A band with a No. 1 hit song called "Chicken Fried" couldn't be anything but country, perhaps. But even after a string of chart-topping singles and two Grammys, Atlanta's Zac Brown Band plays a more eclectic — even exotic — strain than Nashville's usual me-and-my-pickup-truck odes.
The six-piece group's musical DNA is made up of as much Dave Matthews Band as Alabama, and they recently won a CMT Award for their reworking of "Margaritaville" with author Jimmy Buffett. In concert, they're fond of covering alt-country godfathers The Band and roots-rock enfant terrible Ryan Adams, and are as at home among the hippies and hipsters of Bonnaroo as opening for Kings of Leon in London or headlining RodeoHouston, which they did for the first time this past March.
They're also exceptionally well-fed: The group travels with full-time chef Rusty Hamlin, an old friend of Brown's, and hosts "eat and greet" gatherings for fans before shows. But then, Brown and guitarist/keyboardist Coy Bowles go back a ways themselves.
Bowles says the pair became "musical acquaintances" at West Georgia College in the small town of Carrollton; after both had moved to Atlanta, a mutual friend in the blues scene put them back in touch. Bowles, who grew up on rock and roll and was then studying jazz, asked Brown if his band at the time could open some shows. The front man and guitarist had an even better offer: Open the shows and join the band.
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"I just knew it was something really special, so I put my band on hiatus," Bowles said earlier this month from his home near Macon, Georgia, where he and bassist John were planning to ride motorcyles a little later on.
"Probably about a year and a half to two years later, everything started taking off."
Chatter: What was the exact moment, or as close to it as you can remember, when you knew the band was a success?
Coy Bowles: I think when we won the first Grammy [Best New Artist, 2010]. In my life, I know everything changed after that. I had friends that I'd known for years who knew I was in a band and we were playing for a lot of people. Every time I saw them, it was like, "What's up, man? Let's drink a beer." Then right after we won the Grammy, it was, "Hey man, my uncle is a really big fan. Do you think I can get you guys to sign this for him?"
C: I was listening to (2008's) The Foundation, and I couldn't help but think of Alabama. How big of a footprint do you think they left for bands like yours?
CB: I don't know. I can definitely say there's a direct relationship. I think it's solely based on harmonies, though. A large part of what makes us who we are is the fact that we have a lot of vocal harmony going on, and that was a huge trait of theirs. To have that many dudes singing at the same time in harmony, Alabama was I guess the first or one of the first big country acts for that to be their thing.
Other than that, I don't know if there's that much that we relate to them. I definitely think that stylistically we waver a little more. I don't think that they would have ever played something like Rage Against the Machine.
C: What does it feel like to be one of the first true groups since Alabama to become successful in country music?
CB: I don't know, man. That's a hard question to answer from my perspective. I think if I was in another band that was, say, assembled by a record label or something and was looking at us as far as our success, then I might be able to describe that a little more. All I can really say is that it feels exactly how you think it feels, and it feels as good, if not better, than it should.
C: How much does traveling with Rusty help you guys on the road?
CB: I think it connects us with the fans, which is really cool. It's the real deal, man. Chef Rusty's been with us for seven years — ten years, maybe? I've known him for five years, probably.
He's been coming to shows and hanging out, and he and Zac have been cooking together for so long it's ridiculous. Zac had this big vision when this whole thing was getting started — it was like, "Let's just take everybody along, man. There's no reason for anybody to get left behind."
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