, we just didn’t know. And to say, ‘Hey y’all, I’ve got a new album’ … that seemed so gross.”
So Bryant set Unrequited aside … for nearly three years.
Despite the long pause, the tracks of Unrequited still resonate. In fact, the themes of love, loss and trying to capture the silver lining through it all hit even harder for Bryant now, given everything he and the collective have endured.
“It was kind of surreal listening to them,” he says. “And some of them hit me too emotionally — I could see where I was at. It’s weird to say something you wrote hit you hard, but when you haven’t listened to yourself in years, it’s kinda weird coming at it like that.”
Bryant is slowly beginning to make plans to have an in-person CD release and do more shows, hopefully in the early spring and summer. And while his body continues to recover, he’s already piecing together the next album. He’s been working on a song about the tragedy in Texas a few years back, when several immigrants suffocated to death in the back of an 18-wheeler. “The verses will switch back and forth,” Bryant explains, “between the perspectives of the immigrants in the truck and the state trooper who discovers them.” And on a lighter note, he’s toying with the idea of crafting a song made up entirely of idioms and axioms, one after another, in a cohesive manner.
But for now, Bryant hopes Unrequited gives listeners the same peace and catharsis it’s given him. He’s not gonna be that guy, the one who wastes his talent, because he knows how much a song he wrote can mean to someone.
A late bloomer to the scene, Bryant recalls being the closer for shows at his friend Kenny Pipes’ house concerts. No matter how many times Pipes begged the audience to stay, the second the main act was done, everyone would exit, leaving Bryant to sing for just his friend and the ushers. “In a way, I was kind of angry at the crowd, but I was angry at me, too,” he says of those unrequited moments as a performer. “I was angry I wasn’t good enough to grab the attention of the crowd.”
But one night, an usher requested that Bryant play a prayer song from his first album, Alone. “At the end of the song,” he recalls, she said, “‘You put into words what I want to say but don’t have the words to say it.’ And I needed that more than the desert needs rain. I needed that in that moment because I was so self-loathing, self-doubting, ready to throw in the towel. And I thought, ‘Wow, maybe there are other people who see it that way.’”
And that’s why he’s still on the road, against all odds, seeking affirmation, one listener at a time. “I want to write songs I’d want to hear if I didn’t write songs,” Bryant says.