The lead vocals on Zac Brown Band's "My Old Man" are imprecise. A handful of Zac Brown's words are clipped; he loses air at the end of some phrases; and he simply trails off mic when he repeats the hook at the end of the performance. They're the telltale signs of a singer who's choked up over the subject matter, and Brown embraces the emotion.
"That's real," he says. "Songs are powerful things - they really are, and music helped my life so much. I wouldn't be the man that I am without it. A song makes you feel something, and that should be kind of the rule."
Brown's feelings are genuine, because the story behind "My Old Man" - the band's fast-rising single - is genuine, too. The opening line - "He was a giant" - sets up a circle-of-life reflection on fathers and sons, the singer recalling his dad's imposing status during his early years in the first verse and seeing his own son view him through the same lens by the end. It incorporates Brown's affection for his biological father, Jim Brown, and for another mentor: Rodney Shelton, a knife maker who died in 2015. Brown's nickname for Shelton was "Old Man," thus the song's title.
"I inherited a lot of incredible people in my life," says Brown. "Other dads took me in and were part of my journey, so I had a lot of things to say."
Brown took his time getting them out. "My Old Man" was written - with fellow SESAC co-writers Niko Moon ("Homegrown," "Loving You Easy") and Ben Simonetti, his bandmates in pop/dance side project Sir Rosevelt - over several months in at least three different locations as they shaped his Elektra album Welcome Home, due May 12.
"My Old Man" started in the wee hours of the morning after a show as Brown's bus rolled down a highway to his next destination. They launched with that first line - "He was a giant" - and knocked out the first two verses. The first verse explored the kid's attempts to mimic his dad; the second detailed a clash as the teenage son becomes more defiant. Each verse ended on the hook "my old man."
"The parent-child relationship is a super-unique dynamic, but especially with a father and a son," says Moon. "We all thought it was something that was worth spending time on and talking about in a song."
They revisited the song in Key West, Fla., writing the next section, which Brown calls the chorus, though Moon and Simonetti think of it as a bridge. Either way, it brings a new melody, a sense of uplift and an appreciation for dad's calloused hands and dusty overalls.
"There was just something about those [images] that represented that era of man," says Simonetti. "You know, the hardworking guys that were around during the Great Depression and just after."
They finished it in the fall during a trip to Alaska, stationed in a remote spot that provided a spiritual atmosphere.
"We were sitting around a campfire on top of a mountain," recalls Moon. "We sat there for days, looking out at a huge bay, and to the right was the ocean and across this massive bay that was maybe five miles across was this stretch of snow-capped mountains. It was a really epic environment to be in."
It was there that they turned the tables for the last verse and chorus - or bridge, depending on your outlook. "Now I'm a giant," sings Brown, acknowledging that the once-small boy has become a father and is able to see how difficult the role was for his own. The song's original dad, like the real-life Shelton, is in heaven, presumably aware of the man the singer has become.
"The line 'I hope he's proud of who I am,' " adds Brown, "that's really the icing on the cake."
There were tears through much of the process leading up to that emotional vocal performance. "There were so many times he would be playing through the song and start choking up, and it would make everyone else start choking up," recalls Simonetti. "This guy has made me cry 50 times in the past six months, and I haven't cried that much in 10 years."
Returning to Nashville, they recorded a demo of the song at Brown's Southern Ground Studios, where the singer delivered what would become the final, emotional vocal.
"That was one take, by the way," adds Simonetti.
Brown played the demo for his father in the car during a personal moment on Thanksgiving Day. Then Brown brought back the band to Southern Ground for the master tracking session after the first of the year with producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, A Thousand Horses), who took a minimalist approach in building the instruments around the vocal from the demo.
"It was such a brilliant song - if I threw in the kitchen sink, it would've messed it all up," says Cobb. "The whole idea of the record - and specifically that song - is just not to mess it up. You want to feel every lyric and every emotion he was feeling when he sang it, so everything else that's on the track is really just accompaniment. We wanted it to feel as if he picked up the guitar and played it personally for you."
They decided not to use drums or percussion - "His guitar part is so percussive," reasons Cobb - while the bass and Clay Cook's piano are almost undetectable when they sneak in during the second verse. The group's signature harmonies - with John Driskell Hopkins singing bass, fiddler Jimmy De Martini in the middle and Cook on the high part - provide key intensity on the chorus. Or bridge.
"The parts that needed more crescendo, we added more voices and more parts to, to kind of make them more powerful, using the voices just like an orchestra," says Brown. "You build [them into] a song just as it starts to climax and make you feel something, then try to blend them in where they don't poke out."
They used De Martini's fiddle in tandem with a Mellotron to create a classical sort of solo section, and as the final, spiritual part arrived, the sound was combined with the bass and the low notes on the piano to create a dark, powerful texture.
"With the piano, that kind of ominous, left-hand thing adds weight," says Cobb. "It's not the fanciest [playing]. It just adds size to the track."
Brown had to think of baseball and other less emotional ideas to get through the song without crying when ZBB played it on national TV during the Super Bowl pregame show on Feb. 5, two days after Elektra released it to radio through PlayMPE. Thanks to strong digital sales, "My Old Man" jumped 49-10 in its second week on the multisource Hot Country Songs chart. It's now No. 25 on that list and at No. 24 on Country Airplay in its sixth week on the charts. And with Father's Day just a few months away, it's set up to become this year's version of Dan Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band," the song that Brown held as the ideal while creating "My Old Man."
"I tried to write dad songs before but never hit it on the head," says Brown. "I feel like we've finally written a song that can translate and make someone feel like that one made me feel. I'm glad my dad gets to hear this song."