Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art



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Zac Brown Band has whatever IT is. The group possesses that intangible, indescribable thing that makes its music great and unique. Brown’s Georgia drawl blends organically with Jimmy De Martini’s sensual fiddle for a different kind of fine. The sound is a bit southern rock mixed with down-home country and bluegrass that collides for a freedom-filled, comforting good time.

In mid-February, the group grooved at a venue called Brick By Brick in San Diego, California. It’s tucked down an alleyway surrounded by warehouses and nondescript buildings in a not-so-nice section of town off the I-5. Inside, wires are strung in absolutely no pattern across the old wood ceiling. A long bar separates the dance floor from pool tables, graffiti-splattered latrines and a smoking patio. Budweiser is poured into tall glasses with the guide of neon light. Music’s made to be played here.

Zac Brown Band 6Hundreds of people packed the place to capacity. When the full-bearded, brown beanie-sporting, lumberjack of a lead singer took the stage around 11:00, the crowd started jumping. Hands stayed in the air from the first chord played to the last chorus sung. Everybody seemed to know every word, and every voice was proud to be heard. “When we’re giving away all we’ve got and the crowd is giving it back to us, it just makes a big turbine of energy, and that’s what we feed off of every night,” Brown says. “It’s not about how pretty you can get or how much time you spend getting ready; it’s just trying to make the music the best that it can be.”

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Brown knows music like Ben Franklin knew kites. Each has held the key to producing electricity. While the experiment likely fried the scientist’s hair, Zac Brown uses its power to ignite a concert venue and fry his chicken. And the finger licking product of his musical genius, a song aptly titled “Chicken Fried,” has become a staple on country radio. The debut single sold one million copies and flew to number one on the country charts and on CMT. The band has been feasting off its success ever since. “The song is about the stuff that matters in life!” Brown exclaims. It’s a list that for him includes a cold beer on Friday night, a pair of jeans that fits just right and the radio up. It’s about appreciating a sunrise, truly understanding a mother’s love and believing that the simple things in life should mean the most.

While the song has found the sweet spot in so many souls, its journey to be heard is a decade in the making. Brown started writing it in 2000. It took four years to finish and even longer for radio to make it a mainstream hit. After September 11th, he added a third verse that included a drum cadence to salute our troops and an ode to the stars and stripes of freedom. “It was important to write a patriotic part that wasn’t political,” Brown says. “It wasn’t about who’s right and wrong. It’s about the people that follow the orders no matter what they are, and they deserve to be revered.”

Zac Brown Band 15Zac Brown’s marching papers have always begun with a treble clef. He started strumming a guitar as a teenager in Dahlonega, Georgia. The product of a split, but extremely tight family, Zac is the eleventh of twelve children. His oldest brother is 21 years ahead of him. So while Nirvana grunged out his friends in the early 1990’s, Zac rocked to the music of decades past – Allman Brothers, Eagles, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He made his career choice at the age of 15 when he discovered the power of live music by watching Georgia-based singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins perform at a local coffeehouse. Right after high school, Zac hit the road and hasn’t stopped. “I’ve been playing five nights a week since then,” he says appreciatively. “I love to play music; it’s soothing. Even when I do have a day off, I’m usually enjoying a late night sitting around playing music. It’s just what I love to do.”

zac-brown-bandAfter years as a solo act, Zac constructed the current band carefully. Each member became an equally sized piece to the puzzle of producing great music. Brown, along with guitarist Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar, bassist John Hopkins, De Martini on fiddle and multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook, built a loyal grassroots following by performing more than 200 shows a year. By 2008, the band had sold 30,000 CDs independently and had performed more than 3,000 gigs. With dues more than paid, Atlantic Records picked up Zac Brown Band’s album, The Foundation, in November, and the steady traction the band had been gaining suddenly turned into a NASCAR sprint lap. The guys went from playing local honkytonks to national TV appearances on Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson. They opened up for acts like Sugarland, Willie Nelson and B.B. King, and this fall will embark on their first headlining tour. “It is amazing to see all the hard work and effort paying off. We’re ready!” Brown says with pride. “If we would have gotten success five or six years ago, we wouldn’t be as ready as we are now. We’ve got a great organization and a great band. The best music is yet to come.”

