The last two years have a been whirlwind for Atlanta-based, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Zac Brown and his musical crew. Major chart success, radio hits, international tours, fancy award shows ... it's a major step up from the club circuit grind.
Born and raised in Georgia., Brown kicked off his musical career as an acoustic-based singer/songwriter specializing in a dynamic picking style on a nylon-stringed guitar. Propelled by the steam of a hot studio album titled The Foundation (released in November 2008 on Atlantic Records), he and his band won Top New Vocal Group at the 2009 Academy of Country Music Awards and Breakthrough Video of the Year for the popular knee-slappin' hit "Chicken Fried" at the CMT Music Awards. They took home the Best New Artist trophy at the 2010 Grammy Awards. Things are on a roll.
If one looks at things from Brown's earliest days as a solo performer and bandleader in the mid-2000s, his rise to fame and success was a gradual, grassroots, fan-driven accomplishment. Looking at the last two years for Brown and the guys, it resembles a mad dash to new heights.
"Things happened really fast," says guitarist Clay Cook of the band's ascension. "We thought we'd be grinding really hard in a different way. But we're not letting any of the success or the awards or the getting to play in front of 12,000 fans go to our heads, you know?"
A veteran songwriter, producer, and musician himself, Cook left his position with S.C.'s very own Marshall Tucker Band to join the Zac Brown Band on guitar, mandolin, and pedal steel in 2008.
"It officially came about on election night," laughs Cook. "I was playing in the Marshall Tucker Band at that point, and we were supposed to play John McCain's victory party in Arizona. Zac called me that day — they were on the way to being number one with 'Chicken Fried' at the time — and he said, 'I'm ready for ya now.'"
Cook and Brown had been friends and colleagues in the Georgia scene for years. Cook was best known for his studio engineering and his songwriting work with John Mayer during the last few years. For musical, financial, and practical reasons, the Zac Brown Band could never afford to hire Cook on as the sixth member until 2008.
"We've been kicking around Atlanta in different bands for years," says Cook. "Everybody knew each other." The timing was terrific. The Foundation sold more than a million copies and continues to produce hit singles. A live album/DVD set titled Pass the Jar hit the street this spring.
Currently, the roster includes guitarist/organist Coy Bowles, fiddler Jimmy De Martini, drummer Chris Fryar, and bassist John Driskell Hopkins. They make a return appearance at Family Circle Stadium as part of their Breaking Southern Ground Tour.
"I think Zac became more focused and started thinking more about the future of the band," Cook says. "Before, he was mainly just playing gigs around the Southeast and didn't really have a purpose. Something went off in his head, and he hired the right people. He got lucky in some ways, but he was smart enough to realize who the right people were."
The Zac Brown Band heads into Charleston with a solid set and an elaborate stage show — a presentation involving a bit more choreography, timing, and arrangement than anything they previously attempted on the club circuit.
Cook is pleased with the way he and his bandmates have altered the stage show this year.
"After touring so much together over the last six or seven months, I think that everybody has realized that what's most important on stage is to try to entertain the fans," he says. "Musically, nothing gets lost in the translation of this giant production. We were worried about whether we'd be able to play and do a good musical show, but we really pulled it off.
"Everybody seems to be comfortable," he adds. "The set list stays the same because of everything we're trying to do with the lights and the video. A lot of crew are involved, from the first downbeat of every song. We modify it a bit from month to month. The first thing we think of is, 'Will the fans like this?' That's very important to us."
Cook assures us that the band's priority these days is performing at their best while maintaining the level of sincerity they've worked so hard to establish. That sense of earnestness and diligence is at the heart of the band's music and personality.
"Zac's pretty adamant about the band getting home to spend time with family," he says. "He has three girls at home, and two other guys in the band have kids. Family is a priority, and he doesn't want the band's career to get ahead of that. But he wants the fans to feel important, too."