The first time that Zac Brown Band visited New York's Citi Field was in 2010 as openers for Dave Matthews. Late last month, the group returned for two headlining shows as part of their tour of Major League Baseball stadiums, presented by Budweiser, playing long sets of castaway country music while occasionally dipping their toes in everything from grunge rock to Muscles Shoals funk. Jams ensued, "Empire State of Mind" was covered and a Jason Isbell deep cut, "Dress Blues," was re-worked into a show-stopping sing-along. Brown followed these dates with a short vacation, and upon returning he spoke with Rolling Stone Country about his love for EDM, what he considers the difference between new and old country and where his fearless band is headed next.
Most country artists have a studio band and a road band. Does having the same group year-round affect what you guys do?
I think it does. The chemistry that you get from living with your band and creating music and recording with your band translates to the stage. When we craft the songs together, we know all the nuances and dynamics instead of reading them off a chart. I feel like even though sometimes the players are incredible on a lot of studio stuff, the chemistry doesn't translate.
Has taking your Jekyll + Hyde album on the road changed the way you think about any of the songs?
It definitely magnifies them for me. "Beautiful Drug," for example: When we play that song live now, we see people reacting to it and jumping up and down. You have a feeling when you're recording like, "This is gonna translate really well," and when you see it live and it kind of proves that, that's an amazing feeling.
"Beautiful Drug" has a bit of Avicii-style EDM. Is that what you were going for?
It was. It's still a good lyrical song, but adding elements of that nature just opens us up for a broader audience. I've read a lot of reviews of the album online, and a lot of people's complaint was, "This is not a country album." Well, there's a bunch of songs on there that are country, but we don't want to abandon any of the market we have now. We just want to gain new market. Maybe some people that only listen to electronic music will pick up my record and get turned on to some of the story songs, some of the more country-type stuff. It doesn't seem expected for us to do something like that, but I love electronic music. I spend a lot of my time listening to that and just trying to understand what makes it work — what makes it move people the way it does and why they have some of the best-selling festivals in the world.
What does it mean for you guys to be a country band, considering that?
You can think about it as "older country" and "new country." Any music that has integrity, I'm gonna like. Some of the really old country music has amazing songs and stories, and the instrumentation is pretty much predictable. These days, it's really not. You never know what's gonna be coming out. I'm Southern as can be, but I'm a traveler of the world also. You become bits and pieces of all the places that you visit and spend time. So yes, I am country, but I'm also city when I need to be. I think in finding the line between those two things, the listenership has increased.
But I do have an incredible love and consideration for what I would call old country music, real country music. I grew up on Hank Williams, Sr. Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, they both had things that went over to pop in their careers at certain times, and the landscape has always been somewhat changing. This is a very diverse world we live in now. The internet has opened up our ears and eyes to so many different cultures and so many different things. Back then you turned on the radio and you were listening to the AM stations. The scope of what you could listen to was very small.
At your Citi Field show, you mentioned opening for Dave Matthews. When did that jam band audience catch on to Zac Brown Band?
I don't know. On our second record, You Get What You Give, we put a song called "Who Knows" on there that had a really long jam in it. And when you got great musicians in the band, you turn 'em loose and let them do their thing. That lends itself to incredible jams. We did some shows opening for Dave Matthews, which definitely helped us to grab a lot of fans from his fan base. I know a lot of people said they saw us for the first time opening for him. Seeing bands like Dave Matthews when I was younger — bands that had the true freedom to just play whatever they wanted but were also all elite musicians — that gave me the courage to say, "We're just gonna do what we do." Before Jekyll + Hyde, our records didn't really represent what we do at our shows. Jekyll + Hyde really does represent what we do.
Have you started thinking about where you'll go next?
I haven't. I've been making some more electronic music, which I really enjoy doing. I don't ever want to stop making country, and I don't want to stop making electronic music, either. We had something like a nine-week Number One with a rock song ["Heavy Is the Head"], and that's amazing to me. It just makes me want to create another batch of music just like Jekyll + Hyde. If people like our older stuff, there's at least eight or nine songs on there — a full record worth of songs — that they can listen to. I hope people think of it that way rather than, "This whole album isn't country, I'm giving it one star." You can de-select the songs that you don't want to have on the record, but I hope we always put something out that has a lot of songs that the majority of people will love. So I'm working on new electronic music, and we'll be writing the new Zac Brown Band record along the way.