BY PHIL FREEMAN
Country's hard to define in 2010. The genre includes pop stars (Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum), critic-friendly brooders (the morose, arty Jamey Johnson) and grinning, suburbanite showmen (Brad Paisley). And then there are all the indie-rock acts embracing acoustic and steel guitars and earnest, retro songwriting. But Zac Brown may be one of the weirdest performers country's coughed up in quite a while. A combination of singer-songwriter, '70s throwback and jam-band leader, he's a hard-touring live act who happens to write catchy, easy-to-like songs and has them played by a talented six-piece group and some high-powered guests.
The Atlanta-based Zac Brown Band has four studio albums and a couple of live releases to its name, the first few self-released and everything since 2008's The Foundation on Atlantic Records, including the brand-new You Get What You Give. Brown's voice is clean, with just a slight twang; he sounds oddly like James Taylor, in fact. The band's music is a mix of country twang, bluegrass fiddle, gospel organ, occasional dashes of reggae(!) and a range of covers that pay tribute to their influences, which include the Beatles, the Bobs (Marley and Dylan), Van Morrison, and three Bands (the Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, and the Marshall Tucker Band).
Lyrically, Brown expresses a worldview that's equal parts genial hedonism and relaxed, life-is-what-you-make-it philosophy that's like receiving a lecture on Zen from a frat brother. Indeed, it's no surprise that one of the guests on Give is Jimmy Buffett, who duets with Brown on "Knee Deep."
Guitarist Clay Cook, who joined the group shortly after The Foundation, says the band's live show is the thing, and that the albums are advertising for the concerts. In fact, as far into the band's recording career as Foundation, he says the band was "just trying to record the songs to represent the songs well."
That's changed. "Now on this record, we're still trying to represent the songs, but we're [also] trying to represent the band, and it's a more cohesive union of the six players," Cook says. "Some people make records to sell records; we make records so people know what we play live."
You Get What You Give isn't a great leap forward from The Foundation; the band's country heart is present in hillbilly rave-ups such as "Whiskey's Gone" and the ballad "As She's Walking Away," which features guest vocals from Alan Jackson. There's plenty of rock crossover potential in songs like "Keep Me In Mind" and the album-closing "Make This Day," though.
That's an audience Brown and band have been courting a little, but in a gingerly fashion, not necessarily wanting to alienate the country fans who first embraced them. "Dance with who brung ya" and "don't get above your raisin'" are phrases that have a lot of resonance for country musicians, even in the Age of Taylor Swift.
"Yeah, we did a tour with Dave Matthews Band and everybody seemed open to us, especially by the end of our set," admits Cook. "We haven't done too many jam-band dates. We've done Bonnaroo and a couple of festivals." But he's quick to emphasize that they've reached out, with some success, to the bluegrass community as well. He admits "the traditionalists'll never want to listen to us," and laughs when asked if their use of electricity is the turnoff.
But they've managed to make some connections; bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice guested and played on "Martin" on the new record, something Cook describes as "a perfect fit. It was one of those things where we didn't know if it was going to work, because he's a traditional bluegrass player, but the tape rolled and he was perfect. And it totally makes the song; I mean, you take him out of the song and it's just kinda flat."
Zac Brown Band plays tomorrow night, November 5, at the Scottrade Center