Zac Brown – Mini Boss and His E-Street Gang: Part One

Zac Brown is Bruce Springsteen for the twenty-first century. Let me explain before you tweet @CountryWOL in protest…

From Atlanta, and supported by his band, Zac is American in sound and style. He has confidence without bragging about it, competence without question and style with the substance to back it up. Like Mr Boss, he gets his audience singing and has an eclectic taste.

This was evident in his UK sets at Country2Country 2017, a Greatest Hits set in all but name. He threw in The Devil Went Down to Georgia so his bandmate, fiddler Jimmy De Martini, could shine for four minutes, before Zac played a solo for twenty seconds which would rival the best of them.

Nobody, but NOBODY, covers Bohemian Rhapsody. Zac does, even though it ‘took a year of working on it’ as he told the NME.

Nobody, but NOBODY, turns Baba O’Riley by The Who into a Southern rock stomper. Zac does. ‘It’s fun paying homage to the people we were really influenced by,’ he told the NME.

Nobody, but NOBODY, makes a crowd sing along to every word of every song, apart from maybe Coldplay and Garth Brooks. Zac seems more genuine, unless he’s a very good actor.

The editor of this site, Dan Wharton, has spoken of his admiration for mini-Boss (my term, not his). His love affair began in 2010, as he recollects in a review of his last UK visit way back in September 2015 on this site.

The Wembley Arena gig, in front of four thousand people, was Dan’s fourth visit to the Temple of Zac. Here, they covered Under The Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers (this century’s Rolling Stones) and Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars (this century’s Michael Jackson).

The band’s first UK visit was back in 2011 supporting Kings of Leon – of whom a recent reviewer wrote they could unwrite Sex on Fire, but that would mean they’d have to ‘unpay their mortgages’ – in Hyde Park. As part of their visit they played Glasgow and the relatively intimate Empire in Shepherds Bush. Their second C2C appearance, in 2017, will with any luck not be the last time they play the O2 Arena.

The Temple of Zac

The eleventh of twelve kids, Zac’s mum played guitar, and a patient of his stepdad (a dentist) taught him to play classical style, which fed his love of bluegrass.

Aged 25, he opened a music club called Zac’s Place, and the proceeds from its sale bought a tour bus. He recruited a hot band and wrote his first hit, Chicken Fried (of which much more later).

In 2010, Zac Brown was both the CMA and GRAMMY New Artist of the Year, thanks to his magnificent debut album Foundation (discussed in full in the second part of this essay). His debut major-label release introduced the world beyond Atlanta to a very independent and very successful musician, one who (as will be noted) inspired at least two UK-based internet sites to do with country music.

At the O2 Arena in 2017, I watched with a gaping mouth. I must have said, Extraordinary! ten times in the span of two hours.

If it wasn’t at the quality of songwriting, it was the effect the music had on the crowd. It really felt as if everyone in the arena had come to hear Zac, and had patiently sat through the brilliance of Brothers Osborne, Maren Morris and Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives.

Reviewing C2C for the Guardian, writer Andrew Mueller compared the two big male draws of the festival:

Brown – like [Brad] Paisley, a multi-platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, arena-country phenomenon – is an obvious musical descendant of Charlie Daniels…However, Brown altogether lacks the whiff of belligerent menace that always gave Daniels an edge, and where Paisley regards country’s cliches as material to be stretched, shredded or subversively repurposed, Brown swaddles himself in them, utterly straight-faced.

Mueller continues:

Nothing about Brown’s show is bad. He is an affable presence, his band are superb and are capable of conjuring the extraordinary…[A] note-perfect Bohemian Rhapsody is technically impressive but bewilderingly incongruous.

Here is the ‘but’: ‘It’s just that all Brown’s verses are doggedly, ploddingly observant of every convention governing country songs about heartbreak and fatherhood, and all his choruses sound unnervingly like commercials for whichever drink they mention.

Well who wouldn’t drink to Zac Brown, and who would begrudge him a tie-up with Jack Daniels or whomever? Zac’s 2017 future award-winning song The Real Thing compares a woman to whisky. ‘Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby,’ he and his band croon.

Dan Wharton, who agreed to give me some help to get hits for this piece by being in it, named that London indoor gig as his best ever concert and, as you can read in his review right here on Your Life in a Song, called it ‘the best ninety minutes of my life’.

Here’s Dan on why he loves Zac’s live shows, in a reply to Andrew’s criticism: ‘Zac isn’t clichéd! That’s his image, that’s how he is. How can he be too comfortable? He’s got the material to blow the roof off a 20,000-seat arena.’ And without even trying.

‘The C2C show was adapted to a country festival. In 2014, loads of people walked out. Somebody had a word with him and told him to play a greatest hits set.

‘Go to a show like the Wembley Arena one, and he’s anything but safe.’ He played versions of Under the Bridge and Locked Out of Heaven there, while he interpolates Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic into Free, and encores with Kashmir by Led Zeppelin.

