Music+Clubs » The Southern Ground Issue 2013

Zac Brown forges a brotherhood with his bandmates

Real Thing

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Some people have it, and some don't. You can get by without it, and even build a successful career, but if you have it like Zac Brown does, there's no limit to what you can do. You may even start your own music and food festival. It all goes back to Brown's personal magnetism and familial manner.

From the meet and greets he turned into shared band-fan pre-show meals to his camp for developmentally disabled children, Camp Southern Ground, Brown's generosity of spirit shines out not only in action, but the way he carries himself.

"He wears his heart on his sleeve, and you can tell that it's a real thing," says fiddler Jimmy De Martini. "It's honest and people can connect in that way. It's not an act and it's hard to put a finger on it exactly. But there's something about when he sings."

De Martini first met Brown nine years ago. A bartender friend of his mentioned that Brown was looking to put together a band, so De Martini called and sat in with him at a sports bar gig. It was obvious from the start Brown had it.

"Most of the gigs I was taking you would play a bunch of cover songs in order to keep the crowd interested," he says. "Zac would play cover songs, but when he played an original song was when everybody would get up out of their seat and start dancing and screaming. I thought that was pretty special."

The success of the single "Chicken Fried" opened country radio to them. However Brown and company don't fit that neatly in any category, be it Americana, country, rock, or jam. Instead they combine elements of all four. They won Grammys for their collaborations with Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet, showcasing the breadth of their appeal. This year they won a Grammy for 2012's release, Uncaged.

That album shows the band continuing to grow and bloom. Guest appearances by Jason Mraz, Amos Lee, and Trombone Shorty match a sonic palate that explores pop, blues, and R&B. It's the band's most collaborative to date as well.

"The past two albums everybody's been getting a chance to write, and Zac's been encouraging everybody in the band to write songs," De Martini says, describing the band they share as a brotherhood. "We have each other's back, and we hang out with each other's families. Our kids are friends. It's like a big family, and I think it comes across on stage and on our album as well."

The family got a new addition last summer when percussionist Daniel de los Reyes (Sting, Jennifer Lopez), who had toured with the band and played on Uncaged, became a full-time member.

"We saw him play. We were blown away, and Zac was like, 'I have to get that guy in the band,'" he recalls. "Once we added him, the show took off to a whole new level. He adds a kind of fullness to the sound. More of a jam band feel that's kind of what we grew up on, like the Allman Brothers and stuff like that."

In the past, the Zac Brown Band has gone back to the frontman's river house to get away from it and work on tracks, and they might do it all again for their next; they're expecting a new disc next spring. Sometimes songs get worked out on the road, especially given their steady touring schedule.

"After the show we get on the bus, and we sit around until three in the morning and work on that stuff," he says. "I think that's where a lot of this is going to happen this time."

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