For most fans, the Zac Brown Band is inseparable from its first big hit, the rousing Southern summer anthem “Chicken Fried.” The song, from the band’s major-label debut, The Foundation, was a phenomenon during the summer of 2008 and well into 2009, and was the main reason why the band earned a Grammy for Best New Artist. It’s the kind of song that any new band would love to have, but it’s also the kind of song that can threaten to overwhelm a new group. It’s hard to tell at the time if one hit will be your only one.
“You know, to be honest, we all thought that ‘Chicken Fried’ would be the one song that would define us, early on,” says drummer Chris Fryar. “But as the shows grew in size and the audiences got bigger and we put out You Get What You Give, and ‘Colder Weather’ seems to get just as many cheers as anything else on the set list.
“Hopefully that deep association with ‘Chicken Fried’ won’t be a hurtful thing. It’s a fun song, we dig playing it, and there’s lots of people in the audience that love to sing along and hear us play it. If that’s what we’re known for to the uneducated, that’s fine. Most people look at Jimmy Buffett and think, oh, it’s the ‘Margaritaville’ guy, and there’s a whole lot more to Jimmy Buffett than that. There’s always going to be one song that people associate somebody with. James Taylor—most people associate him with ‘Fire and Rain,’ because it’s the most easily graspable thing to latch onto. If that’s what it is for us, to always be the ‘Chicken Fried’ guys, it’s a good thing. It’s an instant association.”
What seemed like overnight success had taken years. Zac Brown began assembling his band (which now consists of Brown, Fryar, fiddler Jimmy De Martini, bassist John Driskell Hopkins, guitarist/keyboardist Coy Bowles, multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook, and percussionist Daniel de los Reyes) in Atlanta a decade ago, releasing two independent albums before finally getting the attention of Atlantic Records with “Chicken Fried.” Brown and company didn’t just survive the wave of attention that came with “Chicken Fried.” They’ve thrived since then, releasing two more albums—You Get What You Give (2010) and Uncaged (2012)—and establishing themselves as one of country music’s most popular touring acts and reliable radio stars. The band’s unexpected mashup of country, pop, jam-band music, and Jimmy Buffet-style tropical escapism is reflected in the roster of guest stars who have appeared on ZBB records: Alan Jackson, Amos Lee, New Orleans horn star Trombone Shorty, and even Buffett himself, on 2010’s “Knee Deep.”
The band’s musical range appeals to hippies, frat boys, country fans, and suburban housewives. That widespread approach can seem a little calculated, but it also relies on impeccable musicianship.
“I would dare to say that the Zac Brown Band is, for me, one of the most, if not the most musically challenging project that I’ve ever been a part of,” Fryar says. “There’s a very delicate balance that’s reached on each song. It’s challenging, in every shape, form, and fashion, because we allow all these stylistic influences to broaden our sound. You’re basically changing gears from song to song, especially during the live shows. We have some songs that have reggae or island influences, and then we have songs that are definitely rock influenced, and then we have songs that sound very country influenced, and we have songs that are bluegrass-oriented. Switching gears like that, it’s a challenge. You want to be able to play exactly what is needed for the song.”
Fryar says he doesn’t know what’s on the band’s schedule past this current tour, but at least one thing is clear—five years on from its breakthrough hit, the Zac Brown Band has proven it’s more than just a one-hit wonder.
“To be perfectly honest, there are other songs that we’ve been doing that people scream for as loudly, or louder,” he says. “We want to ultimately be known as a band that had a broad career. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We want to be around for a long time. We want to be doing what we do until we’re all dead—for as long as we can.”