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."

Levi Lowrey

It's a wedding ceremony. The groom and visibly pregnant bride are impossibly young—so young, they must still be in high school, or only recently graduated. "Do they know what they're getting into?" you wonder.

It's an indelible scene from "Hold On Tight," a song from I Confess I Was A Fool, Levi Lowrey's Southern Ground debut. It testifies not only to his skill as a songwriter, but also to his unsparing honesty. You see, he was that nervous groom, all of 19 at the time. And the expectant bride? Now his wife of seven years, and mother of his two small boys. "Hold On Tight" is her favorite song, Lowrey notes.

"I write from true experience," he says. "And I find a lot of inspiration in sorrow, pain and stupid mistakes."

It's that honesty—and the skill with which it's conveyed—that sets Lowrey apart both as a performer and songwriter. And as word of his prodigious blend of talents spreads, his live audiences keep growing. Truly, after a lifetime of playing music, then seven years of playing in a band before striking out as a singer/songwriter, this is his moment. And I Confess I Was A Fool—with its masterful, song-serving performances, pitch-perfect songcraft and unflinching confessions and observations—is his calling card.

Levi Lowrey may be a guitar-toting troubadour today, but he began as a fiddle player. No surprise, since his great-great-grandfather, the late Gid Tanner, was also a fiddle player and today stands as a towering figure in country music history. Tanner and frequent rival "Fiddlin' John" Carson were among the first "hillbilly" musicians to take advantage of the fledgling broadcast and recording industries of the early 20th Century. As a result, Tanner—a chicken farmer by trade—became one of the first country music stars, along with his band the Skillet Lickers.

Despite such a legacy, Lowrey felt no pressure, and he took naturally to the fiddle—it's in his blood, after all—playing in school orchestra, at bluegrass festivals, in weekly jam sessions in his hometown of Dacula, Ga. and with various relatives who have kept new incarnations of the Skillet Lickers going since the band's 1930s heyday.

Curiously, for someone so skilled as a lyricist, the first songs Lowrey wrote were wordless. Early recordings of his were all instrumental, a mix of traditional country and bluegrass numbers and new compositions based on the traditional tunes he'd grown up with. It was only at this point that Lowrey picked up a guitar and even then, it was only to lay a musical bed for his fiddle compositions.

But the siren call of rock stardom beckoned, so as a high schooler he joined a band, and though he wasn't the primary songwriter, he began haltingly adding lyrics to a composition here and there. Inspired by Butch Walker and his Atlanta power-pop outfit, Marvelous Three, Problem Thomas became the venue where Lowrey got comfortable onstage and grew into his role as a songwriter. He also began leading worship at his church as the band ran its course—in fact, its core now remains as Lowrey's touring ensemble, the Community House Band.

"Then, I just came full circle and started writing stuff that was more derived from my roots and how I grew up, how I learned how to play," he recounts. "It's not North Georgia string band music; I wouldn't call it bluegrass. I don't think I'd even call it country, but it has all of those elements within it—it's just a melting pot of my influences."

It may be tough to label, but it's bound to resonate with anyone who loves top-notch songwriting and keen musicianship. The songs include a memorable, story-telling nod to Charlie Daniels ("All American"), an upbeat country rocker ("The Problem With Freedom") and plenty of more laid-back, introspective moments, redolent of Lowrey's heroes Kris Kristofferson and Darrell Scott ("Freight Hopper" "Another Sunday Morning Hangover.") The lyrics ride the typically southern Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy, with debauchery, foolishness, regret and confession in equal measure.

"My wife was out of town," Lowrey recalls, about "Another Sunday Morning Hangover," "so I was a useless human being. I woke up on my couch and I was watching TBN for some reason. I guess I came home hammered and wanted to watch the televangelists. When I woke up I found a napkin laying on the coffee table, and I couldn't even get up—it was the worst hangover I've ever had in my entire life. So I just leaned over, grabbed the napkin and started writing the song down."

Lowrey isn't just an explorer of his own heart; he's also equally adept at telling others' stories—exhibit A: "Roselee And Odes." It's a tale of the older couple who lived next door to him and enjoyed a lifetime of love, which turned to heartbreak when Odes passed away. "I was very hesitant to play it for Roselee," Lowrey recalls. "She's still not over him. It took her a long time to even get to the point where she could get out of bed in the morning. But she loved the song."

As Lowrey has matured as a songwriter, his gifts have been employed increasingly by others. He along with Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, and Zac Brown Band member Coy Bowles wrote "Colder Weather" which became Zac Brown Band's seventh consecutive #1 single and received a CMA Award nomination in 2011 for Song of the Year.

A full telling of Lowrey's story would be incomplete without mentioning Brown, as well as fellow singer/songwriter and Southern Ground labelmate Sonia Leigh. Just a few years ago, they were all compadres on the Atlanta singer/songwriter scene, playing dive bars, acoustic-music showplace Eddie's Attic and anywhere else that would have them.

After his band broke up, Lowrey ended up in Leigh's band as her full-time fiddle player while continuing to write and perform the occasional solo gig. Meanwhile, both of them could tell big things were ahead for Brown, who'd already paid lots of dues on the local scene.

"The first time I ever saw Zac, I just knew," Lowrey recalls. "I can't even explain. It's like, the same way that you feel about him when you see him in an arena today, and how incredible the show is—imagine that feel, that vibe and that energy packed into [300 capacity] Dixie Tavern."

