Zac Brown Band: The Long Road to Overnight Success

By Bobby Reed

© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

A gourmet, multicourse meal requires a great deal of toil. To someone who has no training in the culinary arts, however, that delicious meal might appear to be something that just popped right out of the oven.

The same is true for Zac Brown Band’s “overnight success.” Most fans probably hadn’t heard of the act until the release of “Chicken Fried,” the lead single off their major-label debut album, The Foundation. But Brown had been working toward stardom since the mid ’90s, when he was a high school student playing solo gigs. In fact, by the time Atlantic Records/Home Grown/BPG released The Foundation in November 2008, Brown had already logged more than 3,000 concerts.

Before assembling his namesake band, Brown attended college on a vocal scholarship and played professionally. The Georgia native also worked as a chef and restaurant manager, recorded a couple of independent albums and toured extensively before signing a recording contract a few years ago. Corporate upheavals eventually led that deal to dissolve, but then Atlantic picked up Zac Brown Band, which had already recorded The Foundation.

Brown fronts the band, singing lead vocals and playing a gut-string acoustic guitar. The other members are Coy Bowles on guitar and organ; Clay Cook on guitar, mandolin, organ, pedal steel and vocals; Jimmy De Martini on violin and vocals; Chris Fryar on drums; and John Driskell Hopkins on bass and vocals.

Upon signing the band, Craig Kallman, Chairman and CEO, Atlantic Records, hailed them as a “self-made American success story.” “They’ve built up a phenomenal grass-roots base with music that cuts across musical boundaries and walks of life to speak to the hearts of people everywhere,” he noted. “They are the perfect band for our times, with the songs, the musicianship and the power to become a major presence.”

Keith Stegall had reached the same conclusion after hearing Zac Brown Band early in 2007 at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville. The four-time CMA Awards winner was well established as one of Music City’s top producers, with Platinum and multi-Platinum albums by Terri Clark, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis among his achievements. Yet even in this stellar catalog, nothing quite matched the opportunity and the challenge that Stegall imagined he would face in producing this new group.

“The biggest compliment Zac paid me was to let me do The Foundation,” Stegall said. “He could have said, ‘No, you’re part of that Nashville system. I don’t want my music to sound like that.’ But I guess he trusted me enough to let me take a crack at doing it.”

Sessions spread over eight months, with basics laid down at the studio of bassist Hopkins, in Atlanta; Brown’s solos and most of his vocals were tracked in Nashville, with additional vocals cut in Nassau, The Bahamas. From the start, Stegall and engineer John Kelton decided to emphasize the most obvious qualities that uniquely branded this group.

“We felt that one of the biggest hooks was Zac’s guitar playing,” Stegall explained. “Nobody had done that gut-string guitar since Willie Nelson, so you know immediately that it’s Zac Brown when you hear it on the radio. We just felt that if we could build the album around Zac’s voice and that gut-string guitar to the point that people would associate that sound with Zac Brown Band, it would only get bigger from there.” Stegall’s plan proved prophetic. The Foundation became the eighth major-label debut in the Nielsen SoundScan era to propel at least three singles to No. 1. (One of them, “Toes,” was written by Brown, Hopkins, Wyatt Durrette and Shawn Mullins; Brown and Durrette co-wrote the two other chart-topping singles, “Chicken Fried” and “Highway 20 Ride,” as well as “Whatever It Is,” which peaked at No. 2.)

Initially, some radio programmers were unsure about “Chicken Fried.” “There was a bit of early resistance because the song was so different,” explained Michael Powers, Partner/Co-Head of Promotion, Bigger Picture Group, whose clients include Gloriana, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw and Uncle Kracker as well as Zac Brown Band. “And Zac doesn’t look like your typical Country star, with the wool cap and the fuzzy beard. Zac does things Zac’s way. It started out as, ‘Well, this guy’s really different,’ but that ended up being his calling card.”

