When Zac Brown Band hit the country music jackpot back in 2008, it was thanks to “Chicken Fried,” a ubiquitous Southern anthem that closely followed Nashville’s formula for mainstream success. Chock full of references to cold beer, God and soldiers, the song perfectly fit country radio’s mold and launched the band into the genre’s stratosphere – paving the way for four more top ten singles from the group’s now double-platinum album The Foundation.
In the less than two years since, the Atlanta-based sextet has become one of country’s hottest acts, winning a CMT Music Award (“Breakthrough Video of the Year”), an Academy of Country Music award (“Top New Vocal Duo or Group”) and the 2010 Grammy for “Top New Artist.”
Don’t chalk that success up to playing by the rules, however. While “Chicken Fried” was the type of feel-good, life-affirming song that today’s big country hits are made of, The Foundation was an album that swayed between easy-going mainstream fare and the kind of gritty Americana storytelling that is seldom present in the music produced by country’s biggest stars.
The band’s second single, the breezy love ballad “Whatever It Is,” and “Toes” (a Jimmy Buffet-fueled up-tempo song spiced with a dash of calypso flavor) solidified their commercial viability, but a cover of Ray LaMontagne’s rough-edged “Jolene” – along with a pair of raucous, bluegrass-tinged barn burners straight from the Charlie Daniels playbook – showed that they had serious aspirations, and plenty of artistic credibility to boot.
Welcome to Zac Brown Band’s world, a place where it’s possible to walk both sides of the line between mainstream and “other.” With one foot marching down a road to superstardom and the other walking on a path of musical creativity and exploration, the group is a unique specimen in today’s celebrity-driven, mass-marketed country music universe.
Of course, that’s partially because Zac Brown Band isn’t really a country band, at least according to all six of the group’s members. Despite the enormous success they’ve found by channeling their talents through the Nashville pipeline, country influences are nary among this group of seasoned musical veterans.
All six members of Zac Brown Band hail from widely varying (and decidedly non-country) backgrounds. There’s grizzly-voiced bassist and singer-songwriter John Driskell Hopkins; Chris Fryar, a jazz drummer who has worked with the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame All-Stars; and Jimmy De Martini, a classically trained violinist who, before joining ZBB, made a living by playing in the Dave Matthews Cover Band. There’s Coy Bowles, a keyboardist who cut his teeth on the blues and Clay Cook, the band’s utility man (guitar, mandolin and pedal steel are among his tools) and one-time half of the duo, Lo-Fi Masters. (His former Lo-Fi partner in crime? None other than one John Mayer.)
And then, of course, there’s Brown himself. The eleventh of twelve children, Brown is the band’s lead singer, primary songwriter and driving creative force. He started playing classical guitar at age seven, and developed fluid, ultra-quick picking skills. Brown cites influences ranging from James Taylor to Bob Marley to André 3000, but as for a country influence? Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Eagles are as close as he can get.
“The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country. We’re Southern. My roots are Southern.”
Fiddler (or violinist) De Martini goes a step further. “I wouldn’t say we are a country band. The singles that we have are on country radio, and I think the songwriting comes from a country place,” he says. “But as far our approach, musically and professionally, we’re a long way away from how Nashville does it.”
“How Nashville does it,” according to the band, is through a producer-heavy, paint-by-numbers system that utilizes session musicians and relies on the judgment of A&R personnel to guide a project.
“It’s very cookie cutter, in certain aspects,” says Cook. “But we don’t have a lot of external input from people telling us what to do. Our record is our record.”
So, how did this group of six musicians with no particular ties to country music come to dominate the country sales and airplay charts? It’s amazing what a little ditty about “cold beer on a Friday night” can do for a budding career.
“We wrote ‘Chicken Fried,’” says Brown. “And we knew that song was a giant country smash. We knew that was a way for us to get our foot in the door.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the band met up with a guy who just happened to have a few connections within the country music community. Keith Stegall, an esteemed Nashville producer who has worked with Alan Jackson and Randy Travis, heard Zac and his crew perform in 2006 and agreed to produce The Foundation. That was back before ZBB had even signed its record deal with the now-defunct Live Nation records.