It was a special award, and perhaps even more of a prestigious honor than the first two Grammy Awards won by the Zac Brown Band – for Best New Artist in 2009 and Best Country Collaborations with Vocals in 2010 for As She’s Walking Away (a song that featured guest vocals from Alan Jackson).
“To us, the Grammys are very important because they’re voted on by your peers as musicians,” guitarist/keyboardist Clay Cook said in a recent phone interview. “You have to have certain criteria to vote for the Grammys. They don’t let writers or managers vote for Grammys or people who just happen to work for a record label. You have to have recording credits. So you kind of look at it as your peers.”
A week after taking home the Best Country Album Grammy, however, it took on another layer of meaning when nominations were announced for the Academy of Country Music Awards.
“We love the fact that we win Best Country Album, and then a week later, when they came out with the ACM nominations, we weren’t even nominated for best country album,” Cook said. “Shouldn’t we have been considered maybe for nomination in a year when we won the Grammy for the best country album? I don’t know. It just kind of exposes the fundamental problem inside of the country community as far as awards shows and stuff like that.”
The Zac Brown Band will perform at 7 p.m. Friday, March 21, at James Brown Arena. Tickets cost from $49.50 to $84.50 from georgialinatix.com, (877) 4AUGTIX or at the arena box office. Tickets purchased for the original Jan. 31 concert date will be honored. That show was postponed because of the ice storm that shut down Atlanta and most of the Augusta area.
The Zac Brown Band did not come up through the usual country channels – by getting signed by one of Nashville’s mainstream record labels.
Instead, singer/guitarist Brown followed a do-it-yourself path when he formed the band in 2002, starting his own record label, Home Grown Records (later renamed Southern Ground Records) and hitting the road – hard – quickly building up to a yearly schedule that numbered 200 dates or more.
In 2004, the band’s first album, Far from Einstyne, was released, and Brown began to reshape and expand his group’s lineup – over time adding fiddler player/tenor vocalist Jimmy De Martini, bassist/baritone vocalist John Driskell Hopkins, guitarist/keyboardist Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar and percussionist Daniel de los Reyes.
A turning point for the band came when, before its third album, 2008’s The Foundation, the group signed with Live Nation Records, which released the song Chicken Fried to country radio. Live Nation, though, shuttered soon afterward, and the newly restarted country division of Atlantic Records joined with Brown’s own label to pick up the project. Chicken Fried became the band’s first No. 1 single.
It was shortly after that breakthrough that Brown invited Cook to join the band, whose latest release is a four-song EP released Dec. 10 and produced by Dave Grohl (yes, of the Foo Fighters).
Cook first made a name for himself by forming a duo with fellow Berklee College of Music student John Mayer.
They decided to go their separate ways after a couple of years, but not before Cook had co-written several songs that appeared on Mayer’s 2001 debut album, Room for Squares, including No Such Thing and Neon, two songs that became hits and helped Mayer become a major pop star.
Considering that the Zac Brown Band’s wide-ranging mix of country, soul, rock, gospel and island music has little in common with Mayer’s folk-tinged pop sound, the partnership of Cook and Mayer seems surprising. But Cook put it into perspective.
“To be honest, we were both coming out of college together and we were both learning to write at the same time,” Cook said. “So we were almost kind of leaning on each other to learn how to write more, and stuff like that. So he went in one particular direction, and honestly, I like his newer direction … I feel like he’s really hit his stride and he’s going in the right direction of what at least I like. And I think he’s always been a brilliant lyricist and a great singer and a great guitar player, but I’m really starting to enjoy his songwriting now.
“It’s just one of those things where we were 20 years old – actually, we were 19. And now we’re 35. There’s (been) a whole lifetime of experiences and learning instruments and getting out there and playing with different people and in different styles (since then). To think of me as someone who played with John Mayer at one point, that’s just one Polaroid from the entire picture book.”
In fact, after parting ways with Mayer, Cook went on to release a pair of solo albums, join the Marshall Tucker Band (his uncle is the band’s current lead singer), tour for a year with Sugarland, and tour, write and record with Shawn Mullins for a couple of years.
Cook was asked to join the Zac Brown Band shortly after Chicken Fried had become a hit, but Cook said he didn’t leave the Marshall Tucker Band to join the Zac Brown Band because he thought the group was on the verge of big things.
“When I was in the Marshall Tucker Band, it was kind of a legacy band, and they were touring around and playing songs from 30, 40 years ago,” Cook said. “It’s nice (now) to be a part of something where you’re a contributing member for music that’s coming out today.”
Lots of people are listening to the music. The Foundation went on to yield three more No. 1 country singles – Toes, Highway 20 Ride and Free, and a No. 2 single, Whatever It Is.
The 2010 album You Get What You Give went No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s album chart and produced three No. 1 country singles – As She Walks Away, Colder Weather and Knee Deep. It also earned the group its first Grammy and a half-dozen ACM and CMT awards.
Uncaged debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and got early momentum behind its top 5 single, Goodbye in Her Eyes. It also has received plenty of praise for its eclectic mix of songs that range from the island/country fusion of Jump Right In to the rock of the title track to hyper bluegrass/country of The Wind to the rootsy soul/pop of Sweet Annie (the group’s latest single, which has just cracked the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country singles chart.
Now the group has released The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1, an EP on which the band collaborated with Grohl.
The success does create one challenge. It limits the band’s flexibility with its set list for concerts.
“That becomes more of a hardship after a while, because all of a sudden you look down and you have an hour worth of material that you have to play,” Cook said. “So there’s less that you can move around.
“Our set is going to change from week to week. Every now and then, if we’re going to play five hours apart (each of) three nights, we may play the same set with a couple of tiny changes, especially if it worked really well the first night. But we’re going to play Red Rocks this year for three nights straight, and that doesn’t scare us one bit.
“We’re really kind of looking forward to that because we can spread that hour of (hit) material over three nights, maybe playing Chicken Fried two of the nights or something. But it allows us to stretch out as a band.”