Pop performer Shawn Mendes was just 10 years old when Zac Brown Band released their 2008 breakthrough album The Foundation. Ten years later, the Toronto native shares the stage with the high-energy country-rock outfit in the latest episode of CMT Crossroads, premiering October 24th at 10:00 p.m./ET.
During the nine-song set, taped last month near Nashville, the singers trade vocals on each other’s biggest songs, including a major reworking of Mendes’ hit track “Mercy.” There’s also a stirring cover of Michael Jackson’s goodwill anthem “Man in the Mirror” thrown in the mix and a version of “In the Blood,” from Mendes’ self-titled 2018 album. Thanks to Zac Brown Band’s instrumental virtuosity, Mendes’ surprisingly strong grasp of the country format and the capacity crowd of young Shawn Mendes fans, the performance was highly energetic and very smooth, which speaks to the organic way this collaboration came about in the first place.
Rolling Stone caught up with Mendes before the taping to talk about teaming up with Brown, writing songs for other country artists and being a Hunter Hayes fanboy.
What was it like seeing Zac Brown Band in concert for the first time?
Zac had a show [in Toronto], and he sent word to come say hi on their bus before the concert. I came onto the bus, and Zac and the whole band were having a jam session singing in four-part harmony with tons of guitars. They were like, “Take a seat. Grab a guitar! Play!” And I was like, “Whoa! Like, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m terrified to play.” I then watched the show, and it was really spectacular. Later, I got this chance to do Crossroads, and [the producers asked], “Who would you like to do Crossroads with?” My first thought was Zac Brown Band.
Zac Brown Band is a huge outfit with percussion and fiddles and guitars. They’ve got a certain style. How have they taken your songs and switched them up for Crossroads?
Basically, their band stepped in a little with my band, and my band stepped in with them. We kind of created this bit of fusion — country, pop-rock, and it’s very cool. In places where I usually wouldn’t stand for a second and jam out, I get to do that now. That’s something I always want to do, but sometimes don’t.
What are some of your favorite country songs, Zac Brown Band or otherwise?
Well, “I Want Crazy” is not just my favorite country song, but is one of my favorite three songs of all time.
The Hunter Hayes song?
Yeah. I don’t know why, it was just this song that — it’s a really country-pop fusion. Then [Zac Brown Band’s] “Colder Weather” just breaks my heart every time I hear it.
Thinking of country artists like Hunter Hayes and then Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett, there’s not a big gap between your style and theirs.
No. It’s so close, and that’s why it’s amazing. I mean, good music and good story and a good feeling is what makes up good songs, and there’s no genre behind that.
How much country music were you exposed to as a kid growing up outside Toronto?
Growing up in the suburbs, country music was a huge, massive thing. People listened to country more than anything when I was a kid.
How much time have you spent in Nashville?
A lot. I think I’ve spent two birthdays in Nashville. It’s a really awesome place. Every time I come back, I’m like, “This city is really special.” There’s no darkness here, and that’s really deep, but I mean that. It’s a very light place. Everything is really pure here.
You showed a vulnerable side of yourself releasing “In My Blood” as the lead single off your latest album. It’s on the set list for Crossroads, too. Now that the song has been out for a few months, how has writing and singing about your struggles with anxiety affected your life?
I realized that letting yourself be vulnerable allows everybody else to be vulnerable. It basically opens up the door to people to say, “It’s cool to talk about it. It’s cool to feel that way.” Actually, I realized after releasing that song how much I helped myself. It was just a big weight off my shoulders, and every single time I sing it, I feel like I’m standing behind something I truly believe in, which is really cool for me.
“Youth,” your collaboration with Khalid, has such a message for the politically divided times we’re living in. What has that song done since you’ve put it out that’s maybe inspired you or surprised you?
Everybody seemed really affected by it. The truth is that song is not about one event. It’s not about one thing that’s happened. It’s about multiple things. When I’m saying “Youth,” I’m not describing being young. It has nothing to do with being young. It has everything to do with being free and feeling happy — that youthfulness.
I really just wanted to write a song that was there to stand to say to people, “When shit does happen, it’s up to us to stand our ground.” That youthfulness, that freedom, that happiness will not be taken away from us. I think that is the most important thing in the whole world.