Nowadays, of course, Country radio executives are hungry for material from the band. “We had already had four consecutive No. 1 songs (on the Mediabase 24/7 Country Chart),” Powers noted. “And yet I was getting phone calls from program directors who were telling me that ‘Free’ — the single we were just about to work — was their favorite song on the album. That makes you feel very confident about going five singles deep. Zac is making fans from all genres of music, and that proves there’s still an amazing amount of power in the Country radio format.”

Riding the momentum of the band’s Grammy Award for Best New Artist, The Foundation has been certified Double Platinum and generated sales of more than 4.6 million digital tracks, while “Chicken Fried” had sold more than 760,000 ringtones, as of April. In addition to appearances at Bonnaroo and LP Field during CMA Music Festival in June, Zac Brown Band will perform at several stadium shows with The Dave Matthews Band during the summer. Partnering with Sixthman, the band will also host and headline on the Sailing Southern Ground cruise, which travels from Tampa to Grand Cayman in early September.

On its own tours, Zac Brown Band offers one unique element through its Eat-and-Greet gathering, at which up to 75 fans are invited to join them for a cookout featuring Southern cuisine developed by Brown. The recipes incorporate his Southern Ground Grub spice rub and brown sauce. Both products are sold nationwide at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, along with Brown’s Southern Ground Cookbook and an exclusive version of The Foundation that features different cover artwork and three bonus live tracks.

“Obviously, we’re always working on our music, but with this tour we’re building an experience that involves all senses to ensure that it blows fans away every time,” said Brown, who launched his Southern Ground record label in 2009 and signed Atlanta-based artists Sonia Leigh, Levi Lowrey and Nic Cowan. “When people come to our show, we want them to smell the food cooking, taste our favorite recipes, watch our home videos of the road, listen to some great new artists and feel our excitement — a full five-sense experience.”

“If there’s a grill around, we’re going to light it up and throw something on it,” added Hopkins, with a chuckle. “It’s one of those things that makes us all feel comfortable and at home, no matter where we are.”

The band’s recent calendar includes more than live music and pre-concert meals with fans. In May, ZBB released Pass the Jar — Zac Brown Band and Friends Live from the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta on Southern Ground/Atlantic. This package includes a double album and DVD, shot in HD and directed by Darren Doane with 18 performances and appearances by Angie Aparo, Aslyn, Joey + Rory, Kid Rock, Little Big Town, Shawn Mullins and other guests. The concert, which took place October 2009, was a fundraiser for reconstruction of the historic Georgia Theatre in Athens, destroyed four months earlier by fire. The venue’s owner, Wilmot Greene, benefitted from a connection in high school to Hopkins.

“One of the first big gigs I ever played was at the Georgia Theatre,” the bassist recalled. “We feel like those two theaters, the Fox and the Georgia Theatre, have a kinship and a history in terms of being spectacular places to play.”

Pass the Jar features versions of some original songs, including “We’re Gonna Make This Day” and “Who Knows,” that will be offered on the band’s forthcoming studio album, You Get What You Give, slated for release Sept. 21.

Apparently, the sky is the limit for Zac Brown Band and its tasty music. “This is just a dream come true,” said Hopkins, who met Brown 13 years ago. “We couldn’t have predicted any of this to go nearly as well and as big as it has. Two years ago, we were touring in an airport shuttle that pulled a trailer. We had gutted the shuttle and bolted captain’s chairs to the floor. We were rolling with seven to nine guys then. And now we’ve got four buses and two semi trucks. The growth has been smart, and the growth has been surprising. But it hasn’t been outrageous. I think we’re doing a good job of keeping our heads about us. We just can’t thank the Country fans enough for being so receptive to us and so gracious to us, and we look forward to pushing the envelope further every year.”

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One Response to Zac Brown Band: The Long Road to Overnight Success

  1. Doreen says:

    I enjoy Zac Brown Band. I got hooked when Chicken Fry came out. I couldn’t stop singing it. They have come a long way since I first started hearing them and hope they have continued success.

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