CHICAGO — Zac Brown is passionate about his music. And his philanthropy. And the military. And food. And local farming. And chemicals. And merchandise. In fact, after hearing him as the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s (Sept. 15) Billboard/Adweek Music & Advertising Conference in Chicago, it was clear that while the Zac Brown Band is a big part of the country music scene, country music is just one part of Brown’s scene.
“Whatever crazy vision I have,” Brown said, “I just want to do things that have never been done by a musician before.”
Before an industry crowd dotted with hipster indie musicians, with his manager Bernie Cahill by his side, Brown shared what’s ahead for him and the band, including a plan to bring along his own concessions to upcoming shows. Noting he wants to provide a full sensory experience from top to bottom, he even hinted he’s thinking about organizing his own music festival.
“We want to use local farms for the food, and we’re having full tractor-trailers built that have full kitchens,” he said. “Each one can feed a thousand people. So really, all we need is a field. I’ve always loved to feed people. It’s in my blood.”
When he described Zac’s Place, his old restaurant and performance venue in Atlanta, he talked about how hard it was to get good help. Because of that, there were nights he’d work in the kitchen until 9 p.m., then take off the apron and walk to the stage.
When an attendee asked Cahill what was next for Zac Brown, he laughed and said, “He’ll tell me. We just stay on the path he’s mapped out. We don’t want to get in the way of his artistry.”
Since the band’s major label debut in 2008, Brown has proven his songwriting skills with four No. 1 singles — “Chicken Fried,” “Toes,” “Highway 20 Ride” and “Free” — from the band’s double-platinum album, The Foundation. And like feeding people, well-crafted songs seem to be in Brown’s blood. He told the crowd he writes so many songs, so often, that he’d have to put out five albums a year if he wanted to release all of his original material. It was his response to a question about whether he’d ever consider cutting an outside tune from another artist. He added that he wrote so many types of songs — ones that pulled at heartstrings, ones that make people want to dance, ones that give fans an escape — there was really nothing missing.
Brown acknowledged he was afraid to sign with a major label after working so long as an independent artist.
“I was scared to death to sign my name on a piece of paper,” he said. “Like what was gonna happen if a prettier girl came to the dance? But eventually you have to spread the net farther.”
Nashville producer Keith Stegall, who eventually produced The Foundation, played a key role in making sure Brown didn’t sign a deal with a label that demanded a major share of his music publishing.
“There were some labels who were trying to strong-arm me into giving my songs away,” Brown recalled. “But those were my songs.”
Brown digressed a bit from talk of touring and music to spend some time explaining his dedication to creating awareness about harmful chemicals.
“In the first 10 minutes of your day, you rub sodium lauryl sulfates on your teeth, then put aluminum under your arms, then add aspartame to your coffee,” he said. “You can’t even go into a gas station and find something that’s good for you. I’m not a political person. This is just what I believe.”
When Brown got into the details of his Letters for Lyrics campaign and his partnership with Ram Trucks, he said, “I’m blessed to be an artist and a business person.” The campaign, which gives away free CDs to fans who write postcards to troops in the military, is a cause Brown believes in with all his heart.
“I have friends in Afghanistan, real people, who have gotten these letters,” he said. “The smallest thing helps because the troops lose touch with home, and the media’s forgotten they are over there keeping us safe.”
Then a young musician in the crowd asked Brown if he felt like hooking up with a big brand like Ram made him feel like he was selling out.
“Selling out would mean I was compromising my art,” he said. “And I’d never do that.”