While the list of dissimilarities between Country Music Television’s general audience and the alternatively-minded jam band faithful could go on for miles, barely a handful of acts can claim a dutiful following from both segments. It would be difficult to argue that anyone but the Avett Brothers currently floats atop such rarified air, but they aren’t without their looming contenders. With two singles from their recent album The Foundation racing up the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in recent months, the Zac Brown Band (www. zacbrownband.com) are in position to tear through a few of the summer’s biggest jam-friendly festivals.
Yet, Brown takes a slightly different path than old time-inflected heartbreakers that made the Avetts darlings of such divergent scenes. Equal parts Commander Cody, Jimmy Buffett and New Riders of the Purple Sage, Brown and his band gained notoriety from their relentless performing ethic, often playing shows between five to seven nights a week. Their penchant for extended improv at live shows and Brown’s own preference for toboggans and T-shirts belies the big hat and tight jeans traditions of decades of CMT favorites. Though they’ve only recently broken into country stardom, their easily accessible forays into Southern living sound right at home.
“Zac and his songwriting partner Wyatt Durette both grew up listening to a lot of country music,” said longtime ZBB fiddle player Jimmy De Martini. “So they end up with really solid songs which we could really jam that ended up appealing to both crowds.”
“Chicken Fried,” the first single off The Foundation, the band’s third studio album, hit the top spot of the Billboard country singles chart in early December 2008, but it wasn’t the song’s first release nor the first time it had seen the charts. It was released initially on Brown’s 2005 debut album Home Grown, and rerecorded in 2006 by the Lost Trailers, who found only modest success with it. Yet with the enormous response the song was getting live, the decision to release it again was an easy one.
“We just saved [“Chicken Fried”] when we really wanted to get the crowd up and rocking, and people just go crazy when we play it,” De Martini said. “We said that this one had to be on there when we release The Foundation because just a small number of people have heard it.”
With the second single “Whatever It Is” peaking at No. 7 on the same chart, the band is anticipating the album’s third cut, “Toes,” to perform even better. They are still flirting with the possibility of a fourth single, possibly “Highway Twenty,” but no decision has been made. With a backlog of material and an eagerness to start work on another album, a move forward may prevail.
“We’re really itching to put out another record and we’ve actually recorded about 30 songs just to get them out of our head,” De Martini stated. “But it’ll be the end of next year at the earliest that it would come out.”
Their next effort will also be the first with a man who has instantly become an integral part of the band since joining in January. Multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook was recruited from the Marshall Tucker Band by Brown not just for his ability to excel at nearly every instrument that he puts his hands on, but to provide a much-needed continuity to the band’s performances. With producer Keith Stegall adding heavy doses of organ into their last album, the need for another musician to fill out the roster quickly became evident. Corey Bowles was previously brought on for his ability to play both guitar and organ, but that still left the band in need of another member to pick up one while Bowles manned the other.
“Clay was already a little bit of a legend in Atlanta because he wrote a lot of songs with John Mayer,” De Martini said. “I remember Zac saying, ‘You gotta go see this guy live because he’ll play 10 instruments onstage with a loop pedal.’”
Having so many talented and versatile players in the fold affords them the ability to occasionally make radical changes to their show to fit the crowd. With two major festivals on the horizon, Bonnaroo and Telluride, De Martini anticipates the band seizing the freedom of their surroundings to treat their songs a little differently.
“We might unplug and bring out the mandolin and Corey can play the dobro where we can break it down and really show our whole show,” he added. “When we’ve been doing the full band for twenty straight days, I do like to break out the acoustic sets.”
The Zac Brown Band will be playing at Music City in Greensboro this Friday, June 5 at 9 p.m.