The slow, steady rise of Zac Brown Band

From the tavern to the top, Georgia’s ‘Chicken Fried’ son keeps success all in the family

The moon shines down on the softly rippling Caribbean as a hulking Norwegian cruise liner bobs from side to side. It’s March 2009. Floating singer/songwriter festival Cayamo is in full swing, and no one on the boat this week seems more omnipresent than Zac Brown Band. Riding the wave of breakthrough single “Chicken Fried” — an earnest ode to the simple pleasures of small-town Southern life — the bandmates are celebrating their first taste of success by doing what they love: staying up all night playing music. Along with artists Levi Lowrey and Sonia Leigh (friends they’d later sign to their Southern Ground label), Brown and company are in the cruise ship’s tiny lounge, cranking through tunes literally until the sun comes up. By 5 a.m., only a handful of people remain, but the band plays on, Zac in his trademark knit cap, bushy beard, and blue jeans. This is who they are. What they live to do. What they’ve always done. And three years later, they’re still doing it, only on a much larger scale.

Since “Chicken Fried” and their appearance on Cayamo, the band has continued storming the country and pop charts, its 2010 album You Get What You Give reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200, not to mention their eight No. 1 country singles and Best New Artist Grammy. But so what, right? Plenty of artists who make terrible music and are even worse people sell records and win Grammys. What’s really impressive is the way Brown is handling all this success, which is the realization of a lifelong dream after years spent playing divey bar and grills in the singer/songwriter trenches.

On “Day That I Die,” from Zac Brown Band’s forthcoming album, Uncaged (out July 10 on Southern Ground), Brown sings that he was born with a song inside of him. It’s this passion that’s kept him going, even during the lean times. “I never thought about quitting,” the 33-year-old Dahlonega native says. “I’ve always loved what I’ve done for a living. I’ve had friends who’ve had four college degrees and still don’t know what they want to do, but I’ve known since I was real young that I wanted to play music.”

The ball really got rolling for Brown more than a decade ago, during a gig at Marietta’s Dixie Tavern. It was there that he first met Wyatt Durrette — the restaurant/club’s bartender, manager, and booker — and the two soon began a songwriting partnership that’s still going strong today. “The second time Zac played there, somebody asked me to get up and sing with him,” Durrette told” rel=”external”> “Afterward, I was like, ‘Hey man, I write songs. I’ve got melodies and words — lots of them! Why don’t we get together and see what we can come up with?’ That following Sunday, we sat down and wrote four or five songs ... something crazy like that. Automatically, we clicked as friends and as writers.”

When Brown met his tour chef, Rusty Hamlin, back in 2000, Hamlin says he knew immediately that there was something special about him. Brown was playing solo acoustic that night in front of about 60 people at Hamlin’s Smyrna restaurant, Atkins Park, and he had the small crowd mesmerized. “The way Zac commanded the stage by himself, and the music he was playing — it was amazing.”

It’s now 2011, and the members of Zac Brown Band are holed up at Brown’s river house in Dahlonega, arranging and dissecting the songs for what will become their new album, Uncaged. Between running tunes down, they banter back and forth about every tiny detail — the stops, the harmonies, the dynamics and chord changes. “We’d just sit around the table kind of like a jury,” Brown says. “Just lay the song out there without any ego, the goal being to make it the best it can possibly be.”

After a little more than a week, they’re ready to record, and head to Asheville, N.C.’s Echo Mountain Studio — the same converted church where the Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, and many others have recorded recently. There, they track all the instruments together live. With all the time they’ve put in on the road over the last few years, it just feels natural to do it that way. The vocals are overdubbed later, during short breaks from touring, at various studios in Nashville and Atlanta, as well as Jimmy Buffett’s studio in Key West.

“The only drawback about recording in Key West,” says ZBB member Clay Cook, is that “there’s a lot of trouble to get into down there. When you should be resting, you’re out drinking. ... But it was a good time.”

That good-time vibe is front and center on Uncaged, the album’s title hinting at the freedom the band feels as it chases its eclectic, genre-hopping muse through pop, country, reggae, world beat, acoustic ballads, Southern rock, bluegrass, and Bakersfield.

