In country, like in rock, there are sub-genres--alt-country, honky-tonk, cowpunk, Western, new, classic--but a country song has an almost immediately identifiable flavor that it gets from the twang of the guitar and message in the song. Stories about cheating and retribution are common in country music but so, too, are family get-togethers, pickup trucks and patriotism. Metaphor is often set aside for simply told stories about love, loss, life and death--but also for more day-to-day concepts like barbecues or nights out partying with the boys.
And country music has something else not often found in rock: crossover. It's not uncommon for a country act to have a song on both the country and the pop/rock/adult contemporary charts. Case in point: Atlanta's Zac Brown Band, whose down-to-earth, foot-stompin' tunes riddled with fiddle, mandolin and steel guitar will have to work hard to compete with the sound of whoopin' and hollerin' fans at the Taco Bell Arena on Thursday, Sept. 15.
The Zac Brown Band, named after its bearded frontman has been around longer than their recent success might indicate. They formed in 2002 and self-released a couple of studio albums, as well as a couple of live albums, and kept up a tour schedule of a couple of hundred shows a year.
It was when ZBB signed with Atlantic Records in 2008 that the band seemed to blow up. Their Atlantic debut, The Foundation, went to No. 2 on the Billboard country chart, and the album single "Chicken Fried" debuted at No. 1. The 2009 sophomore follow-up (also on Atlantic), You Get What You Give, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. The band took home a slew of awards at the 2009 CMAs and also won Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocals, Best Country Album and Best New Artist awards at the 2010 Grammys. The New York Times called The Foundation "comfort music."
But not everyone is enamored by ZBB. In a review of You Get What You Give, The Washington Post called the music a "mash of bar-band schlock, jam-band haze [and] freedom rock pomp" and compared the lyrics to "those motivational posters where dolphins leap out of the surf."
The lyrical content of songs like "Chicken Fried" certainly can seem like a pandering to the patriotic: "I thank god for my life / And for the stars and stripes / May freedom forever fly. / Let it ring." But there is no denying ZBB's musicianship. Guitar and fiddle race each other in a southern homage to "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Brown sings the song with a sincerity not often found in mainstream pop and rock music.
ZBB bassist John Hopkins does not take any of the band's accomplishments or criticisms lightly. But songs like "Chicken Fried" are what made ZBB's music approachable for fans and the release of The Foundation helped put ZBB on the country-music map.
"Shows started getting bigger, better," Hopkins said. "All the previous years of playing empty bars seemed to get less and less frequent. It has been a pretty awesome ride."
Those years of performing in dives for a couple of uninterested drunks gave ZBB a solid grounding from which they could weather their successes--and their critics--without getting sidelined or taking any of it for granted.
"It's hard to consider [how] fast as it seems. You know, I'm 40," Hopkins said. "I've been doing this since I was in high school. Everybody is so grateful for it but at the same time, we worked really hard to get here. But at the same time, we can't believe it has happened," he added, laughing.
Hopkins said the members of the band were "committed to playing music forever anyway" but are still surprised at the opportunities this sudden and not-so-sudden fame has afforded them.
In 2010, they performed at the Bonnaroo Music Festival and opened for the Dave Matthews Band on a few dates during his summer tour. But no matter how big ZBB has become, Hopkins hasn't forgotten his roots: He took his mother to the 2009 Country Music Awards.
"I swear, Mom had more fun at that awards ceremony than anybody has ever had at an awards show," Hopkins said. "We had an extra ticket ... so my dad got to sit on the other side of me. I swear they're bigger celebrities back home than I am."
Hopkins' family isn't the only one benefiting from ZBB's success. The band's popularity has caught the attention of other well-known musicians and given ZBB a chance to work with some of them.
You Get What You Give features guests like Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet, collaborations Hopkins called "extremely humbling." Recording with musicians like Jackson and Buffett was not only an incredible experience for ZBB but fostered a change in direction for a few songs.
"Knee Deep," which features Jimmy Buffett, has a sunny, reggae beat bouncing beneath lyrics that find a Southern boy pining for a little sand and surf: "Wishing I was knee deep in the water somewhere. / Got the blue sky breeze and it don't seem fair. / Only worry in the world is the tide gonna reach my chair."
The change in ZBB's sound is fine by Hopkins. As a matter of fact, he would like to see a shift in the perception of country music overall.
"If there were a way to call country radio southern radio, that would make more sense for us," Hopkins said. "We listened to Widespread Panic, REM, B-52s The Black Crowes and the Indigo Girls growing up. The things you grow up with aren't necessarily going to make you grow up and wear a cowboy hat and drive a truck--but I do. I grew up wanting to be in a rock band. Hell, I am in a rock band, it's just on country radio."