Zac Brown Band: Play The Road

By: Dennis Cook

Zac Brown Band
Success often makes new listeners wary of a band. Too many hits too fast and one may wonder if an artist is a flash in the pan and unworthy of a serious music fan’s attention. However, sometimes a truly talented, hard working group breaks through and the world is simply wise enough – for a rare change – to recognize a good thing when it lands in their lap.

In 2008 it seemed the Zac Brown Band came out of nowhere to pulverize the country charts, racking up four number one singles and double platinum album sales for what many thought was their debut, The Foundation. But, two self-released albums preceded this first major label release, along with a tour schedule that had kept the band away from home for as many as 200 gigs a year since 2002. All that wood shedding and club humping rings out in the confidence and craftsmanship of The Foundation, and the past two years where they’ve become a major headlining draw and a fixture on CMT and country radio shows in the utterly confident, absolutely winning follow-up You Get What You Give (released September 21 on Southern Ground/Atlantic), which opens with a scene full of hippie-esque wisdom played out over chord-skipping acoustic guitar and playful fiddle that ride a shuffling beat.

Spent the night with a friend of mine and a handle of good whiskey
Picked guitars and talked about how the glory days went missing
It didn’t take too long to find the truth inside that bottle
Cast a-sea so long ago was a message from my father

You keep your heart above your head and your eyes wide open
So this world can’t find a way to leave you cold
No, you’re not the only ship out on the ocean
Save your strength for things that you can change
Forget the ones you can’t
You got to let it go

You Get What You Give is a record with a huge potential audience, not just the country establishment that’s already embraced them. Within this talented bunch lays many points of connection for jam band aficionados (high level musicianship, broad cover tune sensibilities, a 420-friendly attitude, shifting setlists), Americana purists (dead solid songwriting, twang that’s stretched into interesting new forms) and straight-up mainstream rock fans.

ZBB @ Bonnaroo ’09 by Dave Vann
“We realize that country radio and TV is the way they’re selling this music and the way we’re connecting with our fans but only during 4 or 5 songs in our live set do we even think we’re a country band,” says multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook. “I think we’re more concerned with songs than genre. Sure, we’re telling stories in our songs but it’s more of a southern approach than a strict country one.”

Like the best southern bands in the modern era, ZBB scoops up a wide array of influences and gives them a below-the-Mason-Dixon accent. Ronnie Van Zant-era Skynyrd did this well, as do contemporaries like JJ Grey & Mofro and Hill Country Revue, both of whom have more in common with the Zac Brown Band’s general vibe than most of what’s coming out of Nashville today. At the core of this group is one of the strongest emerging songwriting teams out there, namely Zac Brown and lyricist Wyatt Durrette, who possess a Tom Petty-like populist feel that’s VERY hard to resist.

“The way Zac approaches performing songs is so much different than anything I’ve been involved with before. You just really believe every word he says with the way he sings it,” says Cook. “I feel very lucky to be where I am in this band, especially because of the way we connect with audiences, and that stems from Zac.”

The band doesn’t hesitate to place their originals next some of the finest songwriting of the past 50 years, regularly covering tunes from The Band, Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Ray LaMontagne and other heavy hitters, with the company they keep reflecting the larger ambitions of the band. One also sees this in the high powered patronage of certifiable icons like Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews and Kid Rock, who’ve taken the band under their wing and welcomed them as openers and kindred spirits.

“When we’re picking covers we pick things we want to play, the songs we’re listening to on our iPods. This is the music we love. It’s stuff we’re intimately familiar with and huge fans of. We feel like it’s our duty to do a good job,” says Cook. “We’ve been playing Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released,’ and I can’t tell you how many other versions are out there. But when we get onstage to play that song, I feel like we’re only the second or third band to ever attempt it, just by how we love it SO much. It’s a weird feeling, but we think we do that with certain songs, really live inside them and make them somewhat our own. Otherwise, we’ll play a song once and never again.”

Zac Brown Band
On the Deluxe Edition of You Get What You Give, they do a fantastic cover of Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (off Ryan’s solo debut Heartbreaker).

