ZAC BROWN BAND
Blackberry Smoke, Sonia Leigh
10475 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, MD, 21044
ZAC BROWN BAND
Zac Brown Band may have ten hit singles, two platinum-selling records and countless dedicated fans, but to hear its members talk they're just getting warmed up. That's right—after numerous nights in front of packed arenas and amphitheaters, things are just beginning to come together for this accomplished band of brothers, led by one of the most charismatic individuals ever to don a beanie and dominate radio.
The band's latest album 'Uncaged' (Atlantic/Southern Ground) which debuted at #1 on Billboard 200 is proof positive. The result of a highly collaborative process, it's the sound of a group of versatile musicians gelling into a formidable unit and realizing they're capable of anything their fearless leader happens to dream up, from traditional country ("The Wind") to Caribbean rhythms ("Jump Right In") and even slinky bedroom R&B ("Overnight"). Running roughshod over genre boundaries, and bringing its audience along for the ride, its title is absolutely accurate—this is truly the sound of a band 'Uncaged'.
"I think that we've grown so much over the past few years as individual musicians and as a cohesive unit," observes drummer Chris Fryar. "As a band we have really grown together. And we play really, really well together. That increasing level of maturity really shows up on 'Uncaged.'"
"We're always trying to push the barrier of our musicianship and I'm proud to say that there is a little bit of something for everyone," adds Brown. "It's your basic country-Southern rock-bluegrass-reggae-jam record."
The addition of percussionist Daniel de los Reyes has helped the band move the groove along. His new bandmates describe de los Reyes—known for performing and recording with Stevie Nicks, Sting, Peter Frampton and Earth, Wind & Fire, among others—as a consummate professional. "It was really great to have him along," says guitarist/keyboardist Coy Bowles. "Danny's not going to be playing timbales over a bluegrass song. So if he needs to play a shaker all the way through a song, that's what he'll do. He knows when to be aggressive and when to lay back. I think the album has a real cool dynamic because of his sensitivity to all that."
Brown has built a virtual southern Brill Building of songwriting talent, while doing his best to reincarnate the '70s heyday of Capricorn Records through his Southern Ground Artists label, home to The Wood Brothers, Levy Lowrey, Nic Cowan, Sonia Leigh, Blackberry Smoke and The Wheeler Boys. But that's only part of the story. His Southern Ground banner flies over everything from metalworking to leather goods. In addition to housing offices and rehearsal space, the former industrial warehouse in Atlanta that serves as the company's headquarters also features a full kitchen for "Chef Rusty" Hamlin and his crew, the better to power those much-talked-about "eat and greets" that Brown, a former restaurant owner, hosts for lucky fans.
The most farsighted plans reach beyond the warehouse, to a plot of land south of Atlanta where plans proceed for a nonprofit camp aimed to help kids overcoming behavioral and learning disabilities and disadvantaged backgrounds. Simultaneously, Southern Ground has secured a studio in Nashville for future recording needs. At this point it's safe to say that the Zac Brown Band is more than an act—it's quickly becoming a way of life.
So given all of the creative energy around it, new material has never been a problem for Zac Brown Band. The band was originally built on the songwriting partnership of Zac Brown and Wyatt Durette. Since then the brain trust has expanded to encompass the artists on the label as well as members of the band. No matter how heavily the band is touring, something is always percolating.
So while there are ten credited songwriters on the 11 tracks composing 'Uncaged,' all are individuals within the band's social circle—no "guns for hire" here.
Unlike the band's prior outing, 'You Get What You Give' (Atlantic/Southern Ground), which grew out of songs that had already been in the band's live set before it entered the studio, 'Uncaged' was put together from brand new material. After booking some downtime, they all retreated to the Appalachian foothills near Dahlonega. "It had a very cleansing vibe to it," Fryar recalls. "You get really bad cell service there, which was great. There weren't any distractions. We were able to cut off the outside world and dig into what we wanted to say on this record."
