The north Georgia mountain town of Dahlonega, at the foothills of the Appalachian range, is primarily known for three things: Gold, as it was the site of the very first gold rush in the United States (which began in 1829 and lasted until the California gold rush began in 1848); wine, with five popular vineyards and wineries in Lumpkin County alone; and bluegrass, the sound of which fills the city’s charming town square every year during the Bear On The Square and Gold Rush Days festivals.
It’s a peaceful, pastoral place to raise a family, but it’s also proven surprisingly fertile ground for nurturing musical fruit (particularly when you consider it had less than 4,000 residents as of the last census). Indigo Girl Amy Ray lived here for a while, as did Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and Widespread Panic frontman John Bell. But perhaps none of Dahlonega’s famous former residents embodies the Southern spirit of this small town as much as Zac Brown, whose bluegrass-influenced brand of booze-soaked country-rock recently garnered him his first certified Gold album, The Foundation.
Although his genre-defying sound has been compared to everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Dave Matthews, Brown grew up steeped in Appalachian culture, living the sort of traditional country life that he would eventually write about with such warmth and affection in songs like “Toes” and “Chicken Fried.” Speaking via telephone during a recent tour stop in Hawaii, the singer/songwriter remembered his childhood growing up in Dahlonega and the even smaller town of Cumming.
“Most of my brothers and sisters are older—the oldest is 21 years older than me—so a lot of them were in college or had families of their own by the time I was growing up. My dad had been through so many kids that I was able to throw knives at four years old. When I was 10,” he admits with an incredulous laugh, “there’s a picture of me dragging a shotgun though the dirt. My dad taught me how to fish and hunt and do things outdoors. After school we’d always go fishing or swimming, going out on the lake or playing in the Chestatee River and just spending time outside, which was great.”
Influenced in part by his father (who played guitar) and mother (who sang in the church choir), Brown began his musical education very early in life. He started studying classical guitar at the age of seven and, by his own admission, played his guitar everywhere he went. He got his first CD player shortly thereafter, getting CDs from Garth Brooks, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles before expanding his collection to include classic ’60s and ’70s singer/songwriters such as James Taylor, Jim Croce, Dan Fogelberg, Gordon Lightfoot, America and Bread.
But one of his biggest musical influences came in the form of his older brother, Wen. “He played guitar and banjo, so he’s the one who got me into bluegrass music. He had a really cool beach house in Destin,” Brown recalls warmly, “so every year I’d go down to visit and learn how to pick. At the time I was learning how to do classical stuff, so I had very good finger coordination and was able to play some pretty intricate stuff on the guitar. But I’d never used a pick before and didn’t know what chords were, so I was running around summer camp asking people how to play them. So I went from classical to learning about bluegrass. Music was always a big part of my life; I was either listening to it or trying to make it.”
By the age of 14, as a student at South Forsyth High School, Brown had begun writing bits and pieces of so many songs that his parents were often being called about their son’s constant daydreaming. By his own admission, “I have a lot of nervous energy and my brain kinda drifts off.” In his spare time he sang in the choir and in a barbershop quartet, but he got his first clue that music might eventually become his career the day when, at the age of 15, he got to open for Atlanta-based singer/songwriters Shawn Mullins and Matthew Kahler at a Dahlonega coffee shop.
“As everything got a little further along I was starting to play the folk stuff,” he recalls of his early artistic evolution, “and when I heard them sing I was like, OK, this is what I want to do. [In your teen years] you experience love and relationships and you have that first real heartache where you think you’re gonna die. You just think your life is over. So that was what I was writing about then, just to get through it. Even now when I listen back to those songs, I realize music has an amazing way of getting you through your trials and tribulations.”
But troubled romance wasn’t the only struggle Brown had to endure on the long and winding road to success in the music business. True to his blue-collar roots, the singer recalls working a series of odd jobs that he insists gave him a better foundation for writing songs that speak straight to the heart of anyone raised in the South.