“It’s a live version and we did it in Louisville. And it was one of those situations where everyone felt so good about it, even though it was only the second or third time we’d attempted it in two or three years,” says Cook. “The only reason we played it in Louisville is it’s got a line that goes, ‘I miss Kentucky and I miss my family.’ Zac said, ‘Let’s just play this one!’ and we did and it was just beautiful. We had somebody mix it and throw it on the Deluxe Edition.”

The band mixes up their song selections nightly very much in the spirit of the never-repeat-yourself ethos of the jam scene.

“We kinda have to but the lighting and video guys really wish we’d stick to the same setlist [laughs]. But if we did the same setlist three nights in a row, by the third night we’d be fit to be tied. We’d be ready to do something different or even change [the arrangements of] songs up if we couldn’t change the setlist, changing up sections of songs as we’re playing them,” says Cook. “It forces you to be creative in different ways. We’ve had to feed from our record that’s been out there for a while. It’s been two years since The Foundation came out, and we have to play stuff from it because that’s why people bought tickets to see us. At least half the people in the audience have never seen us before and don’t know they’re going to see a real live show. And then hopefully the other half of the show is new stuff and covers. Unless we have three hours to play, we really have a hard time boiling down what we want to play every night.”

“At this point, we have six songs that are singles and that’s half an hour already. You have to play those songs. Then you have a few covers you’ve been playing that are working, so you have to play those because if we feel good about them at the moment we want to capitalize on that feeling. And the next time we come around [to a city] we’ll have a whole new set of covers. Then you want to play the stuff off the new record, and we also have special guests on this tour. Like Robert Randolph is opening for us, so we want to play a song with him. So, pretty soon the two-and-a-half-hours for our setlist is pretty full. It’s actually easier to write a three-hour setlist than a two-hour setlist.”

Zac Brown @ Bonnaroo ’09 by Dave Vann
“A pop artist just wants to play their hits and get off the stage. They want to play a 90-minute set and anything more than that is unbearable to them. I remember talking to this country group Lady Antebellum, who came up to us at one of the awards shows. They just released their second album earlier this year, and they heard we were playing three and four hour shows and said, ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ They’ve only got about 90-minutes of material without covers, and that’s only if they play everything off both records. I said, ‘Well, we’re not a country band.’ We’re a live experience mainly.”

One area they excel at, live and in the studio, is in their rich harmonies. The overlap of voices, not just Brown’s own powerful, flexible pipes, is a lovely alternative to the Clean Room pristine quality of most of today’s auto-tuned, Pro-Tools enhanced “singing.”

“When they did the harmonies on the previous record [before Clay Cook joined ZBB], they had to work really hard on the vocals. And that record was cut almost four years ago with two of the vocalists that are here now and one that’s gone. Now, we sing SO much that I don’t think it took two days to get the background harmonies on [You Get What You Give]. We were just knocking them out. It was almost comical at one point when we realized that a great deal of these harmonies were done in one take,” says Cook. “We didn’t spend a lot of time in the studio tracking [anything on the new record]. A lot of the time spent was between gigs, where we’d go a month without doing anything because we’d be on the road. When we were off the road everybody wanted to go home for two or three days, so we couldn’t jump right back into the studio. And then we were on the road again!”

“We’ve taken measures to fix that on the next record. We’re building a studio in Zac’s backyard,” reveals Cook. “I think we’re gonna try to do this next record live, the solos and everything except maybe the vocals. We care a lot about the vocals and it’d suck to get all the way through an awesome take as a band and discover that two of the vocalists were a little bit off. At worst, we’ll record the entire band live and go back and capture the vocals, OR we’ll be just as gutsy as I hope we’ll be and just capture EVERYTHING live in the studio.”

Perhaps the best way to think of the Zac Brown Band is as the next generation of Great American Music bands in the spirit of the Grateful Dead, Little Feat and Goose Creek Symphony, where the inflection of their music can lean one way or another but the language they’re ultimately speaking is their own. What separates Zac Brown and his collaborators from these ancestors is an almost unerring knack for sinking deep into the pop vernacular. Spin You Get What You Give for almost anyone, regardless of their primary listening habits, and by the last track there’s bound to be one or more cuts that float their boat. It’s a broad, readily appealing reach that hints at a future cult following the likes of which Buffett, Rock and the Dave Matthews Band enjoy.

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