They carried with them some 40 songs, none of which had been fleshed out or arranged for the band, and some of which weren't completely done. The goal of the retreat was to pull out and arrange the right 11 songs.
"It was an intensive workshop," notes bassist John Driskell Hopkins. "We hit the record button any time we had an idea worth keeping. Then we'd change things as we went. And we did that in a great place to build a campfire, cook some food, hang out and have some fellowship too. I'm amazed that we got so much done in just four or five days. "
Then, with producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, George Jones) in tow, the band settled in at Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Asheville, N.C. to lay down basic tracks, then took a "working vacation" to Key West, to record vocals at Jimmy Buffett's Shrimpboat Sound. Additional overdubs took place in Atlanta and Nashville.
The result is the most expansive album Zac Brown Band has ever delivered, where the group's trademark vocal harmonies meet jaw-dropping musicianship in a musical world where genre boundaries are increasingly slippery.
But if you think that's going to mean reduced radio exposure and a shrinking audience, you don't know this band very well—or its audience. "A lot of other artists may choose to sit back and do the same record they did last time, because they don't want to lose those fans," Fryar observes. " But from our perspective, we think those fans deserve the best music we can make. If it's different from the past record that's OK, because it's the best we can do. And they deserve the best. They're paying our bills and feeding our families."
Asked whether the band still feels at home on country radio, Hopkins notes that country radio has grown and evolved just as the band has. "It's southern radio to me, and I don't think we're doing anything southern people wouldn't like."
"I love country radio because of the dedication they have given us," De Martini affirms. "When I talk to program directors they tell me they're happy to play it, but they really have no choice because the fans are crazy about calling in and requesting our music all the time."
The album's two featured guests, Amos Lee and Trombone Shorty, aren't Music Row signifiers in the same way Alan Jackson was on 'You Get What You Give,' but Brown says this doesn't mean the band is leaving country music behind. Far from it—lead single "The Wind" is "the most country thing we've ever done," he notes. There is no "master plan," he adds. "We were just getting our buddies to sing with us."
In many ways Zac Brown Band is an unlikely success story. Bands who cover so much territory tend to become critics' darlings, but not platinum sellers.
"The two things I think that make this band different from anybody else, and the reason why we're here today, is that everybody has an insane work ethic," Bowles observes. "Nobody complains. Everybody plays their asses off, everybody gets on the plane or bus even if they're not feeling well, and tries to do everything to the best of their ability, always. And Zac has this ability to make you believe what he's singing no matter what. So if we do an R&B tune or a reggae tune, he's totally believable. You believe he's lived 'Highway 20 Ride,' for example. His conviction comes through all those songs."
"One cool thing about Zac is that he loves to include everybody," De Martini adds. "He doesn't really have to have the Zac Brown Band. I think he would be successful just as Zac Brown. But the band adds a lot and takes it to another level. It's one big family with him."
You can call Blackberry Smoke’s music southern rock and you wouldn’t be wrong. Or you could call it country and you wouldn’t be wrong, either. But you would be selling both the band and its legion of fans short. With influences that run the gamut from country to bluegrass to gospel and yes, southern rock, Blackberry Smoke is more than the sum of its diverse parts.
Loretta Lynn certainly didn’t know she was seeing a future opening act when she spotted a five-year-old girl in the crowd at an Alabama concert. As the story goes, during a quiet moment the enraptured child exclaimed, “now that’s country, dad!” The crowd stirred and the coal miner’s daughter herself spotted little Sonia Leigh, then bowed and waved, laughing, before moving on to the next song.
But... nearly 30 years later, that little girl opened for Lynn, winning over audiences with her gritty vocal delivery and bold, disarmingly honest songwriting. Between her childhood concerts and her rising career today as a Southern troubadour were many hard days, battle scars and dues paid. Sonia Leigh has earned every bit of soulful, lived-in authenticity her songs and performances portray. At the same time, an amazing chain of events—and a long list of friends and supporters—has put her on the cusp of even bigger success.