So when the Zac Brown Band broke through on the charts and established itself as a concert draw, Brown was true to his promise to come back for his friends. After he established his own record label, Leigh and Lowrey were among his first signings along with Nic Cowan, and they have already played sizable venues—arenas and amphitheaters—as opening acts.

Despite the boost, Lowrey has a one-step-at-a-time attitude about his career, trusting his audience to find him organically. "I'm not trying to be a superstar right now—that's not on my list of things to do," he says, noting that he still lives in Dacula, his hometown, and that's not likely to change. "What I've been trying to do is write the next song better than the last one. Honestly, I get to do what I love for a living, my kids eat, my wife is provided for, and we're able to help out others who are struggling. We're very family oriented, and I think that's about as good as it gets."

Many young musicians have parents who are less than supportive when artistic aspirations are announced. It's understandable. After all, becoming a doctor, lawyer or accountant are safe career bets. Donning a guitar, writing songs and pounding on club doors for gigs? Not so much.

But Nic Cowan never had that worry. When the native Texan and transplanted Atlantan decided to get serious about his musical career, he turned to the professional musician he knew best—his dad, a drummer who regularly gigged with folk, country and jazz ensembles. As an aspiring frontman and solo artist, the younger Cowan wanted dad's ideas on what it would take to be successful. And dad, who'd played behind more than a few frontmen—good, bad and indifferent—was more than happy to lay aside his sticks to drop some wisdom.

"He said the key is to be completely original," Cowan recalls. "Don't do something that people can categorize easily. You want them not to be able to put a label on you. You can be an amazing singer, amazing player, amazing songwriter, but if you sound like something that's already out there, then you're not going to get far."

Cowan clearly took that advice to heart. His Southern Ground debut, Hard Headed, is winsomely crowd pleasing but unclassifiable—neatly mixing southern rock, country, soul and R&B without being hewing to any single style. Cowan's gritty, soulful voice—redolent of whiskey, cigarettes and dues paid—completes the package, announcing the arrival of an artist ready for bigger stages.

Cowan already has played plenty of smaller stages to get there. After beginning behind a kit, in imitation of his old man, he switched to guitar in high school and immediately began seeking his own voice, playing in a punk band and even leading worship at a church for a number of years before stepping away from religion to pursue the rambling troubadour's life.

"The second I learned how to play guitar, the moment I learned three chords, I started writing," Cowan recalls. "The writing aspect of it was what I really got into. I decided I wanted to be a songwriter. And that's still how I see myself—the rest of it is secondary"

Acoustic guitar in hand, Cowan joined the ranks of hopefuls haunting open mic nights, playing gigs and penning a handful of originals while juggling day jobs. Or night jobs. Or a mix of both. As he recalls, for a time he'd work a graveyard shift at UPS, then a seven-hour shift doing maintenance at an apartment complex and finally an evening performance.

Sleep? Sleep is for the weak. Or for those less hungry and hard headed.

The hard headedness—memorably captured in the album's title track—was an asset as Cowan shrugged off disappointing gigs and kept plugging away, learning hours of cover tunes to please fickle audiences. Along the way he met Francisco Vidal a booking agent who saw promise in the guitar-slinging youngster and did his best to keep him working regularly.

It was a scene that was repeated on a larger scale later, when Vidal booked Cowan to open for the Zac Brown Band in Carrollton, GA. Before the show a friend of Cowan's sought out Brown and asked the bandleader to check out just a few songs of his opener's set. Brown gladly obliged. It turned out to be a banner night, with the crowd singing the hooks to Cowan's tunes, and both artists ended the set with matching grins.

I approached him after the show, thinking I'd ask for some tips, asking what he'd do in my position," Cowan says. "But then he said, 'I'm going to be starting a record label and when I do, I'd love to sign you.' Just right there.

"I was thinking I just wanted some advice but hey, we can do that too! So he got my number and I went over to his house and he asked me to play every song I'd ever written. We played for hours. Later on, we kept in contact. Five months later he signed his deal, then had his hit."

And not too much longer, Cowan had his deal as well, and he entered a studio to turn his gritty, solo-acoustic songs into fleshed out, full-band arrangements, complete with swelling Hammond B-3, backing vocals, horns and a rock edge impossible to capture in a solo acoustic gig. Brown provides guest vocals on "Cut It Loose," a song Cowan had originally written with him in mind.

Cowan's songs are designed to spark a good time. Particularly in tracks like "Gutter Song," "Wrong Side" and the title track, his bad-boy persona comes through loud and clear. But the approach is seasoned with a humorous wink, and is interspersed with heartfelt, laid-back cuts like "I Won't Let Go" and "Reno." While it's sure to spark audience sing-alongs, it's not calculated in the slightest. As Cowan sings in "New Shit": "Let me set this straight from the start / I don't do this so I get on the charts."

As Cowan tells it, "Hard Headed" was written about a man's resistance to being controlled by a lover. Despite that, it's become a gender-spanning audience favorite. "I thought it was going to be an anthem for men everywhere, but it turns out women love this song," he notes with a smirk. "They come up to me all the time, saying, 'that's my jam!' I think at the end of the day everyone likes to think of themselves as a little bit hard headed and not easily influenced."

It's an attitude still carrying Cowan today. Despite the opportunity a record deal represents, he's considered himself a success from the moment he was able to leave his day jobs (and night jobs) behind and play music full time. In fact, the building that now houses his record label and management company was once, in a prior incarnation, the prime destination for the UPS trucks he loaded. It's a compact picture of how far his talent—and hard-headedness—has brought him already.

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