Zac Brown on the Art of Live Covers and Why Dave Grohl is “One of My Favorite People”

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The post Zac Brown on the Art of Live Covers and Why Dave Grohl is “One of My Favorite People” appeared first on Consequence.

This interview is also available as an episode of the Consequence UNCUT podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts.

The Zac Brown Band knows that their job isn’t done after they complete an album and put it out into the world, and so they focus on their enigmatic, wildly enjoyable live shows, which have progressively grown in scope and stature since the band’s origins in the early 2000s.

It’s more than a mission for Zac Brown, it’s a point of pride. With the release of Zac Brown Band’s third live album, From the Road, Vol. 1: Covers this month, Brown and his group have yet another example of why they’re one of the best live bands in country music. But rather than put out another live album of their various hits over the last 15 years, they wanted to highlight the detours, surprises, and spontaneous guest stars that make their shows so spectacular.

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“This album is for people who just know our songs from the radio and haven’t come to a live show yet,” Zac Brown tells Consequence over a video call. “Our shows are super dynamic, we play all kinds of music. We always throw in curveball cover songs and things that people would never expect us to play. So, I was excited to give a taste of what our live shows are and our arrangements, and how we reinterpret these songs.”

While Zac Brown Band’s arrangement of these covers — which include Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Eleanor Rigby,” and Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” — aren’t miles away from their originals, they’re full of enthusiasm and creativity. Even better are From the Road‘s special guests, who linked with Zac Brown Band on several shows from their recent North American tours. Steven Tyler joins the band at Fenway Park for a rendition of “Sweet Emotion,” John Mayer plays along to the 12-minute “Neon” at a Nashville festival, and Marcus King guests on the Allman Bros classic “Whipping Post.”

The band is no stranger to star-studded collaborations, but as Brown attests, having these guests play during their shows is part of the Zac Brown Band magic. “I am still just such a music fan first,” says Brown, “When you’re a kid growing up, the people whose music you love, they’re kind of like superheroes. And when you get to be a peer with those people and they’re willing to come out and join our stage and be able to be there… Those have been some of the most incredible milestones.” In addition to sharing the stage with From the Road‘s eclectic guests, Brown names a prior TV performance alongside James Taylor as a particularly treasured moment: “He was my biggest influence… sharing the stage with your heroes and people like that and getting to be friends with them is weird and amazing.”

As we discuss these exciting From the Road collaborators, I’m reminded of Zac Brown’s collaborations with Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters: After the band released The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1 in 2013 (an EP produced by Grohl), Brown briefly housed Foo Fighters in his studio as they recorded their eighth LP Sonic Highways and featured heavily in the Nashville-based episode of the album’s accompanying HBO series. “Dave Grohl is just one of my favorite people,” Brown says. “He’s everything you’d want him to be and more. He’s just such a creative force. He’s always pushing the boundaries… When that series came out, Dave did a show at the Ryman in Nashville, and it was Halloween. So I came out and did Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” in full corpse paint with Foo Fighters, it was so cool.”

He goes on to praise Grohl’s work ethic: “He’s continually reinventing himself, but he’s out working, he’s out connecting and staying relevant. And I think some artists get kind of comfortable and complacent and don’t want to be on the road, don’t want to be out doing it and dedicating their lives to it,” says Brown. “But you get what you give, whatever you put into it is what you’re going to get out, and people resonate with that. You can’t fake what we do. It’s really just a lot of time and hard work and being kind of monopolized out on the road. But that’s what we do. And I will do that until I can’t anymore.”

There are many things that Grohl and Zac Brown have in common, and one of them is their dedication to their bandmates. Brown notes that while playing live is where they’re best, that onstage camaraderie is just as present when in the studio or in rehearsal rooms. “You can’t fake chemistry,” Brown says. “You have to earn that by living together and being together and knowing what’s happening.”

He adds, “A lot of bands in Nashville, a lot of big country bands, they don’t even have their band play on their albums… I didn’t even know that was a possibility. Like, why wouldn’t you record with the people that you play with? But there’s kind of a system in different places that works for them. There’s a group of players in Nashville that play on most of those same records. But it’s important to me that we have an identity, we have a history, we have this culture that we’ve built. You can’t buy culture and momentum, you have to earn it. And the chemistry comes from thousands of hours of playing together, living together, creating together. That comes through when you see us live because everybody on the stage is a ninja!”

The group may not be doing ninja-like acrobatics, but From the Road demonstrates Brown’s point about each band member’s abilities. In addition to free-wheeling jams and guitar solos, their tight, multi-part harmonies — especially on songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Sweet Emotion” — are delivered with character and pinpoint precision. “It’s just a privilege to get to play with such incredibly talented people. Everybody is a music nerd in the band, you know? I think that if you do it right, you’re the worst person in your band.”

Of course, Brown himself belts and shreds all over From the Road, and even with eight studio albums out, he still sounds deeply inspired when he steps up to the mic. After all, country music and cover songs have a tethered relationship — it’s part of the country experience to honor the greats that came before.

Brown brings up two examples that have inspired him: Hearing Ray Charles’ covers album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and, most recently, Luke Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Of the latter, Brown says, “Great songs just transcend time. And for that song to be picked up 30 years later and now to be the biggest country song this last year, that’s the hope… That you write a collection of songs that people are gonna wanna keep singing and recording.”

He also mentions that he’s in the process of writing new Zac Brown Band tunes, and is feeling more optimistic about the state of country music in 2023. “I long to be inspired. I long to find people that are writing stuff that’s really amazing and makes me feel something,” he says, praising Chris Stapleton, Zach Bryan, and Brandi Carlile, whom he specifically names as “one of the best female vocalists ever, period.”

“There’s a movement, a new generation of music, especially in the country world. I feel like there’s a lot of great music to come, which feels good. It’s like when there was a disco era, there were a few good disco songs, but it was also kind of weird and it lasted a long time. And now, I feel like country music went through that with, you know, ‘tailgate, moonlight, tan legs, swingin’, cut-off, etc.’ There were literally a couple hundred songs for about seven or eight years where that was the whole song, the same words in different orders. But now, it just feels like there’s a lot more integrity coming into that space by the artists that are coming out now. Whether they’re going to be really revered on radio or not, you can’t deny their success.”

While we don’t know when new Zac Brown Band material will be out in the world yet, we’re also left with the promise of more of these live covers, which Brown says they have loads of (“We’ve recorded every show from the last 15 years, so we have a massive collection).” Not only that, Brown and the band are gearing up for a 2024 co-headlining tour with fellow country stalwart Kenny Chesney. So, the chance to bear witness to Zac Brown Band’s majesty in real time is presenting itself once more. Will they bust out more classic covers? Probably. Special guests? Very likely. But no matter what happens, the Zac Brown Band will be having the time of their lives, and they’re betting that you will be, too.

Zac Brown on the Art of Live Covers and Why Dave Grohl is “One of My Favorite People”
Paolo Ragusa

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