When Dave Grohl first met country rock artist Zac Brown, he told him his idea to visit select cities around the country and record a song after spending a week in each location. Brown was immediately on board and even offered a suggestion.
"I was telling him about Southern Ground studios in Nashville, and he was just super stoked to come in because of all the history," the Nashville-via-Atlanta musician tells Rolling Stone. "I told him we'd love to host him there."
On Friday night's episode of Sonic Highways, which featured interviews with Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Carrie Underwood and Emmylou Harris, fans finally saw the result of the Foo Fighters' week in Nashville. Grohl admitted his knowledge of the city was limited to its reputation as the birthplace of country music, but throughout the episode, the musician ties the city back to everything from the swamp rock of Tony Joe White to the gospel roots of many of his favorite country singers (including an incredible story by Dolly Parton about Elvis Presley's aborted attempt at covering "I Will Always Love You.")
The episode culminated with the recording of new song "Congregation" featuring guitar and backup vocals by Brown. It's a raucous track the guitarist says the band already had ready when they came in, but left a section open for Brown "to shred on." "I ended up hearing something a little more melodic than just [the intended] machine gun-type guitar part," he says.
For Brown, who owns Southern Ground, the experience allowed the band to soak up the natural history of the space, which served as a Presbyterian church for decades before becoming the home of Monument Studios, the recording outpost of famed early rock & roll label Monument Records. Since then, albums such as Neil Young's 2005 output Prairie Wind and Kris Kristofferson's first three records have been recorded there.
When Brown purchased the space in 2011, he also inherited much of the vintage equipment, including microphones, mic stands and a Neve V3 console (made by the same company famously profiled in Grohl's directorial debut Sound City). "All of the wood in the entire place is guitar wood, so you're standing on exotic wood floors that are normally reserved to make instruments with," Brown says. "We're really big on hospitality. So while the Foos were in there recording and hanging out, we just blew their minds with how we take care of them."
As the Foo Fighters continue their nationwide musical travelogue, Brown says one advantage of the show is spotlighting lesser-known people and facilities that played a major hand in the recording of classic albums. "It keeps the history alive and shows the real music in these cities and how people have dedicated their lives to doing it," says the musician. "It's a big deal for the history of our studio to be told, but also for the future for people to come in and record and continue the legacy of making music."
On Friday's episode, Grohl extolled Brown, the "only person I knew in country music," as someone who, according to Grohl, "works outside of the system." A portion of the episode focused on the idea of Nashville as a "hit factory," with Grohl stating that he was drawn to iconoclasts that Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Steve Earle who worked outside of that.
"There's a bunch of people that are part of a factory in what's being pumped out there and there's people that are the real deal musicians and lifers that create music with integrity and continue through the roots and soul of the city," Brown says. "There's a super-soulful, incredibly deep music side and there's a little bit of a cheesy, touristy side where somebody finds out what's working or resonating and there's a thousand songwriters trying to write songs like that."
Brown and Grohl have had a prolific musical history as of late. The singer appeared with the Foo Fighters earlier this month to perform a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" for the Foos' weeklong residency on David Letterman, then appeared with Grohl at photographer Danny Clinch's release party later that night.
Last December, one month after Grohl drummed with Zac Brown Band at the CMA Awards, the group released the four-song EP The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1, produced by the Foo Fighters frontman and featuring Grohl on drums on "Let It Rain." "The first time I ever heard Zac was when I hit record in Nashville and said, 'Okay, we’re rolling,'" Grohl told Rolling Stone. "I'd never heard one note of his music. They're unbelievable. The band is so good they can be tracked live. We didn't fuck with computers; we tracked live, four-part harmonies around one microphone. It’s rocking."
Brown says the past few years working with Grohl have tapped into his fanboy side. "It's a crazy experience for me to be in a Foo Fighters video," says the singer. "I was a music fan first way before I started creating it, so I still get giddy when I get to be around people that I respect so much. It's weird being a colleague of those people. Being in the mix of this is like being a kid in the candy store."