Chatting with Clay Cook of the Zac Brown Band

Ken Morton, Jr. | October 4th, 2010

Zac Brown Band

While it may have been America’s fondness for good southern cooking–through their smash single “Chicken Fried”–that made country radio take notice of six sons of the south known as the Zac Brown Band, it is the band’s songwriting and musicianship that has captured the hearts of fans everywhere.

The follow-up to the band’s smash first album, The Foundation, just came out and is titled You Get What You Give. What the band did on the day of release is a great representation of who the guys are and what they want their music to represent. They didn’t appear on any national morning television shows or do any significant radio push; they went out and played a show–just like they do nearly every night. Only this show was from the famed Red Rock Amphitheater and it was streamed across the country for all their fans to see live. On the day of their album’s release, the band let the music and their musicianship speak for itself.

We were able to catch up to multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook of the Zac Brown Band and talk about the new album and how that live performance influences everything they do.

Zac Brown Band - You Get What You GiveCongratulations on the brand new album launch. Give me the lowdown on what fans can expect to hear if they haven’t gone out and bought one already.

I think they’re still going to have a connection to the songs. I thing the songs are still there compared to our previous record. But I think the portrayal of the songs, the performance of the band, is much more solidified. This band has been together in this format for about two and a half years and playing live influences that. We make sure that no one is stepping on each other’s parts musically. The harmonies are really strong on this record. It’s a great snapshot of where we are as a band right now.

It has a great vibe of your guy’s nightly performances. I mean that it represents your live show- which is obviously the essence of who and what you guys are. Was that important to capture on the recordings for the band?

Yes. Absolutely. Some artists manufacture songs and let producers go to work and do their thing. The engineers and our producer, Keith Stegall, did a wonderful of job of that. It was important for us to not produce something that isn’t what we do. Keith never asked me to do anything different than what I played for him the first time. We recorded 16 songs and 15 of them ended up on the deluxe version. The song “Nothing” ended up extra on the deluxe version. That’s a lot of cuts and recording for a producer to not say, “No, let’s try something different on the guitar this time.” He just let us do what we do already–which is exactly what we needed.

Singing and lead vocals seem to take a greater importance on country radio than musicianship. That seems to not be the case with the Zac Brown Band. Tell me about that dynamic within the framework of the band.

Zac has always put a huge emphasis on singing and background vocals. But you’ve always had to show off a bit on your instrument. From day one, it’s been a requirement to be able to do both. And we have to show that live and on the record. It’s kind of unspoken now. We’re going to do this. But we’ll still have a ton of vocals on the choruses. There are no overdubs on the record. There’s only one of me on every song. I didn’t sing two or three parts. Zac didn’t sing two or three parts. It’s almost as if we were playing live in front of an audience.

Talk about the title of the album. It’s a line out of one of the songs called “Martin,” but what is the importance of that phrase in this record?

First of all, Zac finds that statement to be very important in his own life. And as we go along, we’re all finding out that it’s important in all of our lives too. Zac has that tattooed on his arm. “You Get What You Give.” We all came to the conclusion that the phrase was very important to all of us at this stage of careers. It was a no-brainer to call the album that.

Any favorite tracks for yourself?

The ones that we’ve designated as singles–we’ve always known those were just great songs. But as a music fan, I’m starting to dig into some of the deeper tracks like “Martin.” Tony Rice played amazing acoustic guitar on that song. “I Play The Road” is another one that I enjoy the vibe of. And I think that’s because I’m just loving doing it live. You know? It’s certainly one of my favorite parts in the set.

The Zac Brown Band started out smaller in size–two of you were added somewhat late in the history of the band. Tell me about that process–both what it added musically and how that band brotherhood has evolved.

Zac had always had a vision of the band being where it is right now–whether it was country music that brought him there or David Grey singer-songwriter types that got him there in the late 90’s. He had a vision and it’s evolved to where we are now. He brought in Jimmy and John Hopkins in six or seven years ago and they made it possible to add background vocals. Zac had never had that before. It just evolved. The musicianship is so important to him. They had gone through a couple guitarists and a couple of drummers. After two or three months, you know if they’re going to be there long-term. They have to have contributions to the band in the long run. I was the last addition almost two years ago. I don’t think we can imagine the band with a single different or a single less band member right now.

You were part of the Marshall Tucker Band for many years before joining the Zac Brown Band. What have been some of the differences between the two acts?

There’s the obvious differences. The Marshall Tucker Band is a legacy act. We’re playing songs that were written 40 years ago. But they’re still doing a great job with it and they’re still entertaining crowds with it. I left mainly to be part of something from the beginning. I wanted to be an original member–in certain terms. With the Marshall Tucker Band, you couldn’t do that. They’ve been around since the early 70’s. Zac was coming on to the scene and even though I wasn’t a member of the Zac Brown Band from six or seven years ago, the public perception is that I’m part of the band from the beginning. That’s the perception even though I wasn’t there in the club days and the running around in the van days.

So you got to skip all the hard part and just lay claim to putting them over the top…

(Laughing) No no no. I would never say that. I do know that I’m a good cog in this great piece of machinery. I’m really happy at the job that I do and the job that I have.

You guys just got back from a cool experience with the Sailing Southern Ground Cruise. Tell me about that experience.

Nearly everybody in this band has, at one time or another, been a part of one of the Sixthman rock boats, Simple Man Cruise, stuff like that. It was one of those things where Zac thought it would be a great thing to put something like this together. We started about a year ago and by the time the actual cruise rolled around, it was sold out and we had a fantastic plan for our attendees. I think everybody had a great time. We had some great artists on board. There were a lot of activities. A lot of the people in our band got to play with a lot of the guys in the other bands and it was a lot of fun.

The 9513 genuinely wants to thank you for your time. I’ve got one last question for you and this one’s meant somewhat open ended. What is country music to the Zac Brown Band?

Country music is a broader term than what is sold as country music from the music labels. It can be anything that is expressed from a southern background or telling a story. Telling a story is the backbone of great southern country music. It has a ton of soul to it when it’s done right. You know? I think that is what it is to most people.

  1. Noah Eaton
    October 4, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Overall, I absolutely enjoyed what Cook had to say, with one exception.

    In his final answer he mentions that country music, to him, is about anything that is expressed from a SOUTHERN background.

    I take issue with that in that the Midwest, Texas, even California, among many other regions of this nation, have made equally immense contributions to this diverse genre.

  2. Sam G.
    October 4, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Cool interview. It’s always nice to hear from someone beyond the lead singer in a band.

    ZBB has never fully clicked with me. When they’re good, there are few other contemporary acts that are better. But when they’re bad… man, do they ever thud. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground with them.

  3. Waynoe
    October 4, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    I like ZBB, but I can’t say that I fully understand the love for them. They sound good, are good musicians, and have a great high tenor, but I don’t know that their singles are what I call captivating. And Brown’s voice is not altogether unique to me.

    Maybe it’s the overall experience their fans get from them though I don’t know what all that entails.

  4. Noeller
    October 5, 2010 at 7:55 am

    To me, it’s as much about a relative scale as anything. By comparison, within the current caste of CMA Group of the Year nom’s, these guys are the Second Coming. Lady A? Flatt Rascals?? Blech.

    I’ve always seen ZBB as a sort of “heir-apparent” to Alabama, with the tight musicianship, solid-if-unspectacular vocals, and top-drawer songwriting.

    While these guys might not be perfect, they’re heads and tails above their peers at this point.

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