Zac Brown Band doesn't hold fans at arm's length 

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

Fan Fair had that name for a reason — the reason being that from 1972 on, it was the premiere annual gathering for one of the world's most fan-driven genres: country music. In the days before Fan Fair, people had fairly easy access to the country singers they simultaneously idolized and identified with, and fan club members were very involved in promoting the performers they wanted to hear. (Diane Pecknold wrote an excellent book on the subject, The Selling Sound.) The switch in 2004 to the more antiseptic-sounding CMA Fest said a lot — among other things, that there's miles more distance between country acts and their audiences than there used to be.

But for Zac Brown Band — the hot-picking, precision-harmonizing, bar band-resembling Georgia sextet who came away with last year's Best New Artist Grammy — fan response has trumped the limitations of commercial format in important ways. The concept of a band of buddies that leans on original songwriting and makes plenty of room for soloing is familiar in rock, but less so in country, so ZBB didn't initially get much label interest in Nashville. And the band's debut single, "Chicken Fried" — written by Brown and his frequent co-writer Wyatt Durrette — had to follow a meat-and-potatoes country-rock cover of the song by The Lost Trailers that people had already been briefly exposed to on the radio. Thanks to listener response, Brown & Co. had an unlikely hit.

It couldn't have hurt that they really seem to get the sensibilities of the modern popular music fan, who's as likely as not to tell you she listens to everything, and to mean it. After years spent quietly building a regional fan base, ZBB appeared to zoom straight to chart hits and arena tours by packing 2008's The Foundation and last year's You Get What You Give with a stylistic mix that people — especially those fond of '70s LPs, theirs or their parents' — immediately embraced: Jimmy Buffett-like breeziness; sanded-smooth Eagles-caliber harmonies; James Taylor-style tuneful, intricate soft rock; jam band elasticity; and Southern rock muscle, on a contemporary country band chassis. They've even succeeded in taking a track with an unmistakably jammy, light-funk groove, "Keep Me in Mind," to the top of the Billboard country chart.

Says longtime ZBB bassist and singer John Driskell Hopkins, "I think the Zac Brown Band fan is ready to hear something different. They don't come with a preconceived notion that it's going to be cowboy hats and the same format. It's not going to sound a certain way. I think our fans are more diverse than maybe a standard country fan base. That just gives us more opportunity to stretch out musically. ... We certainly don't take any time to [worry] about what to not do.

"A lot of what we do," he adds, "is self-gratifying musically and artistically, and a lot of it is straight-up for the people who really want to hear it."

The stylistic breadth carries over to the artist roster Brown has assembled at his Atlanta-based indie label Southern Ground, which is home to bands, a hip-hop duo and several different flavors of singer-songwriters, including the two opening the Bridgestone show — Sonia Leigh and Nic Cowan. Texas-born Cowan's music mirrors the hybrid nature of 21st century life and listening habits with down-home, blue-collar lyrics and pop-funk undertones. Cowan says of Brown, his fan-savvy label head, "He got it, and most people kinda weren't really getting it and wanted me to go one way or the other — either go Southern or go urban."

The members of ZBB have been reclaiming some of the long-lost personal connection between country fan and country performer with their pre-show ritual the Eat and Greet, a gourmet Southern dinner cooked on the spot by the band's traveling chef that some 300 fans a night pay to partake in. Says Hopkins, "We shake everybody's hand on the way in, which is kind of cattle call-ish. And that's often where [typical] meet-and-greets will end, just kind of shaking everybody's hand and they get a quick picture. ... But then we'll go sit down with everybody. ... We're just hanging out. ... We eat really well, and we can talk about the food as much as the music."

And the sitting, talking and eating, no doubt, make a difference to those on both sides of the performance. "I will often see the people that I had dinner with in the front row," says Hopkins. "I'll be like, 'Oh, there's that guy I had dinner with. What's up?' "



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