Usually when you get a record deal, all kinds of people start calling you. However, the opposite situation was true when it came time for the Zac Brown Band to film a video for “Chicken Fried.”
“I remember being on the phone the day before, calling everybody because it was last-minute,” says Brown, who filmed the video on his farm in East Georgia. “I’ve got a lot of friends that live out in the country and I had to call them all to get it ready. I had to call a friend to cut the grass and weed-eat, had to call another guy to make sure we had enough firewood there. My wife was hustling, calling everybody to get people to come. We pretty much decided within a four-day period that we were doing the video — and in four days everything had to properly align to get it.”
The steep phone bill was worth it. “Chicken Fried” turned into a surprise country hit, and after more than a decade of being an indie group, the band’s latest album, The Foundation, was released on Atlantic Records in November. During a recent visit to CMT, Brown — a former chef and restaurant owner — talked about his love of harmony, making it in Nashville and what he listens to in the kitchen.
CMT: For those people who haven’t seen you play, how would you describe your live show?
Brown: That’s our biggest strength. We’re a grassroots, work-hard band. All of this, with everything taking off on the radio, was not expected. It’s an honor. Our strength is playing live, so I hope that everybody that likes the song will come see us play.
What enticed you to make the transition from a solo guy to a band?
It’s not as much fun playing by yourself. It’s cool to do every once in a while, but you’ve got a band of brothers up there, and we arrange the music together, we rehearse together, we do it all together. That makes it a lot more fun and the sound is a lot bigger with more people and more harmony. I love harmony.
When you’re in these loud clubs, is it a struggle to get the harmonies down?
Not at all. We carry our front-of-house engineer with us, and he makes sure that everything is where you can hear it.
Did you feel like an outsider in country music because you didn’t come up the way that most artists do now — first getting a publishing deal and then a record deal?
We’ve just been out pounding the pavement. I’ve been playing five nights a week for 12 years. Hard work is the most important thing in this business. I think that gets overlooked sometimes, but we worked really hard. I think Nashville was one of the last ones to discover or hear us.
Did you play Nashville a lot when you were coming up?
Not really, not very much at all. Maybe four times.
It’s a tough town to play.
There’s just so much saturation. So many great players, so many great writers, so many great people, and everybody is struggling so hard here to get exposure. In cities like Atlanta, you can make a living playing there. You can afford to pay your band, so you keep the same people around. Nashville’s a tough town to try and get a deal. Everybody goes to Nashville to make it, but I think Nashville’s a great place to go once you’re making it.
It’s an old piece of plywood that has jagged edges cut around it, burned with a torch. And they overlaid this picture of Waylon and Willie — early, when they were young — and it’s shellacked over the top of it. It was a gift from a friend of mine named Rodney. When I had my restaurant, right when you first walked in the restaurant, it was up on the big wall. Willie is my hero. He’s somebody that has given his entire life to the music, and I’m trying to follow in his footsteps — not fill his shoes because nobody will ever do more or publish more and write more than Willie has. He’s definitely a big inspiration for me.
Do you feel like at this point, when you’re brand new to the national audience, that you have to give everything to your career?
I’ve got a family that I have to dedicate my time to — my two little girls and my wife. But every working hour, usually when they go to bed, I go out to my studio in the back yard and sit out there and play music and write. But as far as a daily thing, I give myself to the music, and I give my life to the music. I have done so since I was little.
When do you find time to write, and when do you do your best writing?
Usually late at night after the shows, when we’re riding from city to city. My songwriting partner, Wyatt [Durrette], travels with us full time. To do a two-hour show, there’s usually 30 hours of traveling and work that goes into just getting to do that hour-and-a-half or two hours on stage. So you have the time when you’re traveling, and that’s when most of it gets done.
When you’re out there touring, do you sometimes miss your kitchen?
Yeah, my wife cooks so much at home now, even when I am home, it’s hard for me to find stuff in there. But that’s good. She loves cooking for our babies. I definitely miss having a nice big stove and having a nice set of tools there to cook with.
What kind of music do you like to listen to when you’re cooking your meals?
Probably my four or five top ones are Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee, Ryan Adams, probably Bob Marley and David Gray. Those are my favorite ones to listen to.