“I’ve worked everywhere,” he says with a laugh. “I worked at McDonalds. I worked at this place called the Wagon Wheel, which was a catfish restaurant where I’d work in the back frying up fish. I worked as an apprentice jeweler for a year when I was 15. I owned my own restaurant near Lake Oconee (called Zac’s Place) and had all my own recipes. I built the place out and my dad helped me with all the start-up paperwork, helped me get the funding together and everything I needed to get it started. It was running good for a year and a half, but land developers came in and bought everything around it and shut everything down. They’re in foreclosure now, so it’s funny how everything works out. So I know how to get my hands dirty, and I think knowing what that means absolutely can help you [as a songwriter], because if you never know anything else but music then you expect to be taken care of. I’ve been the person I write about in my music since day one.”
By 2004 the singer/songwriter had decided to eschew the solo route in favor of forming the Zac Brown Band. Bassist John Hopkins and fiddler extraordinaire Jimmy de Martini were the first to join, with Coy Bowles (guitar, organ) and drummer Chris Fryar coming into the fold later. The band’s self-released debut album, Far From Einstyne, came out that year, with Home Grown released a year later. But it was largely through intense, extended stretches of touring that the band initially began making a name for itself.
“We took off and were playing six hours a night for five nights a week when we got our first tour going,” Brown recalls proudly. “We’d negotiated with a club in Panama City to pay us $150 a night, but it was a guarantee if we did 10 nights in a row for six hours a night for $1,500, and we toted our own gear. That was just the way we traveled. This is my 13th year of touring and we’ve done over 3,000 shows, and our shows are typically four hours long.”
It’s an old school, grassroots approach to building a fan base that goes in direct contradiction to the current conventional wisdom of using MySpace marketing, or a hot iTunes single, or the perfect placement of a song in a hit TV show or film to create an overnight success story. But if Brown is to be believed, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I think it’s so valuable that you should have to go through the trenches and really learn how to entertain people,” he insists passionately. “Whether it’s five people at a bar or 15,000 people at an arena, it’s invaluable that the hard work gets done. There are a lot of ways now for people to try to get exposure so that they can become famous before they become accomplished. It’s kind of backwards, but people who really love music and dedicate their life to music can see through that. Whereas the general public might only listen to that one song or two hit songs, and assume that that artist can come up with more. I’m proud to be of the school that dedicates their lives to music, like Willie Nelson. Guys like him, they go out and work hard. Even if you think you can become famous through a reality show or TV and think you can have this huge career, it can only last so long. You have to work hard.”
If Brown seems to take pride in this blue-collar work ethic, he’s even more proud of the fact that, as a result of all this dedication to their craft, the Zac Brown Band has become a family off the road as well as on. He’s had the same core band, the same engineer, even the same photographer for the last five years, all gradually working up to performing in 2,000-seat venues (including a high-profile 2006 set at the Bonnaroo Music Festival) even before country radio made them stars.
According to Brown, the addition of multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook to the band’s lineup was the final piece that perfected the puzzle. “He’s the icing on the cake for me,” he says of the former John Mayer, Shawn Mullins and Sugarland sideman. “I think he’s one of the best musicians for his age—an incredible singer, incredible instrumentalist, incredible songwriter. He’s real out there with harmony, letting his voice lead on certain songs. I’m a big fan of his as well. I know it’s my name on the band, but we’re always making the best music that we possibly can, so I’m proud to have him in the band and I’m proud to sing backup as he sings. I think that, as we sing more songs that he’s written, we’ll become a force to be reckoned with, because it just keeps getting better and better.”
But as much as he may want to credit Cook for the band’s recent string of successes (which include two hit singles and an award from the Academy of Country Music for Top New Vocal Duo or Group), it’s a song Brown wrote before the band was even formed that made them an overnight success story four years in the making. “Chicken Fried,” his homage to country-living staples such as cold beer and chicken-fried steak, was written in 2003 and recorded for the Home Grown album, then recorded by Atlanta’s Lost Trailers before Brown decided to re-record it and release it as a single last November. The song shot to #1 on the Billboard country charts, making the Zac Brown Band the first “new” act to reach the top spot with their debut single since Heartland’s “I Loved Her First” in 2006.
Even Brown seems surprised by the single’s continued success, which includes over a million copies sold to date. “It’s unbelievable how many singles sell in a week after it’s been a year. I did not know that it was going to have the wheels that it has,” he confesses. Asked what makes the song so durable, he muses that, “It’s us talking about things that we feel genuinely matter. It’s not about how big our farm is or how big our car’s wheels [are]. It’s real, and I think [its success] is a sign of the times. You watch the news these days and you just want to kill yourself, so it’s important that people be reminded of what’s really important.”
