Digital Cover Story: Zac Brown Band: Back to Business—”We Just Want to Put on the Greatest Show That We Can”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When a band gets big—when the group earns No. 1 records, Grammy Awards, and a string of sold-out tour dates in stadiums (including a spot opening up for The Rolling Stones)—it’s easy to forget where they’ve come from. It may not even be intended. But sometimes the roots can be lost for the sake of the fruit. Thankfully, for the fans of the popular Zac Brown Band, this isn’t the case for the group and its frontman. Brown remembers the grind. Remembers the decade it took for the industry to really pay attention. He remembers inventing a business model early on: playing sports bars midweek and eventually bringing in hundreds of people. Remembers camping on porches, and staying in friends’ garages. He remembers borrowing money from one of his 11 siblings for a PA system and microphones. Now, though, Brown and his band have grown, earned accolades, and are continuing their path upward. But it’s not for any lack of keeping in mind those initial good ol’ days.

“Well, 2008 was when our first song went out to radio,” says Brown of his hit single, “Chicken Fried.” “But for 10 years before that—I had toured for six years with just me and a drummer, playing all over the Southeast. One thing I’ve learned being around this business and trying to help other artists: talent comes pretty cheap. There are a lot of talented people. But not a lot of people have the hustle and the grind.”

Brown remembers playing for six hours a night for six or seven nights a week for years on end. He remembers going into the sports bars and presenting them with an idea—to give him and his drummer a bar tab and to let them take money at the door. But then they’d play for those hours on end at no relative cost to the venue. With this model, Brown played somewhere between 250 and 300 shows a year for a decade.

“We paid our dues,” Brown says. “We learned how to read a crowd, how to pick covers that they would know. We were trying to win people over one person at a time, one room at a time.”

The work, of course, paid off. By the time Brown and his band were making records and releasing songs in a mainstream way, he knew what he needed to do. He’d learned how to pack dozens then hundreds and then thousands of people in a venue and how to keep them happy with songs. And more than that, he learned how to treat people—from the bar’s custodian to the customers—and how to appreciate every fan. But Brown’s work ethic wasn’t born as an adult, it arrived earlier, even around two- or three years old. It was then Brown began to pick up on little melodies, jingles, and songs from the television shows and commercials he’d watch.

“I was singing along,” he says.

In addition, Brown’s father and his friends would often sit around campfires or back porches strumming guitars and banjos. His older brother would take him to music festivals like MerleFest and other concerts when Brown was around 10 years old. It was there where he saw other kids his age who were “incredible players” finger-picking and playing guitars, banjos, and mandolins. Brown began to take classical guitar lessons around seven years old. He began carrying a boombox wherever he went, and a guitar too. Later in life, when he experienced his first real heartbreak, songwriting arrived in his world.

“That was the catalyst for starting to write sad songs,” he says. “I did that for a while as therapy. The first time you fall in love, you think you’re going to die when you break up. So, it was always a good vehicle for me to process things and get that emotion out.”

James Taylor was another big inspiration. Brown remembers dissecting his songs, following the strumming patterns and the acoustic bass lines that Taylor would incorporate with his singing. He remembers enjoying bands like Nirvana but it was Taylor that really spoke to him. So much so that his friends would poke fun at him, calling it “rocking chair music.” But he didn’t care. Throughout school, Brown played and studied. He was in choir from first grade through high school. He went to college for a classical vocal performance scholarship. He sang in barber shop quartets. He fell in love with harmony. He listened to bands like the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

“I loved the craft of a song,” Brown says. “Seeing what about them made you feel something.”

A southerner, Brown calls Atlanta, Georgia his hometown. It was there where he picked up a well-rounded sense of music appreciation, diving into the rap music of Outkast and others in that seminal group’s orbit. He appreciates his southern roots, the region’s famed hospitality, and the introduction Atlanta in particular gave him when it comes to a diversity of sounds. And it’s his comfort with styles even outside of country music—the genre he’s come to be known for—that led him to start his side project, Sir Roosevelt, which incorporates electronic production and beat making. For Brown, an album cycle can last upwards of two or three years. So, as promotion begins for new singles, he has time outside of that to work on other projects.

“I started working with producers I really love that made electronic music,” he says.

Brown has worked with big-name artists like Skrillex, Pharrell, and more. From these efforts, he’s learned more about the world of production. He’s increased his toolkit and brought these new skills into the studio when he produces his own work (as he did on his 2021 album, The Comeback) and when collaborating with younger bands.

“I was there to soak up anything I could and learn about their process,” Brown says.

But the effort didn’t come without its critiques. Brown went all out for the Sir Roosevelt project, donning a three-piece suit and trying music not necessarily in the lane that others would expect. Some hardcore country fans wondered if he’d given up the genre that made him famous, but that was never the case. He was just expanding his wings, acknowledging the diverse tastes that made him. Since then, more have taken notice. The famed rapper Pitbull has even sampled Sir Roosevelt for his current hit, “Can’t Stop Us Now.”

