By his telling, Zac Brown has always been hustling. Even before his musical ambitions came to light, he was a grade-school sugar peddler.
“I was the kid in school that was selling candy out of my backpack,” Brown says. “I was slinging Blow Pops and Jolly Ranchers.”
The Georgia native eventually graduated from sweets to songs but retained his work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. He’d go to a local sports bar, propose a recurring gig where he got to keep the door money, and play for hours. This D.I.Y. approach allowed Brown to start building a loyal following, which exploded as he booked bigger rooms.
“All over the Southeast, in Florida and Alabama and Georgia, I was coming to places that, when we could fill that place up where we couldn’t fit anymore, we moved to a different place,” he says. “We moved to a theater there. And started playing in that theater and doing it. The other day, I tried to figure it up — it’s somewhere between 4500 and 5000 shows that I’ve played.”
Which is to say, the pandemic wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time. Early in 2020, a tearful Brown posted a video explaining how he’d been forced to lay off a bunch of his crew because tours were stalled indefinitely. “I’ve got this message that I want to say to the people that aren’t taking this seriously, and the people who are out partying and the people that are sitting on beaches and the people that don’t care if they get this virus or take it home to their grandparents and maybe kill their grandparents or complicate their lives,” he said. “The longer that America doesn’t take this seriously and doesn’t stay in and try to contain this, the longer that everyone’s gonna be out of jobs.”
The Zac Brown Band did get to tour a little bit in 2021, including opening for the Rolling Stones, until Brown got Covid in September and had to cancel a few shows. He got Covid a second time and canceled a New Year’s Eve performance. Fortunately, he seems to be on the upswing now.
“It’s been pretty interesting getting through the gauntlet of all of this,” Brown says. “But what’s come out of it is this massive rejuvenation. I needed time off and this forced me to take it. I’m just super grateful to be on the other side of the storms that we were going through and I’m in such a good creative headspace.”
This weekend, Zac Brown Band’s Out in the Middle Tour gets into swing with shows in Greenville and Charleston, South Carolina, and continues with numerous dates in amphitheaters in stadiums through mid-November. The group’s seventh studio album, The Comeback, is also out now, giving them a wealth of new material to trot out alongside hits like “Chicken Fried,” “Colder Weather,” and “Knee Deep.” Sacred steel wizard Robert Randolph will support all dates, with the grand finale each night a full ensemble jam to give fans a little something extra.
During a Zoom conversation with Rolling Stone, Brown previewed the band’s ambitious new tour, touched on political division in the information age, and spoke of lessons learned over two decades of performing.
If the events of the last two years hadn’t happened, do you think you would have slowed down at all?
No, I wouldn’t have slowed down. I had 250 employees when Covid started. I have to go work and provide and keep all those things going, all of our businesses, everything we had going. It just smashed everything. And then you have to keep the things that are necessary. Without everything else, there is a lot more bandwidth, right? A lot less headaches, a lot less payroll going out the door. So I don’t have to just play as many shows to just go and break even with everything that’s happening. So we’ve got a lot leaner machine now, but everybody’s morale and everybody’s spirit is in it. Robert Randolph’s opening for us this year. The second half of the show is his whole band and my whole band together playing. We’ve got background singers added to that, so we’re really flexing on what we can do, production-wise.
It almost sounds like a Bonnaroo “Super Jam”-type experience.
Absolutely. Having two drummers adds a lot to the music. If you ever go see the Allman Brothers or Tedeschi Trucks Band, that adds another big layer of breadth to it. And then having my singers and my band with the background singers and having horns, we’re going to be able to pull something off that I’ve always wanted to do. [It’s] a new horizon and a new model that I want to work on moving forward — have another group that we integrate in with ours for an elevation for that last half of the show.
How does that figure into what you and the band will do on your own during these shows? Are you having to rethink the way that you approach your setlist?
When we toured last year, we did a few songs off The Comeback, but the album wasn’t released, so we [couldn’t] perform anything that wasn’t released or else the first version of it would be on YouTube somewhere. Now that the album is fully out, we’re able to go play these songs live, which we’ve never done. So thinking about how we do that and which songs go in that second set and all of that, that’s going to be the art of putting this all together as we get into rehearsals.
With regard to The Comeback, the album includes songs like the title track and “Same Boat” where you sing about unity and strike a very conciliatory tone. What motivated you to write those?
