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Zach Day's 'Y'allternative' Ballads and Big Appalachian Heart

When Zach Day was a teenager, he and his two best friends would regularly skip the school bus to practice singing and playing music.


In the quiet backwoods of Day’s hometown of Stearns in southeastern Kentucky, he said they’d spend their days on porches covering Dolly Parton, Carole King and “all the great women of music.” 


The trio of friends taught each other how to sing better, studying the nuances and small inflections in their voices, even the shape of their mouths while they sang, to perfect their three-part harmonies. 


Though it may have just seemed like another adolescent act of rebellion, for Day, the stories he’d go on to tell as well as his sound would draw their inspiration from those Appalachian woods and the people with which he surrounded himself.


Day, a now 30-year-old singer-songwriter, sits in his apartment in Nashville, Tennessee, which stands two blocks from Music Row, on a cool, misty day in February. A former “The Voice” contestant who has amassed well over one hundred thousand followers across TikTok and Instagram, Day initially moved to Music City in early 2020 after graduating from Eastern Kentucky University a few months prior in 2019. 

“I always knew I was destined to get out of there,” Day recalled of Stearns. “... I always just kind of felt like I was an observer of my surroundings. I never really felt like I fit in and I was more just like watching everything else go on.”


Even so, Day said he still carries a deep affinity for Appalachia.


The son of a nurse and a barber, Day grew up nervous and shy in his hometown but said he took comfort in his family and the small, isolated farm he was raised on. His grandparents — a teacher and an electric company employee — and his aunt were his neighbors, which not only provided Day with a safe place to land but also plenty of examples of hard work in spite of challenges.


“That teaches you something about life, I think, because my family has always been hard-working people,” Day said. “And I feel like there’s sometimes a misconception on people from the South being lazy hillbillies or something like that, and it’s not that at all … We might have been really poor, but we never were wanting for anything, so that was special to me.”


Also of great significance for Day growing up was his family’s aptitude for storytelling. He described each member of his tight-knit family as a storyteller and said that it’s “in my blood.” Day said he thinks listeners can hear that in the music he puts out today.  


Day said his early penchant for stories coincided with his introduction to music. His aunt, a musician herself, acquainted Day with the piano when he was practically a baby. Playing in church on Sundays, she’d sit Day beside her as he experimented with the piano’s keys.


The singer-songwriter continued with piano lessons as he got older, noting two teachers: “Miss Jana,” who Day said could play the instrument “100% by ear” and taught him how to make chords, and “Miss Debbie,” who gave Day lessons for free on account of seeing potential in him.


“I really did have people notice that I had a knack for music, that I enjoyed it and that I could be good at it,” Day said.

But as Day was realizing his talents, he was also recognizing that he was different from some of his peers and facing scrutiny for it.


Day, a gay man, would not come out to his friends and family until he was an adult, but said he encountered homophobia in Stearns before he even knew his sexual orientation.


“It’s never easy for someone raised in the Bible Belt,” Day said. “... I had grown adults telling me like, ‘You’re not allowed to ride in my car because you’re a faggot.’” 


He sought refuge in his friends and in music, singing with them in the woods and in classrooms for his teachers before heading to both Morehead State University and EKU, where Day said he continued to pursue music by participating in jazz and Black gospel ensembles.


At college, “I was really under the wing of different mentors that became huge inspirations for me as well,” Day said.


Motivated by that support, Day spent his last semester at EKU filming season 18 of NBC’s “The Voice” after auditioning for the show in Los Angeles and inspiring judges John Legend and Kelly Clarkson to turn their chairs with a cover of SWV’s “Weak.” 


Day made it to the show’s “battle rounds” with Legend as his coach before his elimination, but said the competition was a “really good experience” and taught him a valuable lesson.


“I learned that being an artist is different than being a singer,” Day said of being on “The Voice.” “Anybody can be a good singer, but not everybody is an artist … which comes with branding yourself, marketing yourself.”


On “The Voice,” Day also came out publicly for the first time, which he said his family took well, and he zeroed in on his folk-pop sound — dubbed by Day as “y’allternative” — after being pushed to market himself as an R&B singer.


“[I’d] been running from this country-alternative, queer person my whole life,” Day said. He explained that while he enjoys R&B and other genres, “what makes me unique [is that] I’m a folk singer at heart.”


Day moved to Nashville “ready to take over the world” as “The Voice” aired, though the COVID-19 pandemic limited his opportunities for some time, prompting him to travel to L.A. two years later and stay there while working with an artist development company.


While with the company, Day said he wrote and recorded 30 songs, though all of those were eventually shelved after labels turned down meetings with him, which Day described as “super traumatizing.” 


This, however, pushed Day to “take my power back,” he said. The singer-songwriter doubled down on his roots and his musical niche, independently releasing story-driven tracks like “Washington” and “New York.”


“I’m just telling my story, and I’m just doing it in a way that feels most authentic to me,” Day said, unconcerned with talks of radio hits or streams.


Still, plenty have taken notice of Day’s distinct voice. His viral TikTok videos, in which he puts a folk twist on popular songs, have garnered attention from names like YEBBA, Brandi Carlile, Paris Hilton and the aforementioned King, he said.


In his apartment, Day stares out the window, smiling. He’s got a new song, “You’re Bored and I Hate It,” due out in March and a slew of live shows already booked for the year. 


“I’m taking everything that I can, I’m not sleeping on it one bit,” Day said. “I’m working so hard.”


The singer-songwriter said he still struggles with continuing to pursue a career as traditionally arduous as music, mentioning that it’d be easy to “take a break” and move to a farm. But Day is not interested in letting his stories and the sounds of his home go unheard anytime soon.

“We have stories to tell, and some of the best musicians and songwriters and singers ever are just buried in the hills of southeastern Kentucky,” Day said. “... At the end of the day, I’m always going to come back to making music … It’s just natural in me.”


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