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The Zac Brown Band begins and ends with musicianship. “Everybody in my band is able to burn his instrument down to the ground,” Brown says. The strings are executed with Alison Krauss and Union Station flawlessness, the vocals as pure as a Rascal Flatts harmony and the wisdom in the writing as deep as a Charlie Daniels classic. The band dumped a whole vat of country cred on The Foundation – engineering it to have the same feel as one of its hard-hitting live shows. “We’re a band that sits together, we practice together, we arrange stuff together, we write together and you don’t want to sell something that you can’t recreate on stage. You have to do it that way or you end up disappointing your fans.”

Zac Brown Band 13The songs on the record cover the gamut of raw emotion and are steeped in truth. “Highway 20 Ride” tells the gripping tale of life on the road, and the unbreakable bond between a divorced dad and a musically motivated son. Then there’s “Whatever it Is” – a fill-in-the blank ballad where “it” could be a noun she possesses or an adjective describing her personality. But the simple beauty of the song is that, in plain English, an ambiguous “it” may be the only way to accurately describe the effects of true love. Another huge highlight, the band’s hauntingly beautiful cover of Ray LaMontagne’s cocaine-flamed “Jolene.”


Zac Brown Band 7Fan-favorite “Toes” is about high-tailing your ass to the sands of adventure when monotony has you on lockdown. Getting away from it all for a while gives you perspective and appreciation for coming back home. “I grew up on the rivers and lakes of Georgia,” Brown says. “While we’ve seen so many of the amazing things this country has to offer, there’s nothing better to me personally then fishing back in Georgia with a cooler full of cold beer, and a big Ziploc bag full of cold fried chicken.” Speaking of all things fowl… The Foundation also features a track called “Sic ’em on a Chicken.” Brown admits it’s a parody of a real life event where he and his dog were forced to let the feathers fly and turn a mangy critter into potpie. “We used to have a rooster on my farm,” he says coyly. “It drop-kicked my neighbor’s little boy in the face and knocked him down, and right then I knew he had to go.” When the album hit iTunes, one of the first reviewers wrote: “This band advocates the torture of chickens.”

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When Brown isn’t pulling a Sarah Palin (recall her bloody Alaskan turkey TV interview), he’s a husband and father of two young girls, with a third child on the way. He’s also a gourmet chef who used to own a restaurant in Georgia with his father called “Zac’s Place.” He takes three grills with him on the road and is renowned for his homemade sauces and savory southern cooking. Brown also started his own charitable foundation – a children’s camp for those with autism and other learning disabilities. He calls the charity his “life’s work” and says it’s important to give back and “leave something behind that does some good after I’m gone.” As for the band, Zac’s been adding another member to the crew every six months or so to keep up with growing demand. “My favorite quote comes from one of my role models, Charlie Daniels,” Zac recounts. “They asked him once what his greatest accomplishment was and he said it was employing 35 of his friends for 27 years – and that’s what we’re doing.”

zac-brown-smileZac Brown Band 2Brick by brick Zac Brown Band is laying a foundation that matters. Its songs have universal appeal, because they have substance and true grit. Like abstract painters, the group soaks up wisdom from landscapes as diverse as McGonigle’s Mucky Duck in Houston, Texas (the group’s favorite tiny tavern), to the serenity of Byron Bay, Australia, and then splashes life’s lessons all over its musical canvas. In fact, it was Down Under where Zac wrote his anthem to peacefulness – a song simply titled “Free.” It shares a bass line with Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and the band seamlessly transitions between songs during its live shows. Every stop on tour gets recorded for posterity and for an even better reason according to Zac Brown… “Great bands throughout history like Phish, Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews Band and others capture all their shows so fans can play and trade them – WE want to be a great band. We’ve all dedicated our lives to it. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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