“I’m unapologetically myself,” Brown says. “If there’s something I want to create, I’m going to go create it and do it on the highest level I can.”

Taking chances often pays off. And perhaps the most recent example of the payoff is the opening slot Brown and his group, Zac Brown Band, enjoyed playing in Atlanta for The Rolling Stones. The event went great and Brown was even gifted a guitar by the ‘Stones’ Keith Richards.

“That’s something I will play and cherish,” Brown says. “Moments like that, getting to share the stage with legends, is incredible. They’re one of the baddest rock bands of all time.”

Brown was amazed by Mick Jagger up close, and how the 78-year-old frontman continues to kill it on stage. Brown took notes, hoping some of Jagger’s methods for staying spry rub off on him. He takes Jagger and others who’ve been in the music game, such as the 89-year-old Willie Nelson, as inspirations.

“As long as I can sing and my hands work—and I try to do my best to take care of myself and feel good so I have that much more to give when we perform,” Brown says. “We’re not going anywhere.”

One of Brown’s latest achievements was the release of his 2021 LP, The Comeback. The album was born out of a desire to unite and to shed light on the potential of America, which Brown calls the greatest country in the world. Watching recent portrayals of the country on television irked him, he says. So, he wanted to write a record about both his band and the country coming back to the new normal. The time off during the COVID-19 pandemic, which wasn’t easy, nevertheless allowed him to rest, exercise, and practice guitar. Now, he’s ready to spread the gospel of the Red, White and Blue.

“The politics and the manipulation around everything,” Brown says, “it was hard for me to watch because that’s not the America I know. This is the greatest country—if you want to be something, no matter what your background or skin color, whatever it may be, if you got the hustle and grit to get through it, you can make whatever you want of yourself.”

The Comeback boasts many great songs, from the catchy “Fun” to the thoughtful “Any Day Now” and “Us Against The World.” And the success of the 2021 record allowed Brown and the band to get back on track after losing much time in the two years that bands couldn’t tour. Now, on Brown’s current big, sweeping Out In The Middle Tour, he’s brought out the famed slide guitar player Robert Randolph and his family band, to open the show and play together during Brown’s band’s set.

“We just want to put on the greatest show that we can,” Brown says. “This year we’ve gone all out. We’ve got Robert Randolph opening for us the entire season. We rehearsed a lot with him and his band. The third act of our show is his whole band and my whole band together with horns and background singers and the show starts really small and just keeps evolving and evolving and getting bigger and bigger. We’ve never done as much production as we’re doing this year. So, you know we got a lot to share.”

For Brown, as it was in the beginning, the effort is all about the music, the songs, the performance, and the love of the art form. It’s healing. It’s a form of salvation. It’s what gets him up in the morning and what he thinks about as he falls asleep at night.

“I love how music can transcend generations,” Brown says. “I love how it can unite people together. I love how if I do a good enough job writing a song, someone else can feel and relate to that with their own life. The spirit music carries can pull you out of a funk—I never take any of that for granted. Music is the glue that brings people together.”

 Remaining Out in the Middle Tour Dates:

Friday, June 17 – Atlanta, GA – Truist Park
Friday, July 8 – Akron, OH – Dowed Field
Saturday, July 9 – Chicago, IL – Wrigley Field
Friday, July 15 – Boston, MA – Fenway Park
Thursday, July 28 – Indianapolis, IN – Ruoff Music Center
Friday, July 29 – Detroit, MI – Pine Knob Music Theatre
Saturday, July 30 – Mt. Pleasant, MI – Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort
Friday, August 12 – St. Louis, MO – Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre
Saturday, August 13 – Cincinnati, OH – Riverbend Music Center
Sunday, August 14 – Hershey, PA – Hersheypark Stadium
Thursday, August 18 – New York, NY – Citi Field
Friday, August 19 – Endicott, NY – En-Joie Golf Course
Friday, August 26 – Camden, NJ – BB&T Pavilion
Saturday, August 27 – Bristow, VA – Jiffy Lube Live
Friday, September 23 – Virginia Beach, VA – Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater
Saturday, September 24 – Charlotte, NC – PNC Music Pavilion
Sunday, September 25 – Birmingham, AL – Oak Mountain Amphitheatre
Friday, October 7 – Jacksonville, FL – Daily’s Place
Saturday, October 8 – Tampa, FL – MIDFLORIDA Credit Union Amphitheatre
Sunday, October 9 – West Palm Beach, FL – iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre
Thursday, October 20 – Seattle, WA – Climate Pledge Arena
Friday, October 21 – Vancouver, BC – Pepsi Live at Rogers Arena
Saturday, October 22 – Portland, OR – Moda Center
Friday, November 4 – Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood Bowl
Sunday, November 6 – Oakland, CA – Oakland Arena
Saturday, November 19 – Phoenix, AZ – Chase Field

Tickets available HERE.

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