Every now and then, there is a generational shift in country music. One night in March 2014, while in the UK, Zac Brown Band were the catalyst for the latest movement.
The occasion was the second annual C2C Festival at the O2 Arena in London. About halfway through their set, the band started to play – as they always do – a cover song, just for the fun of it. Only, in this case, it was a seven-minute version of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’. From my vantage point, high up in the arena, you could see a steady stream of country music fans making for the exits, their faces a mixture of bewilderment and active dislike.
But notably, you could also see a steady stream of people pushing towards the stage. It was a new type of country fan; one excited and enthused by the blending of genres, very different to the attendees of years gone by.
It was a genuine turning point; for the very nature of the festival, for the way that mainstream country music has developed (in the UK particularly) and for Zac Brown Band themselves. In the seven years since that moment, they’ve built themselves up over here to the point where they sell out arenas and festivals, whilst still maintaining an experimental streak that encompasses diversions into electronica and dance music, to name but two.
Now, they're celebrating the release of The Comeback, their seventh studio album and arguably their best work to date. It’s a glorious reaffirmation of their core values, expressed in the finest songs of their career.
Now back on the road in the US – and gearing up for a date supporting The Rolling Stones – multi-instrumentalists Clay Cook and Coy Bowles jump on the line to discuss the new record, how the live shows are so much different than before and the communal influence of Zac Brown himself.
So, this tour comes after an enforced layoff for fans and audiences alike – do these shows you’re playing now feel any different?
Coy Bowles: They do. There’s a certain roar from the crowd that’s charged with a different kind of energy. I don’t know if I’m picking up on something that’s really happening, or if it’s just from having been away from music for so long; I would assume it’s a little bit of both.
Music is such a healing art form. There’s an accelerated feeling of sharing between the band and the audience; we’re playing with more intent and they’re roaring back even more - it’s a heightened feeling for sure.
Has it been logistically difficult to get this underway?
Clay Cook: There’s definitely a new way of doing things, but that’s life now; everything is different and we’re having to adjust. My kids going to school is different, going to a grocery store isn’t the same, going back on tour is different to how it was before. It’s all part of the new normal, I guess.
Coy: Everything is so politicised too, on so many different levels. It’s hard to know where the middle ground is in all this stuff. We just try to take note of what the promoters are doing and follow the rules of the industry, I guess.
I have to say what a fabulous record The Comeback is – it marries all the best bits about the band into one. Did the pandemic allow you to focus on finding that balance?
Clay: I feel like some of us were verging on burnout when the pandemic hit. Honestly, I don’t know if this album would have been made.
Coy: If it wasn’t for a nature-forced halt! The world went on pause for a second and whether we were ready to or not, we got to be with our families and sleep in our own beds for a couple of months. It wasn’t just go go go, and with that, we found some introspection.
Clay: It gives me chills just thinking about when we recorded ‘Colder Weather’, everybody knew that was a really good song. That’s an age-proof, timeless song. I think we did something man; I’m not egotistical enough to say we did something great or good, but it feels like we did something that’s going to have an effect.
We didn’t want to make the first album over and over again. It was easy for us to have perspective – when the first record came out [in 2008] we were already into our thirties, so we just had a different view on what we wanted our live shows to sound like.
At the end of the day, recording in the studio is like a business card or an advertisement for our live show - they’re not separate. We write, record them and put these songs on the radio so people know who we are and can sing along with us every night, because at the end of the day, we are a live band.
There’s such a communal approach to how your whole organisation works.
Clay: It all trickles down from Zac. That’s how he lives life, that’s how he conducts business. That’s just how he is as a person. He’s very inclusive, he tries to create a community around him and it’s been that way since the beginning.
Cory: Also we’ve been together for 14, 15 years. It’s hard for a group of people to be around each other as much as we are and not have certain kinds of animosity. Everybody has pretty decent life skills though, so whenever we do go through some kind of hardship we usually come out the other side of it stronger, like a family or a brotherhood.
We still have a lot of fun. Last night we stayed up til three in the morning just laughing - I had tears rolling down my face, making fun of each other and cutting up. That’s probably the most beautiful thing about the whole experience, after all these years we’re still really, really good friends. I feel grateful that, at the end of the day, we still want to hang out with each other.
And it still sounds fresh too.
Clay: I hope so man - that’s the goal. You hear these horror stories about your heroes; they don’t see each other except for on stage and they don’t really like each other. I hope that people think “god, these guys would be fun to hang out with”. I don’t if that will transcend through the music, but I hope it does. We still get down!
That spontaneity really shows up on stage. I remember throwing daft ideas for cover songs around with you guys before you played Hard Rock Calling in 2013.
Coy: Covers have always been a part of our history! It was born out of playing in bars and trying to please people who were drinking for hours and don’t know your songs. All of us have done our time, playing cover songs for hours on end. Had we become famous in our early twenties, I don’t know if we would have made it this long.
How many Stones songs do you know then?
Coy: We used to have these after parties when Blackberry Smoke were opening up for us, Rich Robinson [of the Black Crowes] and Grace Potter were hanging out one night and we had a full stage set-up, everybody jammed until three or four in the morning.
I remember walking in and Rich, Grace & all the Smoke were playing ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ and I remember going, “what song is that!?” I remember downloading Sticky Fingers on my phone and for the next two years that was probably the only thing I listened to.
You should go out and do a set of just the songs that they’re not playing…
Clay: I think rule number one when opening for a big band is don’t play their songs!
Zac Brown Band's latest album, The Comeback, is out now via Warner Music Nashville. You can purchase the record from one of our selected partners below.