Its blend of country and southern rock earned three Grammys and a string of No. 1 hits.
WTOP got a preview with band members Coy Bowles (guitar, keys) and Clay Cook (guitar, keys, mandolin, steel guitar), who are excited to be back out on the road touring.
“It’s been a real ecstatic energy to just walk out on stage and get to play,” Bowles told WTOP. “It’s really interesting for such a huge part of your life to just stop. … Then you get to go back to do it and you’re like, ‘Wow, I forgot that I get to play in front of X-thousands of people for these amazing songs with an amazing band. It feels really good.”
“This is our life,” Cook told WTOP. “We were the first thing to go away as far as mass gatherings and the last thing to come back. People went about their days; they missed live music — I missed live music as a fan — so it’s been really cathartic to walk out on stage again. There’s a tiny part of all of us that wasn’t sure if it would ever happen again.”
Indeed, a lot’s changed in the world since Zac Brown Band played an intimate set downstairs at The Hamilton in D.C. for the annual Grammys on the Hill event in 2016.
“We never talk about the past; we’re always talking about what the new album is like and what touring is going to be like, so we very rarely reflect on it,” Bowles said. “I just remember that night reflecting on the story of how the band got to be where it is and just being like, ‘Wow, man, this is really emotional because we never get to do this.'”
Brown formed the band in 2002 after attending the University of West Georgia. Bowles joined in 2006; Cook joined in 2009 after writing “No Such Thing” for John Mayer.
“I went to school with Zac,” Bowles said. “I moved to Atlanta and started seeing the Zac Brown Band playing. … I joined a year and a half or two years in, so they already recorded ‘The Foundation.’ …We went on tour promoting ‘Chicken Fried’ … and it was like being strapped on a rocket and being blasted into outer space. Hold on as tight as you can.”
Indeed, “Chicken Fried” praised down-home staples like cold beer on a Friday night.
“It’s a slice of Americana,” Cook said. “It’s also just a little get-down jam song. People just can’t help but dance when we play that. It checks all the boxes.”
They also tapped into Jimmy Buffett-style island music with “Toes” and “Knee Deep.”
“Zac genuinely loves the blue water,” Cook said. “He loves getting down somewhere in the Caribbean. He genuinely loves it. There’s a true connection he has to loving being out on the beach. So does Wyatt Durrette, who wrote a lot of those in the early days. … It’s real. It’s not like, ‘Let’s write a beachy song.’ He wants to preach all of these things.”
They also have a knack for recording upbeat love songs, from “Whatever It Is” to “Keep Me In Mind” to their Alan Jackson duet “As She’s Walking Away.”
“If it doesn’t sound stupid with the sentiment, you can make a sappy song sound fun and up-tempo,” Cook said. “A lot of times we’re trying to write songs that we want to play live. If you’ve written a sleepy love song, try to make it more exciting so if it does become a hit, you can put it in the set without having an entire night of sleepy songs.”
Few bands write better road songs than “Colder Weather,” “Free” or “Highway 20 Ride.”
“A lot of people don’t live this life on a tour bus all the time, so we try to relay this idea of yearning from home, some kind of solid foundation, yet always being pulled out,” Bowles said. “There’s a deep duality to what we do. We want our families, home, stability, but then we’re like gypsies where we’ve got to ride the roads, play our music and tell our tales.”
Today, they’ve struck a balance, raising 23 kids between the entire band.
“With the success, we’ve had the luxury to fly back for three or four days,” Bowles said. “We’ve always made time to not be on the road too long. We’re very fortunate because there’s some other bands who can’t do that. … That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for. There’s a built-in balance between family and playing that’s really solid for us.”
Both bandmates say they’ve learned a lot from Brown’s parenting skills.
“You can set your watch by it,” Cook said.
Set your watch for Thursday at Merriweather.