For the better part of a decade, the Zac Brown Band toiled away in relative obscurity, playing bars and clubs, gaining a grassroots following and earning a reputation as a collective of musician’s musicians.
Years passed. Then, suddenly, when The Foundation, their major-label debut, was released in 2008, everyone — well, country music fans anyway — knew them. The album reached the second highest position on the Billboard Top Country Albums (number 9 on the Billboard 200). Four album tracks — “Chicken Fried,” “Toes,” “Highway 20 Ride” and “Free” — hit #1 (a fifth, “Whatever It Is,” almost made it). Brown and his fellow road dogs, used to playing 200 shows a year, were now America’s Best New Artist, at least as far as the Grammy committee was concerned.
“The exponential shift is seven years of shifting from when I joined,” said bassist John Driskell Hopkins, who spoke to the Advocate by phone while he and his wife Jennifer were driving home after a short vacation, their first since the arrival of their 3-month-old twin daughters. “Zac was already doing real well.”
Hopkins, who grew up watching the ’70s Dallas Cowboys, said his first “a-ha” moment occurred when the band opened for Kenny Chesney at Cowboy Stadium. (He saw Roger Staubach’s helmet, he was like, “whoa.”) Then there was the time the ZBB played the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colo., which blew Hopkins’ mind, because U2 recorded their landmark Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky album there in 1983. The time the ZBB played Letterman. When they were on Leno. Conan O’Brien. There’s been no shortage of “a-ha” moments, and they keep piling up.
Hopkins made clear the band keeps themselves rooted in southern rock. “‘Chicken Fried’ was a tremendous springboard for us,” Hopkins said. “But [the success] doesn’t change who we are. The set list changes a little more often to fit a certain need or crowd. But we are still rooted in the Black Crowes and the Allmans and Widespread Panic.”
They’ve also staked a claim as the flagship of a new fleet of southern rock bands, including Blackberry Smoke, who just put out a Brown-co-produced album, The Whippoorwill, on Southern Ground Artists, Brown’s label. And their connection to the past was cemented in July, when ABB patriarch Gregg Allman joined the ZBB in Camden, N.J., on his own tune, “Midnight Rider,” and on a cover of “One Way Out,” a song the Allmans made famous on their 1972 album Eat a Peach. That moment wasn’t lost on Hopkins, who sports an exaggerated, Duane Allman mutton-chop mustache.
“[The Allman Brothers] are by far the biggest southern rock influence on me,” Hopkins said. “They just kind of define the sound of southern rock. Nobody can sing like Gregg, his characteristic growl. As a singer, that’s something I’ve wanted to emulate. He’s just the master, and such a sweet guy, just a gentle hero.”
The Zac Brown Band will celebrate Labor Day Weekend in Connecticut, with two shows at Mohegan Sun on Friday and Saturday nights. If you’re just discovering them now, you’re in for some fun, but don’t be surprised if you find the records a little stiff; “Jump Right In,” the opening track from their latest album, Uncaged, has some of the same production tics — predictable dynamic shifts and a mid-song instrumental drop-out, amid a somewhat mechanical formal structure — you might find on, say, a Nickelback record. While some of the songs on Uncaged do break free of radio-ready shackles (check out the untethered drumming on the verses of the title track, for example, which cleverly mirrors the song’s set-me-free message), it’s fairly slick stuff, with more than a touch of the Dave Matthews Band (and maybe a bit of Hootie, Buffett and late-’70s Eagles as well).
The music, however, has a richness and complexity that’s perfect for a live show. “I think the jam crowd understands that we aren’t just cranking out singles,” Hopkins said, “that our music is challenging and interesting, festival-worthy and good to listen to, and that we aren’t a one-trick pony... We are playing songs that are 6 to 10 minutes long sometimes, and our mainstream country fans let us get away with it. They understand that that’s part of our show, and nobody’s been leaving our shows. We just believe that music is way too big to have a bunch of limitations on it. If we are entertaining and enjoying it ourselves, we are going to make it a big group hang. It’s gone from 200 to 200,000 but the vibe is the same.”
ZBB fans seem satisfied, and the band takes additional steps to make sure they are well taken care of in other ways. They have some of the best online resources around, and they have a stack of hard drives full of audio and video of every show they play. They also travel with some of the best food you’ll find anywhere, and they’re willing to share it.
“If you have a chance, head to our ‘eat and greet,’ which is a meet and greet with a gourmet meal,” Hopkins said. “It’s not like burgers and dogs either.... It’s pretty intense, nothing you’d expect.”
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