“This record is kind of schizophrenic, but it all sounds like us,” Cook says. “If you try to stylistically tag everything, you’ll wear yourself out.” The band does seem far more concerned with serving the songs it writes than stressing over sonic cohesion or slavish adherence to a particular sound. With the help of New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty, the group even lays down some convincing R&B on Uncaged with the song “Overnight.”

What some people don’t realize, Brown says, is that every member of his veteran band — himself included — has a background covering soul and R&B classics. He cites Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Bill Withers as personal favorites. “Being entirely on our own label ... we can experiment with how we record and what we put out there. We could do an entire R&B album if we wanted.

“The most important thing to me, being really free-spirited,” Brown says, “is that no one is telling me what I have to do. Nobody is telling me I have to play these songs or look this way. We’re just being ourselves.”

Anyone who doubts Brown’s sincerity, or thinks that he’s pandering to the mainstream with a tune like “Chicken Fried,” should consider that he’d written and was already performing the song nearly a decade ago while virtually unknown and still working as a cook and bartender at Zac’s Place, the Southern-style restaurant he opened with his father in 2004.

Mainstream they may be, but Brown and company have always had an independent streak. They’re huge on country radio and CMT, but they operate outside of the Nashville establishment. They make accessible music that reaches millions, but they release it on their own independent label and maintain complete creative control. But even when you’ve built your operation from the ground up, once you reach a certain level of commercial success, there will always be a vocal army of critics waiting for you. In response to their jabs, Brown says, “Not ... everybody has to like our music, but you can respect what we’re doing. Through our hard work, we’re on our way to being one of the biggest bands in America.”

Somewhere along the way, on a seemingly endless tour, a hundred or so fans are relaxing outside of chef Hamlin’s mobile kitchen, enjoying some face-to-face hang time with Zac Brown Band. This isn’t your usual meet-and-greet. There are no long lines or awkward handshakes, and there’s no photography allowed — it would cheapen the moment. What there is, though, at what Brown and Hamlin have dubbed the “eat and greet,” is a whole lot of genuine conversation between band and fans, and some delicious, fresh, farm-to-table food, all procured from local farmers Zac invites out to enjoy dinner and a show on him.

Having risen to the top on his own terms, Brown now has the ear of the masses, and he’s using his notoriety to further causes near to his heart: supporting the slow-food movement and small family farms through the eat and greets; lifting up the artists he loves (like Lowrey, Leigh, Nic Cowan, Blackberry Smoke, and the Wheeler Boys) with his Southern Ground label; and, most recently, gearing up to help children with special needs at the soon-to-be launched Camp Southern Ground.

Brown’s most ambitious undertaking yet, this 500-acre summer camp and research facility, is scheduled to open in spring 2014. One of its central goals is to provide children with special needs — especially those with neurobehavioral disorders like autism and Asperger syndrome — the opportunity to join kids with more typical needs for traditional camp activities like canoeing and swimming, building their confidence in the process. And when the camp is not in session, it will act as a hub connecting doctors, research labs, and universities around the world, “a place where people can figure out the best possible treatment for the kids and actually apply it,” says Brown, who spent many summers during his childhood at North Georgia’s Camp Mikell and Camp Glisson, where he eventually became a counselor.

“This is the most important project of my life,” he says, regarding Camp Southern Ground. “I know I can’t come up with these amazing treatments that are gonna help change people’s lives, but I can help bring those people together and empower them.”

“This is Zac’s passion,” says camp director Jean Peck. “He’s an extremely warm, generous person, not to mention an incredible father himself. He’s got four girls, and his wife Shelly says he’s a great husband. He’s a wonderful man to work with; he’s incredibly busy but somehow finds the time to spend with us to get this right.”

Always humble (save for when he’s extolling his band’s musical prowess), Brown deflects the praise back at all those around him. “Every day,” he says, “I get to get up and work around 90 of my friends on the road. We’re a huge family out here. ... All our people are amazingly talented at what they do. I’m just a cog in the whole machine. It takes everybody to make it work.

“Our entire organization,” Brown says, “is built on love — for what we do, for each other, taking care of each other. We work our asses off, and you can’t fake it. You can’t fake the thousands of hours of hard work it took to get us here.”