Brown decided that it was time to express something a little bit different, to take pause in the happy moments as well as the sad ones. And, predictably, the tone of his writing shifted.
On The Foundation, Brown’s songwriting takes a primarily bright turn. Only “Highway 20 Ride” and the LaMontagne cover offer firmly downbeat moments. The rest of The Foundation ebbs and flows between the escapism of tropical-themed songs like “Toes” and “Where The Boat Leaves From” (both of which transport listeners to someplace warm and sunny), or through moments of sheer silliness, like on the album’s closing track “Sic ‘Em On a Chicken.”
“My favorite musician of all time is Bob Marley,” Brown says. “And even the songs he would sing about repression and poverty still made you feel good. The more I listened to Marley, the more I realized you could share in the good things, even while communicating something serious. The happy music that you write becomes other people’s therapy. It’s great to grieve and cry during a sad song when your heart’s broken, but it’s also great to hear something that pulls you out of that sadness. Like Bob said, ‘One great thing about music is that when it hits you, it makes you feel no pain.’ My songwriting now is more about sharing the joy of music.”
That joy comes through not only in Brown’s songwriting, but on stage. Heavily inspired by jam bands like Phish, Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic, Zac Brown Band seems almost unnaturally comfortable on stage, its live show spotlighting six enormously talented musicians sharing every ounce of energy and passion with the audience.
And loving every minute of it as they do.
“Our live show is everything,” Brown says. “We absolutely love being on stage. And our album is nothing but a capturing of that. It’s a capturing of the chemistry of our band. We have a great chemistry, and you can’t fake that. You can’t fake how everything gels and locks together. You can have the best session players in the world all playing together, but it just won’t be the same. We live together, ride together, sing together; there are all these little nuances and personal dynamics that contribute to what we do. You can try to write all that into a chart, but it doesn’t work. It would come out contrived. It would be like trying to have a conversation with somebody reading from a teleprompter. You can tell when somebody’s reading something and when they really feel it and need to express that feeling.”
“People see that we’re a real band,” adds De Martini. “And that we’re not just trying to go out there and sell as many records as possible.”
ZBB’s live show was captured on a 3-disc CD/DVD, Pass The Jar, which was released in May. That package – which debuted at number two on the country albums chart – features video of the band performing alongside, not surprisingly, a number of artists from a wide swath of genres and styles. Kid Rock joins the band for a cover of Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See,” while Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins appears on “Toes” (which he co-wrote). There are even a couple of country guests, including four-part harmony group Little Big Town and husband and wife duo Joey + Rory.
According to Brown, the band’s success as a live act is a product of hard work and focus.
“A lot of people want all the success without being able to recreate it live,” he says. “But we live for our musicianship. We work incredibly hard, and that shows on stage. You really have to work on being a great player, a great singer and a great band. It’s ever evolving.”
What’s more, it’s during the band’s live show that its genre-defying ways become most apparent. While The Foundation offered fairly diversified musical stylings by Nashville’s standards, it’s on stage that the band truly cuts loose, and cuts ties to the labels that are necessarily applied to its music.
They can, for example, blaze through a cover of Charlie Daniels’ classic, fiddle-driven stomper “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and then segue into a reggae-fueled jam without missing a beat – literally.
“One of the biggest strengths that we have is our ability to take the diversity of musical backgrounds that we have and do some really, kind of complex stuff. We’re not gonna go into a 15-minute slow jazz tune that’s gonna turn off people who love songwriting, but we definitely love to stretch out.”