It was watching the politics just divide our country and split everybody in half. I think that division exists in places and it’s unfortunate where it does. I’m not meaning to make light of any suffering that’s happening out there. But I believe in this country and I think this is the greatest country in the world to live in. And you can come here with a dream and you’re going to have adversity, but nobody’s going to stop you from becoming what you want to be in this country. It’s important to have things that are positive and that bring people together that remind us of how we’re all the same. I mean, I’m from Atlanta, very diverse culture that’s here around the city. There’s a lot of things that are talked and highlighted, but these days you’re watching something and I’m just trying to figure out what they’re trying to manipulate us into doing. I just turn the news off. I don’t participate in it and I try not to look. When I look around my tribe and I look around my community and things here, everything is great.
“The news is no longer a report about what’s happening. It’s about how can we get people to side with us or hate this person”
When you say “they,” do you mean people in political office or news media or something else?
All of it. All of it. I mean, when you look at people’s agendas and how they’re going to manipulate people into accomplishing their agenda, it’s very obvious and it’s hard to find the truth. When you hear about something and instead of going, “Wow, that’s happening,” the news is no longer a report about what’s happening. It’s about how can we get people to side with us or hate this person or do these things. I think a lot of the stuff in the media is very divisive, and that’s not the America that I know.
There does seem to be some amount of trying to outscore the opponent that goes on from different ends of the political spectrum. I can understand why people find it upsetting and confusing.
It’s like sipping on poison. You can pick a channel over here and you’re pissed off about one thing and your cortisol goes up and [then] you watch this one and you’re pissed off about this. We’re tribal people, the same way we were two hundred thousand years ago. The technology is advanced so far and so much that we hear so many people’s opinions about things that we forget what’s right in front of us. So you just sip on this poison and being stimulated by all these things that are around all the time. We weren’t really supposed to hear people’s voices that we can’t hear beyond earshot. That’s the way we were made and created. [It’s like] the Wild West with everything that we’re in right now and what that’s doing to our — disconnected with nature, disconnected with the Earth, disconnected with things that are there. it’s amazing in a lot of ways, but you got to fight really hard not to just be addicted and sucked into the distraction.
But maybe it’s also not a bad thing for tribal people to hear some outside voices either. Just in terms of building empathy and understanding for things you may not have previously encountered.
Yeah, I can see that for sure. I could see understanding and seeing those things — if the motivation behind those messages is something that’s trying to generate a greater good. But I feel like this much of all of it [holds thumb and index finger close together] is actually what you’re talking about. There’s so much noise and people comparing themselves and you look at the suicide rate of kids trying to compare themselves to other people trying to keep up with things. Sometimes people are just in this bubble and they stay in it and don’t have anything to pull them out of that and to have a different perspective.
Mark Twain had a quote about travel being lethal to ignorance and racism. After you’ve been out and seen a lot of other things, you realize we’re all the same. We all have that same human condition — we fall in love, we have heartbreak, we have hard times, we have adversity. Music is one of those powerful things that unifies those through the stories. It’s one of the reasons why I love country music, the poetry and the sentiment that’s put into the songs, into the stories. And if it’s done the right way, people can relate to it and feel that and just be reminded that, yeah, other people feel those things too.
What do you feel like you do better now as a band than you did when you first started?
We take care of ourselves. We look after our health. Being there to support each other and, if somebody’s slipping or whatever, to really address it and talk to him and try to figure out how we can lift each other up so that we can have the longevity to be able to do this. I’m going to be doing this until I can’t sing or play anymore. But the lifestyle around it all — there was a time when we drank a bottle of Jäger before the show, we drank a bottle of Jäger during the show, and then one after the show. We’ve had our days and we know what that offers. There’s some of it where it’s just kind of like, “OK, we’ve passed this now.”
I look at it as a professional sports team like, this is a competitive thing and we take it seriously [in] the way we practice, the way we rehearse, the way we perform. Nobody’s allowed to drink or smoke or do any drugs or anything during the show. Whatever they do after the show, they have a small window before we get on the buses and roll again. But I think what we do better now is take care of ourselves. I know that I have to sleep a lot. I have to drink way more water than I ever want to. I have to use a professional vocal coach and warm up for an hour every day. I have to do cardio every single day. I’ve got to keep the machine going, you know? I hate seeing people that are half-drunk onstage and people came to pay to see them, and they’re just sloppy. That’s not the way that I want our experience to be for people. This is our life and our business, and we’ve got to take it seriously.