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Zac Brown Band: Everywhere Is Southern Ground

Dean Budnick | July 09, 2013

Zac Brown Band grace the cover of our new July-August issue. The Georgia-based rockers sat down with us for a bit to give us some insight into their slow and steady rise to fame. An excerpt from the piece appears below.

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Zac Brown has never lacked confidence. He remembers with a laugh that his mainstream acceptance came about a decade too late. “As soon as we made our first CD in early ‘98, we were going on the road in a van with my Jack Russell and my drummer, a PA and a bunch of our CDs,” he says. “We were going to be big within a year and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ten years later, we started getting traction.”

Raised in the North Georgia Appalachian Mountain towns of Dahlonega and Cumming, Brown was born in 1978 as the 11th of 12 children with 21 years between him and his eldest sibling. In this setting, complicated by his parents’ eventual divorce, Brown developed an independence in tandem with his passion for music.

“I was the guy who had his guitar every day,” he says. “I carried it to school, I carried it to football practice and before, after, during the crack of every day, I was playing my guitar. It was always company to me. But all of it really started with me being a music fan. I remember I got my CD player right when they came out and I had Garth Brooks’ first CD, the Eagles’ Greatest Hits and Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits. I wore them out. I could sing every song. Later on, I got into Al Green, Marvin Gaye, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers and Bob Marley. Then, it was the heavy singer/songwriters: Jim Croce, Dan Fogelberg, Gordon Lightfoot and Cat Stevens. I loved all of it.”

Brown began performing as a solo act while still in his teens and continued to gig at the University of West Georgia. While still in college he experienced an initial milestone in securing a residency at a Panama City, Fla. bar.

“We played 10 nights in a row for $150 a night, six hours a night,” Brown recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘We made it.’ It was me and a drummer. Our band name was Far from Einstyne and we eventually toured six years like that. I had to hire a guy to drive us because we had three nights in Panama City, two nights in Atlanta, two nights in Birmingham – all summer – so there was never a night off. I couldn’t talk most mornings. I’d wake up and I’d chug water all day, and by the time night came, I could sing again.”

As Far from Einstyne made the rounds on the Southern circuit, talent scouts who took interest in Brown’s music occasionally contacted him, with some qualifications.

“I turned down record deals along the way because the people that would approach me were like, ‘What do you want out of a record label, son?’ This guy calling me son – he’s probably eight years older than me. Then, he’d say, ‘We’ll get you some boots and a cowboy hat.’ That’s when I’d say, ‘Check please.‘ “This is my path, I enjoy the freedom to just be myself,” Brown observes, while seated on a couch in his tour bus, two hours before warm-ups, gently comforting his dog who has curled up next to him. "That’s why I wear the hat that I want to wear and I dress the way that I want to be and it’s not because of anybody else’s expectations. It’s [through] my journey as a human being [that] I’ve come around to being comfortable with who I am. Everybody’s always changing and I’m not defined, but I’m comfortable being myself and that was strange for some people at first. They were like, ‘Why do you wear that beanie?’ And I was like, ‘Because that’s what I want to wear.’"

The singer pauses and then his tone changes ever-so slightly. While he maintains his equanimity, his voice is slightly pinched as he reflects, “It’s always an interesting thing for me. Some people can come up and say something rude to you – they’re dressed up in a polo shirt and khaki pants and are like, ‘Why do you have a beard on your face?’ Now, I know how to dress like that guy, I know how to be that guy – well not be him, but I know how to fit into every part of that culture and be a chameleon and do that. But who wants to be like everyone else? It was always those people that are very traditionally presented who will come up and say those things. How can you even say that to another human being?”

Brown stood firm, taking a somewhat fatalist approach to his career, confident that if he pursued his own path and his own muse, then audience acceptance would follow. The first decade of the 21st century proved such faith to be justified.

“I feel like my life unfolds before me and it’s my responsibility to follow it however weird that it may go,” he philosophizes. “I felt confident in the path that I’ve been on. I don’t know how to fully explain that and I don’t understand it myself, but there have been times and places that I was supposed to meet certain people.”

One of those people was Wyatt Durrette. The two connected when Durrette was managing the Dixie Tavern in Marietta, Ga. Durrette recalls, “I booked him [to play] on a barstool in front of like four people on a Tuesday night. When he played, you could automatically tell there was something special about the guy. The second time he played, I got up and sang with him and was like, ‘Hey, I write music. Why don’t we get together and write?’ So the following Sunday, we wrote four songs in one night. Then, we became good friends and started writing all the time. It went from four people to 500 on a Friday night.”

One of these collaborations was “Chicken Fried,” which would become the Zac Brown Band’s breakout No. 1 country single in 2008. Another early effort was “Whatever It Is,” the song that would follow “Chicken Fried” up the charts before landing in the second slot. Both songs were originally recorded for the Zac Brown Band’s 2005 independent release Home Grown.

What is remarkable about their partnership – in particular, Brown’s immediate belief in his co-author – is that Durrette is not a traditional songwriter. In fact, he can neither read music nor play an instrument.

“I’ve taught him the G chord for 12 years and he still doesn’t know how to play one,” Brown offers with a grin. "But he can hum a melody and some lyrics and he’s really good at it. It was just one of those things: The first time we sat down to do it, he taught me little pieces of stuff and I could hear what the rest of it was supposed to be. I could hear the chords and the music behind it. “We nicknamed him ‘Wrecking Ball’ because he’s very blessed but he’s learned everything the hard way,” Brown continues. “He has a temper, although he’s gotten better over the years. He had testicular cancer and he had to have one of his boys removed and that’s also one of the reasons we call him Wrecking Ball. He’s like my brother. When he was managing the Dixie Tavern, we got in a lot of fights together because I had to fight the guy he was fighting. But we always won, knock on wood.”

Durrette shares the origins of “Highway 20 Ride,” which presents the story of a divorced father returning home after spending time with his child. “When I used to pick my son up, I’d have to drive to Augusta, Georgia, and pick him up and drop him off there, and then, do the drive back alone,” he recalls. “I wrote a lot of that song in tears, on that road. And Zac’s father got him every other weekend [after his parents divorced]. So when Zac helped me write it, he was writing from the kid’s point of view seeing his father every other weekend and I was writing from the father’s point of view seeing his kid every other weekend.”

One aspect of songwriting that the pair have never concerned themselves with is musical genre. Brown explains of Durrette: “He is a professional drinker, vacationer and a very talented wordsmith who loves to be on the beach on his belly – that’s where he’s happiest. Our love for Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett definitely comes through. I enjoy the freedom when we write a song to say this style of music best accompanies these lyrics, whether it’s based in reggae or bluegrass or rock or country. Life is diverse and I love all different kinds of music. A lot of what moves me is lyrically based but when you get the marriage of good music and lyrics, I don’t want anyone to tell me how I want to express it.”