By: Nancy Dunham
Before the Zac Brown Band won this year's Best New Vocal Group honors at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, they shot a clip in Las Vegas where the guys in the band – charmingly a bit ill at ease – tell the fans that they are in awe of the nomination and are grateful for all the support. In the world of super egos, these guys come across as the real thing – honest, hardworking, and heartfelt.
"We love our fans and are very connected with our fans," said Zac Brown a few weeks before the awards. "There are times I can't do it right and it appears like we are jerks and we have changed. We really haven't. It comes down to pure mathematics; we used to give 30 seconds to each fan but when you have hundreds of fans, you just can't do it. The demands of the road are a lot different."
And when all is said, the band members seem to handle these demands well. When thinking of the band, it's important to remember they never set out for this type of fame. Brown began writing songs when he was 17 after a shapely woman he saw walking near his Dahlonega, Georgia home inspired "Some Kind of Fine." Soon, he and his friends began playing music, most often outside Zac's Place, the restaurant he and his dad owned. It wasn't long before he was on the road, playing 200 gigs a year and independently selling CDs – some 30,000 to date.
Although The Zac Brown Band's Gold Certified (that's 500,000 copies for the laymen) album The Foundation debuted at #17 on Billboard and #3 on Top Country Albums Chart after its release last November, you won't see Brown abandoning the roots he explains so well in the song "Chicken Fried" ("you know I like my chicken fried/ A cold beer on a Friday night"), which peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Chart.
Even while enjoying his success, Brown is looking to reach out more to fans as he did in the past when he'd cook and serve barbeque during shows. Calling those shows "mini festivals," during which three or four bands would play while the food sizzled on the grill, Brown talks about how he'd like to continue to host such events for fans except on a larger scale.
|Zac Brown by C. Taylor Crothers|
There's little question that the Zac Brown Band is a poster child for keeping it real. To hear Brown tell it, the everyday life he's always led hasn't changed all that much since he's won critical and commercial acclaim. He still hangs with the same guys, plays the same type of music, and wants to make all his fans feel like they're at a down-home party. Even in the world of big time press, TV appearances and major awards, the 30-year-old Brown keeps his head centered and his radar on the music. No gloating or large ego for this guy.
"We still got our heads down. We're working hard and doing what we always do," said Brown. "You hear about it and it doesn't seem real until you get there. It's a whole lot of work paying off."
And he's really just getting started. The band recently went into the studio and cut 20 new songs written by Brown and his songwriting partner Wyatt Durrette, who had been a bartender in an Atlanta tavern before he teamed up with Brown.
"Once we have it down, everybody puts their two cents in," said Brown. "That's an art form you learn as a musician."
But, one thing that needed no adjustment was working with his bandmates, all friends from his Georgia roots. While life on the road takes a toll for many, the Zac Brown Band is its own "little army," remarked Brown. "They had my back when I had nothing. We are a real family."
"I'm a father and husband first, and I'm a business man and a provider. As far as the band, I'm just a member of the family. I'm not the head of the family, we are all equal," he continued. "We are surrounded by optimism and we all love each other. That's where the music comes from. That's what really matters."
|Zac Brown Band by C. Taylor Crothers|
Sounds good, but so many musicians start out on high notes and then fall apart as the road takes its toll. Brown doesn't even consider such a downturn a possibility.
"We are doing the same thing we've always done - working to make the best music we can," he said. "We want these to be unique tour experiences, combining music and food whenever we can."
Brown insists that although the challenges are greater now, he believes down home ways can work. Consider Kenny Chesney, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews and Brad Paisley, he said. Those are musicians that keep ticket costs low, musicians happy and music pure. There's no doubt Brown hopes to follow their paths.
"Look at Dave Matthews, he's a huge role model. People can't really describe what that music is but it works and it's an amazing family structure," Brown said. "Brad Paisley is probably my favorite out there. He's the real deal, an incredible guitarist that runs a tight ship, leading by example. Always put your best foot forward and show everybody you care."
Zac Brown Band is on tour now and will perform on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on April 29. Complete dates available here.
There is also a contest going on right now with CMT. The winner gets to go to Bonnaroo and record with the Zac Brown Band. Enter here.
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