Posted: 09/04 @ 08:09 amZac Brown Band: Music from outside the country club
SNOWMASS VILLAGE — In 2005, Clay Cook was invited to join the Zac Brown Band. Cook was intrigued. The band had great energy, evidenced by the four- and five-hour shows they’d play, and Brown, the bandleader, was a good guy. Though the Georgia-bred Brown and his mates played country music, they weren’t limited by it, throwing Pink Floyd covers and Allman Brothers-inspired guitar licks into their mix. And having spent much time playing and touring with much older people, Cook liked the fact that Brown and company were in the same generational ballpark as him.
But Cook was already doing well for himself, business-wise. He was a solid member of the Southern rock icons Marshall Tucker Band, which was led by Cook’s uncle, Doug Gray, and was still doing reasonably well, playing both enduring hits like “Can’t You See” and “Heard It in a Love Song,” and putting recording new material. The Marshall Tucker Band was at least doing well enough to afford a tour bus, something Brown couldn’t offer. Back in 2005, the Zac Brown Band was one of those bands playing low-key gigs at restaurants — including Brown’s own Zac’s Place, a Southern-style spot in Lake Oconee — and traveling around in low-budget vehicles.
“I didn’t think he could financially afford a sixth member,” the 33-year-old Cook said.
The financial picture changed drastically late in 2008 when Brown’s “Chicken Fried” hit and hit big. The song, which Cook had heard Brown sing for several years, was originally released on the independently released 2005 album “Home Grown,” but was re-recorded for the 2008 album, “The Foundation.” “Chicken Fried” went to No. 1 on the country charts; three more songs from the album followed it to the No.1 spot. And once again, Cook received a call from Brown.
“He said, ‘OK, I think I’ve figured it out now,’” recalled Cook, who joined the Zac Brown Band at the beginning of 2009. “I figured, at least I didn’t have to step out of the bus. I was in a tour bus before and was going into another bus. So it wasn’t a step backward.”
In many ways, joining the Zac Brown Band, which closes the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival with an appearance on Sunday, Sept. 4 (7:15 p.m.), has been a giant step forward for Cook. The band earned the best new artist Grammy in 2009 and new artist of the year honors from the Country Music Association in 2010. The 2009 album “You Get What You Give” yielded two additional No. 1 singles, including “Knee Deep,” which featured guest vocalist Jimmy Buffett.
The benefits of Cook’s career move have not been only in the area of dollars and accolades. Cook also gets the satisfaction of knowing that, for all its achievements inside the country music establishment — “As She’s Walking Away,” a song from “You Get What You Give” featuring Alan Jackson, earned something called Top Vocal Event of the Year from the Academy of Country Music — the Zac Brown Band is not beholden to the dictates of country’s conservative, commercial side.
The band covers Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and even Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” In concert, they don’t dress in costume, but look more like a band that spent some years in van. On “You Get What You Give,” the sounds wander well outside narrow country conventions: there are reggae and calypso rhythms, guitars inspired by Duane Allman and Dickie Betts, a 10-minute jam titled “Who Knows.” Moreover, there is an overall looseness that makes it clear the band itself — a sextet of fiddler Jimmy De Martini, guitarist-organ player Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar, bassist John Hopkins, lead singer Brown, and Cook on guitar, keyboards and pedal steel — are calling their own shots.
“The thing that connects us to country music is the songs – we like country songs, and we like to tell stories,” Cook said from his home in Atlanta, on a week-long break that included making sure his cars are oiled and cleaned. “On the other end of the spectrum, we’re not a heavy rock band, but we like to jam out and we like bluegrass. We all like reggae and can get into the island music. You could put nine labels on it sometimes.”
One label that doesn’t apply is Nashville insider. The band is based in Atlanta, and that only begins to describe how far outside the country establishment the band is.
“We’re definitely not part of the machine. We don’t have a Nashville presence,” Cook said. He notes that Keith Stegall, a classic insider, produced “You Get What You Give.” “He is your typical country producer. He helped build it; he’s a brick in the wall. He made Randy Travis and Alan Jackson records. But when we’re making records, he doesn’t get in the way. He allows us to be us.”
All of which makes it a little hard to explain all the success the Zac Brown Band has had inside the country club. Cook speculates that the band, known as an exceptional live act, has earned some true fans in Nashville. He speculates further that the band will not always get such a warm group hug from the establishment.
“I’m sure there will be a band that comes and knocks us off,” he said.
Which should be just fine. Cook — who attended the Berklee College of Music, and whose previous dream gig was to be in “The Tonight Show” band — says that his time with Brown has already far surpassed his expectations in various ways. And even if and when Country Music Television and the Country Music Association find some next big thing to adore, the Zac Brown Band isn’t going away. With two and a half years of service under his belt, Cook is the newest member of the band. And he sees a long road ahead.
“I definitely like the guys in this lineup,” Cook said, adding that the group would be making plans for its next album as it travels to Aspen this weekend. “I can’t imagine this breaking up for a long, long time.”
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While Jazz Aspen Snowmass went for the youth crowd this Labor Day, with a lineup featuring mash-up artist Girl Talk, a new electronica stage, and just one act, Steely Dan, aimed at the baby boom generation; and Belly Up Aspen following suit, with a weekend of DJ Z-Trip and another DJ set, by Jeff Apruzzese, of Passion Pit, the weekend of music closes in old-school fashion. Taj Mahal, the 69-year-old bluesman, plays with his trio on Sunday, Sept. 4 at Belly Up Aspen.
Though Taj — who was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks — turns 70 on his next birthday, he seems to have retained the youthful quality of keeping his ears open. Taj is generally put into the folk-blues category — no doubt, in part, because of such album titles as “The Natch’l Blues,” “Recycling the Blues Other Related Stuff,” “Dancing the Blues” and “Phantom Blues.” But he has always allowed room for influences from the Caribbean, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
In recent years, Taj’s ears have only opened wider. In 1998, he released “Sacred Island,” which featured sounds from Hawaii, a territory he revisited with 2001′s “Hanapepe Dream.” “Kulanjan,” from 1999, was a collaboration with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate; “Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar,” from 2005, had Taj working with a large ensemble of players from Tanzania.
The kids seem to have respect for Taj. His most recent album, 2008′s “Maestro” featured guest singers Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Anglique Kidjo and Ziggy Marley.