“I’m nothing without all the people who have been there for me,” Leigh notes. “I’ve got keys to just about everybody’s apartment in Atlanta because I’ve slept on everybody’s couch. But I’ve kept at it, because I really do truly feel that this was the calling on my life. I always knew this was what I wanted to do.”
That sense of destiny has always been important for Leigh. She left home at age 17 to pursue her dream. “When I left home I had fifty bucks, a garbage bag full of clothes and my guitar,” she recalls. “And that’s it.”
Determined to make it on her own, the teenager took three jobs—despite not owning a car. And determined to make it musically, she joined a band, which fortunately practiced right across the street from where she worked. Nothing has been handed to Sonia Leigh. Shortly after that memorable Loretta Lynn concert, her parents divorced, and she spent her childhood being passed back and forth between her father and mother. Later Leigh moved frequently with her dad as he took various jobs across the south and Midwest. Leaving home was just another uphill battle in a young life full of them.
“My life wasn’t the easiest, but it made me who I am today and a stronger person,” Leigh observes. “If I hadn’t left home and endured the things I did once I left home, I wouldn’t have written the songs I’ve written.”
Oh yes, about those songs. The songs on 1978 December, Leigh’s Southern Ground debut, range from the boozy barroom sing-along of “Bar”—a throwback redolent of the less well-behaved Nashville of yesteryear—to the soulful Muscle Shoals shuffle of “I Just Might,” the acoustic groove of “Virginia” (featuring Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls) and the keenly observed country-rockin’ “My Name Is Money.” Categorization is futile. Is it country, blues, soul or rock? The answer is yes. Is it southern? Add an exclamation point to the prior answer.
In this Leigh has a lot in common with one of her mentors, Zac Brown, who recently signed her to his Southern Ground Artists label. While he’s now a country chart-topper, at one point many thought Brown was going in too many directions to be successful. But Leigh believed. And she was taking notes every step of the way.
“I was watching what Zac was doing and I loved his music,” she says. “So if he was playing and he wanted me to play, I was there. And even if I wasn’t playing, I would go. Usually he would get me up on stage anyway. That’s just him.”
Leigh has been a part of Brown’s musical family for seven years now, having met the singer/songwriter in Atlanta musical circles. Brown’s right-hand man John Hopkins served as producer for Leigh’s independent outing Run or Surrender. Like everything else she’s done 1978 December is the sound of Leigh expressing her soul. It’s not calculated, focus-grouped or target-marketed. In fact, Leigh wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to do that. “It’s hard for me to just sit down and write and try to write a hit,” she says. “That’s just not me as a writer. I write about what’s happening and what I see.”
That’s something Leigh has been doing from childhood. Blessed with a musical family she picked up her dad’s guitar almost as soon as she could hold it without help.
“When I was 10 I really started being serious and asking him to show me chords, so I’d come home every day and practice after school and use his guitar,” she recalls. “Finally he saw I was getting good and he was actually tired of me using his guitar… because I’d be playing and he’d be wanting to play. So that’s when I got my own guitar. Then I started writing—I was writing songs as soon as I could make chords—lyrics and everything.”
At age 14, a song she’d written for a friend led to a chance encounter with a major-label producer—which, at age 17, turned into a management deal. And though that was now half a lifetime ago for the indefatigable performer, Leigh has taken encouragement from each connection and from each hard-fought rung up the ladder.
For her, it all comes together on “Ain’t Dead Yet,” 1978 December’s lead track, which delves into the influence her musical peer, blues artist Sean Costello, had and continues to have on her, even after his unexpected passing. The entire Atlanta musical community mourned the loss of such a promising young artist, but few more than Leigh, who still visits his grave regularly to hold one-sided conversations. “When he died I pretty much made a vow that I was gonna keep this going for both of us,” she says. “That’s basically that. I’m not dead yet, so let’s go out there and do it.”