Clay Cook Reflects on His Time With Zac Brown Band

Talks New Welcome Home Tour

If multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook doesn’t get a song he’s written or co-written recorded on a Zac Brown Band album, it’s no sweat.

The Grammy-winning group’s latest album Welcome Home is mostly co-written by Brown, Coy Bowles and Brown’s Sir Roosevelt bandmates Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, the latter two of whom co-wrote the band’s latest smash “My Old Man” with Brown.

“I’ve only got one song that I’ve written in the history of Zac Brown Band, and that’s on the last record called, ‘Wildfire,'” Cook said over the phone while on a day off the Welcome Home Tour. “It’s just one of those things where the songs that I write don’t have the right vibe. It just doesn’t. I mean, I might have been butt-hurt if I was 20.”

Before joining the Zac Brown Band in 2009, Cook had built a successful career as an independent artist and as a go-to player for Shawn Mullins, the Marshall Tucker Band and Sugarland. He and John Mayer were around 20 when they co-wrote Mayer’s breakout hit “No Such Thing” and “Love Song for No One,” both of which originally appeared on Mayer’s 2001’s Room for Squares. He also ran a studio in Atlanta through the mid-2000s, and his latest release outside the Zac Brown Band, North Star, arrived in 2013.

“I had an opportunity to join Lynyrd Skynyrd on piano, and I had to make a decision,” Cook said. “At the time, Zac Brown Band really only had ‘Chicken Fried’ out on the radio and so it wasn’t at the level that it is now. But that’s really the only crossroads I’ve had. So, it was a chance to be part of something basically from the beginning. I obviously made the right decision.”

Cook said joining Zac Brown Band felt like he joined a brotherhood of musicians who were tied through the same musical roots. Since then, the group has won three Grammys and has entertained sold-out crowds around the world.

Cook believes the key to the band’s longevity is serving their fans songs with lyrical substance.

“I think Zac’s kind of obsessed with it, too, which is a good thing,” he said. “He’s a fan of songwriters and great songs, and it comes across in how he won’t let one stupid line stay in a song. He’ll work on it until it’s right.

“We try to have these real personal thoughts and messages and try to express them to make people feel something,” he added. “If you’re not making somebody feel something in a song, it’s basically a lollipop. It’s not a digestible thing that’s going to help your nutrition.”

Fans will not want to miss Cook on the Zac Brown Band’s new Welcome Home Tour. Over past tours, the band has developed a reputation for staging elaborate three-hour sets. For 2015’s Jekyll & Hyde Tour, they rehearsed 87 songs and packed more than 115 instruments. On 2016’s Blackout the Sun Tour, they played to 111,587 fans in one weekend following stadium sell outs at New York’s Citi Field and Boston’s Fenway Park.

“On the last tour, we had a choir would come out with us and then we had a horn section,” Cook said. “We really put a lot of people onstage big time. … On this tour, we’re playing a good amount of the new record, which is a little more laid back than some of our other stuff and very personal and emotional.

“It definitely feels like we’re putting a concert on our front porch for everybody and bearing our soul just playing for our friends. It really does feel that way.”

The Welcome Home Tour continues through October with shows at Summerfest in Milwaukee, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Denver’s Coors Field and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.