Think you know Zac Brown and Zac Brown Band? Think again. Brown may just be one of the hardest working artists in music, with a head-turning 55 award nominations, including wins from the Academy of Country Music and the Grammys for best new artist; six studio albums; and a blossoming investment arm to boot. And 2020 is shaping up to be yet another banner year.
The Georgia-based artist, who got his start playing the college dive bar circuit, has risen to become one of the most recognized musicians around the globe. With a loyal country music fan base, Brown has been able to expand his range, often experimenting with different sounds, exploring new business and merchandising ventures, and collaborating with out-of-the-box partners. He’s teamed up with everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Skrillex, who, for the uninitiated, is a pretty big deal in the electronic music world. Zac Brown Band’s latest album, The Owl, released last year, features tracks with Andrew Watt, Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, Max Martin and Benny Blanco, to name a few.
“I’m a big fan of the people I get to collaborate with,” says Brown. “You can hear both people’s influences on a song, which is fun for me to explore. The outfit [a collaborative song] is a little different. If you’re listening to it on a really good stereo, some of these songs sonically go places you can’t normally go.” Such partnerships push the group toward pop and dance sounds, a far cry from early hit “Home Grown.” Yet the ethos of Zac Brown Band remains. It’s familiar and boundary-pushing all at the same time.
If variety is the spice of life, Brown is at the ready, taking notes and prepared to apply them to his music. “The last 20 years I’ve traveled the world and gotten to taste all kinds of new foods and new things. It takes a little time to be able to appreciate all the different spices—all the different things that go into it. So it’s like: What if we tried mixing this in there? ... It’s been fun to experiment,” he says of his evolving sound. Brown is quick to learn from his collaborators too. “Any time I get to work with a great producer, I always learn something I can apply when it’s just me and my guys. On Jekyll + Hyde, it was a big exploration of the range of the band—what the band can actually do, like a swing thing with Sara Bareilles or a rock thing with Chris Cornell.”
Aware of the relationship with his fans as stewards of his music, Brown is on a mission to sprinkle his signature blend of magic to everyone, taking care not to alienate anyone he’s collected along the way. Adding: “I did a song with Brandi Carlile on The Owl, and it’s an incredible country song. We’re not abandoning any genre or any group of people. We want our curiosity to grow. We don’t ever want to lose that part because it’s very fulfilling. But when we want to throw a fastball down the middle, we can. Every record is an exploration.”
For anyone familiar with Brown, the theme of exploration and experimentation is the connecting thread throughout his ventures. He’s an entrepreneur and an investor with an unbelievable depth and breadth of interests, including hats with Gunner Foxx (all the guys in the band wear them); high-quality bags with Woodward Brown; a knife company called Southern Grind; and what he affirms is “the greatest boombox in existence,” DemerBox. (“It’s completely weatherproof and waterproof; it floats. It’s also a dry box that holds all of your stuff,” he says.) Many of the items—including his own tour and brand merchandise—are produced out of Peachtree City, near Brown’s home.
“I’ve always been a people collector, finding and recognizing talent,” he says of the relationship with manufacturers and makers. “I know we can give them more infrastructure and space and the tools they need so they can make things people will see and be like, ‘Wow, that’s really, really exceptional.’”
In his personal and professional life, philanthropy is paramount for Brown. He founded Camp Southern Ground in Fayetteville, a place near to his heart. “Camp Southern Ground is way more than a camp. That title doesn’t do it justice,” he says, the excitement and emotion in his voice palpable. “I wanted to make a difference by creating a camp and the best of what I had gone through to help me believe I could be more.” For nine weeks in the summer, kids of all walks of life—children of veterans, kids with disabilities, those from underprivileged backgrounds and more—come together to learn, play and grow. Throughout the remainder of the year, the camp is devoted to veterans’ causes, helping to transition and aid former service members in finding “where their new chapter is,” says Brown. “I believe I was given music as my net—to cast out and bring people in and bring them together so we can make a difference together. We’ve been given a lot of responsibility and this is a way of giving back.”
That dedication to a cause and entrepreneurial spirit have served the frontman well many times over, especially when it comes to his own, well, everything. “Being vertically integrated—where we make all of our own merchandise; we control and run our entire tour; we own our own masters and our own publishing—we’re able to really experiment and see what works. I’m not afraid to try,” he says.
Always ready to reflect, improve and pivot, Brown’s business ventures are no different from his music. “This year, I’ve got a call to arms,” he says. “I’ve got a panel of some really smart people, not all in the music business, but business period.” The goal? To bring the fan experience to another level. The tightknit group of the band and assorted staff—numbering about 110 when on the road—has done it all, from music festivals to a themed cruise to high-touch fan experiences like Eat & Greet, which provides superfans the opportunity to mingle with the group over a shared meal.
Hospitality is top of mind for Brown, and he’s constantly looking to give value to his fans. “We’re trying to come together and figure out a way we can engage, where people feel like they’re getting a great value,” he says. It’s mainly to keep fans on their toes and to provide the best live show experience possible. He notes: “When we’re making records, when we’re collaborating, when we’re figuring out a business plan and putting a show together, we don’t want to be predictable.”
It’s best to have zero expectations around not only Zac Brown Band’s sound, but also its formatting. The artist has an unusual plan for the next few years, and it stands to reason that his fans will remain right alongside him. “We’re not going to put out songs in a traditional album format in the next few years,” he says. “We’re going to release it and put it out three or four songs at a time. People these days are grazers; they don’t want a full meal.”
His ability to adapt, take risks and experiment is important not only to Brown’s brand, but also to the man himself. The bearded guy who wrote megahit “Chicken Fried” is still the same Zac Brown, but with the room—and street cred—to experiment to his heart’s content. But you won’t see Brown sweating risks. Those risks have helped Zac Brown Band become a global sensation, spanning all genres, ages and genders. And that’s perfectly fine with him: “We’re a different kind of machine than most bands. We built our entire career off of hustle and busting our ass. We’re going to be around for the next 30 years playing music and trying to put on the very best show we can,” says Brown.
Edit Note: This interview was conducted in early February before COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Since the publishing of this article, Zac Brown Band made the very difficult decision to not move forward with all remaining tour dates, to take every precaution and put the health and safety of their fans and crews first.
Photography by: From top, photos by Alex Chapman; Southern Reel; Southern Reel; Alex Chapman