Zac Brown is a country singer, songwriter, and bandleader, one of the brightest stars in a generation of performers set on changing the paradigm of the country music business. He's also a record producer, record label head, and philanthropist set on making the world a better place for as many people as possible. With his winning combination of country, bluegrass, reggae, and Caribbean music, he appeals to country fans and jam band hippies, and could well cross over to lovers of world music and pop. He sold over 30,000 copies of the first two self-produced albums he made for his own Southern Ground label, and "Chicken Fried," the Zac Brown Band's first single to get national distribution, went platinum with over a million downloads. His first nationally distributed album, The Foundation, sold 300,000 copies within weeks of its release in late 2008.
Brown was born in 1978 in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Dahlonega, a small town in the north Georgia mountains. He was the 11th child in a family of 12 kids, and grew up in a split family. His father worked for Coca-Cola and ran health clubs, his mom sold insurance, his stepdad was a dentist, and his stepmom was an office manager. Brown's oldest brother was 21 years his senior, so he was exposed to a wide variety of music growing up. His siblings' record collections included country, pop, bluegrass, reggae, folk, and singer/songwriter albums by Cat Stevens, James Taylor, the Eagles, Bob Marley, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. His brother Wynn played bluegrass guitar and banjo, his mother liked old pop singers like Sinatra, and his dad played folk guitar and led the family in campfire singalongs. Brown sang as soon as he could talk, and started classical guitar lessons at age seven, which helped his fingerpicking skills when he switched to bluegrass and country in middle school. Seeing Shawn Mullins at a local coffeehouse made Brown realize he wanted to be a performer. He started playing solo gigs while he was in high school, doing covers of pop and country songs as well as his few original tunes. Attending a summer camp and working with mentally and physically challenged kids made him aware of how lucky he was. He vowed he'd open his own camp someday.
Brown went to college on a vocal scholarship and studied classical voice, but shifted his major several times to biology, then business, and finally psychology. He had a band in college and alternated between band gigs and solo restaurant dates to pay his way through school. His college band, Far from Einstyne, made an eponymous CD to sell at gigs in 1998. When the band fell apart during the recording sessions, Brown and the drummer continued on as a duo. When 9/11 occurred, Brown reevaluated his life. For years he'd been playing solo and full-band gigs at night and going to classes during the day. He decided life was too short to do things he wasn't interested in, and left school to perform full-time.
He toured for a few years in a two-piece -- acoustic guitar and drums -- as Far from Einstyne. In 2002, he put together the first Zac Brown Band, looking for players with a high level of musicianship who wanted to be equal partners in a band with a communal vibe. They played about 200 gigs their first year, a pace the band has kept up. In 2003, he started his own Home Grown label -- today called Southern Ground for legal reasons -- and released Home Grown in 2003 and Live from the Rock Bus Tour in 2005. The albums have moved over 30,000 units, an impressive showing for an unsigned band. Brown runs the label, manages and books the band, and produces its albums with the help of bass player John Hopkins. In 2004, he opened a music club and restaurant with his father to serve gourmet Southern-style food. The Zac Brown Band played weekends and Brown played solo on Tuesday nights, and when he wasn't in the kitchen overseeing the staff, he was on the road with the band doing other gigs.
When a developer bought the restaurant, Brown and the band got a tour bus and hit the road full-time, playing country and rock clubs and folk and jam band festivals. With the personnel settled down to the cohesive unit of bassist Hopkins, fiddler Jimmy De Martini, guitarist/organist Coy Bowles, and drummer Chris Fryar, the band cut The Foundation with producer Keith Stegall in 2006. The songs had been road-tested and were laid down live in the studio with minimal fuss. The album came out first on Southern Ground and was picked up by Live Nation, the giant concert promoter, for their new record label in 2007. When Live Nation folded, Atlantic stepped up and released The Foundation nationally in November of 2008. "Chicken Fried," the first single, was a cross-genre platinum-selling hit. Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Clay Cook joined the band in January of 2009.
With the album doing well, Brown expanded Southern Ground Records and signed the Sonia Leigh Band, fronted by country singer/songwriter Leigh, a cross between Joan Jett and Johnny Cash; Levi Lowrey, an Americana singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist; and Nic Cowan, a pop singer/songwriter with a Ben Harper-meets-Chris Robinson vibe. Brown toured with his labelmates in support of The Foundation during 2009, the same year in which the Zac Brown Band cut 20 tunes for their next project. Brown bought land for his own summer camp, a venture he planned to run in cooperation with Brain Balance, an organization that works with kids with autism and ADD. He also used the recipes he developed at his restaurant for a line of barbecue sauces and other food products. In 2010, Brown and his band were awarded with the Grammy for Best New Artist. Also in 2010, the live Pass the Jar, recorded at a performance at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, was released. The studio follow-up to The Foundation, You Get What You Give, appeared later that same year, featuring new songs that the band honed on the road. Like its two predecessors, the record was a hit. The ZBB toured relentlessly in support, playing theaters and festivals.
The group's third major-label studio album, 2012's Uncaged -- the first with new member/percussionist Daniel de los Reyes and featuring guest spots from Amos Lee and Trombone Shorty, as well as songs co-written with Jason Mraz and fellow Southern Ground artists Nic Cowan and Sonia Leigh -- was conceived and recorded as a whole, not just as a collection of songs. Uncaged performed well, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 on its way to earning a platinum certification; it also generated the Top Ten country hits "Goodbye in Her Eyes," "Sweet Annie," and "Jump Right In." While the Zac Brown Band worked on their fourth album, they released Greatest Hits So Far... in time for the 2014 holiday season. In early 2015, the band dropped the chart-topping single "Homegrown" in anticipation of the full-length genre-bending Jekyll + Hyde, released in April. It too debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 and generated two other Top Ten country hits in "Loving You Easy" and "Beautiful Drug." Two years after Jekyll + Hyde, the Zac Brown Band returned to their trademark mellow sound on Welcome Home. ~ j. poet