But of course platinum sales success rarely builds based on talent and touring alone. Last year saw the band inking a couple of high-profile deals that quickly put their name on the national music map, starting with being chosen as the first group signed to Live Nation’s fledgling record label. Unfortunately when Chairman Michael Cole resigned from the company to serve as an independent consultant, Live Nation shelved its label plans and went back to its previous business model as the world’s largest concert promotion company. Fortunately, it took mere months for Brown to ink a new contract with Atlantic Records.
“Live Nation paid us to leave, so we were able to strike a partnership with Atlantic.” Better still, Brown’s years spent on the road building up a fervent following gave him an enormous amount of bargaining power when it came time to hammer out his first major-label deal. “I was able to sign a pure split with Atlantic, so we were at the best possible leveraging point that we could be in with the negotiations. Southern Ground is my record label, and now we’re working with helping some people out of Atlanta (including singer-songwriters Sonia Leigh, Nic Cowan and Levi Lowrey), having them come out on the road and open up for us and helping them to get their CD’s distributed. I’ll be producing their new records in August while I’m home.”
While helping lesser-known artists get a foothold in the music biz is certainly a priority on Brown’s increasingly busy to-do list, he’s also far from content to let the Zac Brown Band rest on its laurels. Although country radio has certainly welcomed the band with open arms, the man himself has bigger aspirations, using the global grassroots success of his idol Dave Matthews as a career blueprint and fusing the traditional sounds of country with the more eclectic approach indigenous to the jam-band circuit.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever done what Dave Matthews has done as far as building a grassroots fan base,” Brown insists. “I really look up to Dave for the band that he put together, for building a fan base, and for his creativity and longevity. I’m southern, but we’re diverse as a band and country is essentially pop music now. We definitely have a place in country music, because that’s where honest songs about life are most at home. But with the new record that we’re working on right now, we’re doing some serious jamming, and there’s a little bit of everything, from country to island reggae. I think we can achieve that kind of following as far as what Dave’s done, making it a total experience for the fans and giving a really good, three-hour show where everyone gets into it.”
It should be noted that, when complimented on his cover of Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene” and asked about what other contemporary singer/songwriters he admires, the first batch of names Brown lists doesn’t have a single country artist among them. Damien Rice, Ryan Adams, David Gray and the Wood Brothers are among his favorites, with Brad Paisley, Eric Church and Jimmy Johnson getting plugs in the country world.
“Adios and vaya con dios / Going home now to stay / Just gonna prop up by the lake / Put my ass in a lawn chair / Toes in the clay / Not a worry in the world, a PBR on the way / Life is good today”
While his current musical influences may originate far away from Georgia’s red clay, Brown seems to keep much of his focus on the home front, even when he’s thousands of miles away. He has a wife and two young daughters back in Mableton (with a third on the way in September), with most of his friends and family still located nearby. And his old stomping grounds in Dahlonega? Well, that’s the planned site for his Homegrown Camp, a non-profit camp designed to teach kids about diversity, teamwork, nutritional awareness and life skills as well as music and art.
”It’s actually in the start-up stages,” Brown says of the non-profit venture. “We’ve got the land and we’re working on doing some clearing and breaking ground on it. We’ll have around 150 kids at a time, and it’ll be a mixture of kids whose parents send them for a week and scholarship kids who are underprivileged or mentally challenged. We’ve got a holistic platform based on nutrition, and our partners have had huge success treating kids that have autism via brain stimulation and nutrition. We’re building their first treatment center for kids that require extended stay, and building a whole camp to teach kids about things they don’t learn at home or in the school system.”
And in the meantime, Brown will continue to focus on his band’s five-year plan. “Five years from now we’re gonna be better as musicians, playing and writing songs all the time. We’re gonna have our own stage production out on the road with us so that we can accompany our music with video screens and other background images. We’ve been kicking around a cartoon idea that we’ve been working on, and we’ve been working on a 10-minute 3-D music video that we can play during the show so that we can actually change the set. I want to be on the level of Union Station, where the musicianship is second to none. I just want us to grow as a band. And every show of ours that someone comes to see, I want them to see us as that much better…”