Zac Brown Band’s summer tour more than just a ‘Comeback’

Zac Brown Band's summer tour more than just a 'Comeback'

The Zac Brown Band’s summer tour is not only an opportunity to showcase their new album, “The Comeback,” but they’re using the show to take fans on a trip through the band’s stunning rise from Atlanta area clubs to superstardom.

“This is probably the most intimate tour that we’ve ever done in the sense that we start out kind of how we started out as a band. We start out with this bar vibe and Zac (on stage), and it kind of unfolds the way our career did,” guitarist/keyboardist Coy Bowles said in an early June Zoom interview. “Zac is doing more story telling and more kind of just filling the crowd in on how we all came together. I mean, I don’t come on until a couple of songs in. Every night, the stories change just a little bit, and it’s always just really cool to hear Zac talk about how this whole thing came together because it is such a wild ride. We’re so blessed. We’re a bunch of Southern boys who had a big dream and it came true, man. So hearing it kind of spoken out and played out the way it unfolds on stage is really cool for our audience and ourselves.”

The approach to the show makes sense to consider “The Comeback,” with its songs that lean decidedly country, is being considered a return to the group’s original musical roots – an assessment Bowles didn’t dispute. He credits Ben Simonetti, who co-wrote many of the songs and co-produced the album with Brown, with helping guide the band through the making of “The Comeback” and achieve Brown’s vision for the album.

“It was kind of like the original recipe, great songs that Zac had his heart into and the band helping support that with musicianship and stuff like that,” Bowles said. “We were trying to sound like the Zac Brown Band, and it really worked.”

Fiddle player Jimmy De Martini, who joined Bowles for the video interview, feels the isolation of the pandemic also played a part in the musical direction of “The Comeback” and the return to the sound that first brought the group success. When the band members arrived to record the album, they had been apart for more than a year.

“It felt so good to see these guys. It felt so good to be a band again,” De Martini said. “I think that’s what lends itself to the old-style sound is we were back together again, and we had such a break and maybe we had taken (things) for granted and we were just happy to be together again.”

The Zac Brown Band, of course, is one of music’s more unusual success stories in that the group started out as an independent act, controlling virtually all aspects of their career and has stayed that way ever since – only aligning with various major labels to distribute their albums and promote their music.

The band came together one musician at a time around singer/guitarist Brown, who by the early 2000s was already starting to attract an audience in the Atlanta area. Both Bowles and De Martini said Brown’s talent was obvious when they first encountered him.

De Martini connected with Brown in 2004 through Wyatt Durrette, a friend and regular songwriting partner of Brown’s. De Martini became the first recruit for the Zac Brown Band. Bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Driskell Hopkins – a longtime friend of Brown’s – joined in 2005, followed by Bowles, and then drummer Chris Fryar to form the core of the early lineup.

Like most bands of that era, the members of the Zac Brown Band cut their teeth on a bar scene that, in the case of the Atlanta area, was generating several bands and solo artists that would go on to have successful worldwide careers, including Blackberry Smoke, Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers) and Durrette.

The Zac Brown Band’s breakthrough came in 2008 after the band had signed to Live Nation Records, followed by a distribution deal with major label Atlantic Records. “Chicken Fried,” a song that was included on the Zac Brown Band’s 2005 independent debut album “Home Grown,” was re-recorded and released as the first single off of the 2008 Atlantic-distributed album “The Foundation.” Within a month, “Chicken Fried” had topped the country singles chart. Three more singles – “Toes,” “Highway 20 Ride” and “Free” all followed “Chicken Fried” to No. first.

Just like that, the Zac Brown Band had arrived on the national stage. With guitarist/keyboardist Clay Cook joining the group in 2009, the Zac Brown Band got to work on their next album, 2010’s “You Get What You Give.” Released in 2010, it went triple platinum and confirmed that the initial success was no fluke. The Zac Brown Band has released five more studio albums since then, while notching 10 more No. 1 singles and branching out musically from their country foundation to touch on a variety of other musical styles, including hard rock, pop balladry and even EDM and hip-hop. Along the way, the band added percussionist Daniel de los Reyes and bassist Matt Mangano to the lineup.

The pandemic interrupted the Zac Brown Band’s usual schedule of touring, and the band used the break to make “The Comeback.” De Martini said the new songs will figure fairly strongly into the group’s shows this summer.

“We’re playing a lot of new songs, which is always fun for us. The newer songs are the most fun for us to play just because we haven’t played them that much and it’s a challenge,” he said. “But we have a big back catalog of songs, so we’re able to play a lot of old songs, a lot of fan favorites, a lot of sing-alongs. And then we can also mix in some of the newer songs, and we have some surprise cover songs that we always like to pull out, too.”

The band, however, has hit one major bump in the road recently. In May, Hopkins revealed that he has been diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), which a progressive neurodegenerative disease that eventually can leave its victims unable to speak, move, eat and breathe. It is almost inevitably fatal.

De Martini and Bowles have been impressed with Hopkins’ response to the diagnosis.

“He’s as good as you could be, getting this devastating news. He’s making the most of it,” De Martini said. “Gosh, you could imagine, it’s about the worst news you could ever receive. And after a quick internal thinking, he has turned it into this fund raising campaign and this new drive online to make the most he can do with this position that he’s in to benefit others that may in the future have this same disease.”

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