The BBC Radio2 Country recording of the show cannot fully capture the magic of Zac and his Band. ‘Everybody was hugging each other coming out of the arena with huge smiles on their faces. If you need a cure for depression, that was it.’

In 2015, the Boston Globe ran a piece containing quotes from members of the band. Jimmy De Martini, the band’s fiddler and a harmony vocalist, was the first permanent member to join, in 2004, with experience (like me, actually) in classical violin and electric guitar.

Berklee College graduate Clay Cook joined in 2008 as a multi-instrumentalist who had played with John Mayer and Marshall Tucker Band. The band share credits with Zac on many of the songs in what arranger Coy Bowles calls ‘a pretty cool democracy…throwing stuff out there and seeing what sticks’.

Speaking to Billboard in a 2010 video interview, Zac says ‘the people are ready for diversity’. Then, tellingly: ‘Convincing the corporations that it’s time for that is a different thing.

‘In the honkytonk they’ll play a rap song and people know every word to Eminem’s songs. It’s a new world.’

Pete and Dan: Zacfluenced

Pete Woodhouse, founder and editor of w21Music, a portal for country music with a focus on emerging UK talent, is a friend of  the Zac Brown Band, and like Dan Wharton was an early adopter.

‘I went over to America for the first time in 2008. I got in the rental car and I was expecting some kind of country music, but I wasn’t expecting what I heard. When I put the radio on, the first song I heard was Chicken Fried.

‘What the hell is this? I thought it was quite cool. I went into Walmart and hunted this band down. I came home with the Foundation album and I was obsessed, hooked on it from the word go.’

In 2014, Pete met Zac for the first time. ‘Meeting your idols…’ he tells me wistfully. ‘I was starstruck. I didn’t get involved with Zac because it was country, but because it was bloody good music. I loved their [controversial] 2014 C2C set. I was with them in Jacksonville last year, at the front of the stage. They’re tremendous musicians. They put their whole heart and soul into it, and make it the best they can.

‘I’m one of the band’s biggest fans,’ Pete gushes. ‘I know a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes. When I first met them they said, “Don’t even tell people we’re here.” They were doing something very secretive, so I didn’t tell anyone, and that grew the trust.’

Pete told me that after a personal incident in 2014, he ‘decided to do something’ with his passion for country music and set up w21Music, ‘purely to show people the music that I loved. There was nothing around to really show we had a UK scene.’

At least one band, Backwoods Creek, has a sound indebted to Zac Brown Band; their cover of Chicken Fried is a match for the original, and if Zac needs a support act for his next big shows here, he can do no worse than book Yannick, Jamie and Backwoods Creek for a stomping set.

w21Music has supported The Shires and Ward Thomas since their early days, and puts on many events showcasing UK talent, including a forthcoming 2017 spring tour for SaraBeth & Glenn Mitchell, which was Pete’s introduction to the UK country scene.

Zac’s goal, which Pete revealed to me but which Zac has spoken of in past interviews, is to sell out Wembley Stadium for two nights. That sounds doable; you just need 40,000 people to bring one friend each, or 27,000 to bring a friend and a third wheel. ‘Imagine doing that two nights in a row! I think he’s got the ability to do that,’ Pete sighs.

Has he heard of Glastonbury, where he can play in a muddy field in Somerset for up to 120,000 people on the Pyramid Stage? ‘They’d be phenomenal, but I shouldn’t think he knows what it is!’

But he’ll go down a storm there thanks to the non-country elements. ‘BoRhap is epic,’ Pete agrees. ‘At their own shows they have their heads going around on a screen and sing to the video and stuff.’

Dan Wharton was blown away as well by the band’s live act. ‘The energy and the diversity more than anything’ is what he loves. ‘You never get it with any other band in the world, and they pull it off spectacularly. The BoRhap cover was beyond anyone’s imagination.’

Pete adds: ‘They’ve got enough of their own material to do. Live, they like to spice it up with covers. They pick them at random most of the time, wherever they are.’

At C2C 2017, though, Pete says the band ‘had to do something this year to regain that trust back. “Metallica, we can’t have that!”

‘If they’d have played the latest album [Jekyll + Hyde, more of which in the third part of this essay], they would have been crucified. People want country at C2C. After the night before with Reba,’ Pete says, referencing the mass walkout after Darius Rucker, ‘Zac needed to bring it, and he brought it.

‘Zac is the showman, the one who wants to put on the best show every time.’

But what of his role on country radio? Why has he only had eleven number one hits?

‘We’ve had conversations. Outside of Nashville they play ZBB, but the stations in Nashville don’t play him. Just by driving through the States, you hear tonnes in Florida but you weren’t hearing it in Nashville.’

I think Nashville needs Zac Brown more than Zac Brown needs Nashville.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow…..

Jonny Brick

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