Wyatt Durrette can still sing the words to the first song he ever wrote. He’s probably the only one, since the song never really saw the light of day. It was called “To Be in Love,” and Durrette was 11 years old when he finished it.
Love: a tall order for a prepubescent kid.
A lifetime later, Durrette is able to laugh about the fact that he penned a song about such an abstract topic at such a young age. “I didn’t know what love was, but I thought I did,” he remembers. But he’s certainly having the last laugh now, helping pen hit after hit for the Zac Brown Band. For nearly a decade, Durrette’s songs — from “Chicken Fried” to “Sweet Annie” — have basically had a stranglehold on Top 40 Country radio.
Durette’s love of lyrics started in the back of his father’s car in Virginia. His dad, a staunch country music fan, was always listening to the guys that populated country music’s Mount Rushmore, including Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and George Jones. “He loved the words and the stories that were being told,” Durette says of his father. “He always said, ‘Listen to what this guy is talking about,’ whether it was mad, sad, whatever it was. So I would listen and I started falling in love with the storytelling and the power of music and how it can make people feel a certain way. At a young age, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Back then, Durrette wanted to be the frontman. That all changed during his mid-20s, when he met a talented, magnetic guy named Zac Brown at an Atlanta-area bar called Dixie Tavern. Brown was a young musician, making the rounds on the local club/restaurant/bar circuit, and Durrette was a bartender who also booked the club’s acts. Immediately, he thought there was something special about the bearded guy playing guitar on the stool, so Durrette approached Brown and told him that he was an aspiring songwriter.
“I told him, ‘Hey man, I write songs. I’d love to sit down and write with you.’ We sat down the first night and wrote three or four songs, and we really hit it off as friends and songwriting partners,” the 40-year-old says. “It never felt that easy to sit down with somebody. We both fell in love with the same kind of music: really big word guys, melody-driven lyrics.”
For the next nine years, Brown played in nearly every bar and restaurant that his new songwriting partner worked at.
“He played all over the Southeast and just kept plugging away and working bars and trying to pay the bills until ‘Chicken Fried’ hit the radio,” Durrette said of the song that finally put the band — and the songwriter — on the map in 2005. “Then it’s kind of been a rocket ship ever since. That’s how it all came to be, and I’ve been on the road with them ever since.”
Rolling Stone Country recently caught up with Durrette to get the backstory on some of his most memorable Zac Brown Band songs. This list, however, doesn’t necessary include his favorite song. “To the you the truth,” he admits, “I think my next favorite song, like a lot of songwriters, is the one I haven’t written yet. Forever chasing ‘the one,’ my friend.”
Zac Brown Band, “Highway 20 Ride” (Brown, Durrette)
“My favorite song I’ve written is ‘Highway 20 Ride.’ It’s a song that I started writing when I was going through a divorce with my son’s mother, my first wife. I used to have to drive every other weekend from Atlanta to the Georgia/South Carolina line to keep him for the weekend. It was, by far, the toughest time in my life, being away from him and hoping that he understood that it wasn’t about him. It was about two people not being able to get along, and [Highway 20 Ride] was really just a love song to my son to let him know that I love him and I’ll be there for him always, no matter how hard it is, no matter the circumstance. At the time, I was very sad when I was writing it, but now I kind of look at it as a tribute to him. A lot of it was written on that road. It was about a five-hour drive roundtrip. I’d have to take Interstate 20 to get to him and back, but ‘Interstate 20 Ride’ didn’t sound quite right so we had to change it. I brought it to Zac. He saw his father every other weekend, so it was written from the father’s point of view and the son’s point of view.”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather” (Brown, Durrette, Levi Lowrey, Coy Bowles)
“That was a song about a girl I was seeing in Georgia. We parted ways, but we had a lot of strong feelings for each other. Whether it was timing or geography or a lot of other things, we always seemed apart. I was out on the road with the band and as I look back at it, I probably wasn’t quite ready to make that commitment to settle down. We were in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and supposed to be going to Kansas City for a radio show. I was supposed to meet the girl in Kansas City. I was standing out in the square in Green Bay and it was pouring down snow, and I called her and told her we weren’t going to make it. They’d canceled the radio gig so we were going to go on to our next show, and it didn’t make her very happy at all. She sort of gave me an ultimatum of, ‘We can’t keep doing this kind of thing,’ and I walked on the bus and wrote the chorus to ‘Colder Weather’ and wrote the rest with Levi and Zac. I love sonically how that song turned out, how it sounds, the arrangement of it all. And it’s one everyone can relate to, no matter how you take the story. That’s the great thing about music. People have asked me if that girl died in the song. In the end, he’s just remembering his memory of her. It’s a haunting song.”
Zac Brown Band, “Sweet Annie” (Brown, Durrette, Sonia Leigh, John Pierce)
“There was a girl named Annie, and I hung out with her for a while. I was kind of road weary and just needed some comfort, needed the world to slow down a little bit and I needed to slow down myself. It’s really about being on the road and being beat up and, at the same time, living your dreams [while] knowing you need to slow your roll a little bit. I wanted that old-school vibe to it. Probably sonically, it’s my favorite song they’ve ever done. Annie and I hung out for a while, but it was an introspective song more than anything else.”
Zac Brown Band, “Quiet Your Mind” (Durrette, Brown)
“That first verse, I was out in the ocean with my whole family. I was holding my son and I just started humming the song. It was one of those days that you didn’t want to end. I remember the sound of the waves, and I’ll never forget my son was like, ‘Are you writing a song right now, daddy?’ He was just old enough at that point to figure out what I was doing. That song is about taking that moment and enjoying everything, whether it’s enjoying the band or your family or holding your child, because you never know when it’s all going to end in any facet of your life. It’s about soaking it all in and appreciating it and not taking any of it for granted.”
Zac Brown Band, “Toes” (Brown, Durrette, John Driskell Hopkins, Shawn Mullins)
“It was my 30th birthday in Key West, and we’d been partying way too hard and having way too much fun. About six in the morning, we were sitting on the beach and we were doing exactly as the song said — I had my toes in the water and my ass in the sand. The words just kind of came out and I started humming them, and my buddies looked at me and said, ‘That’s good, you better write that down.’ I called Zac at six in the morning and woke him up because I knew I wouldn’t remember. I sang it to him real fast. That’s very Buffet-esque. [Jimmy] Buffett is one of my biggest influences as a writer. His brand of escapism I really love, and I was kind of totally coming from his world, for sure.”
Zac Brown Band, “Goodbye In Her Eyes” (Brown, Durrette, Leigh)
“I was seeing a girl at the time and it was nearing the end of the relationship…. We had a talk and you could tell it was ending. And I literally could see it in her eyes that it was over, and she didn’t really care anymore. Almost immediately, I sat down and wrote down those words: ‘Goodbye in her eyes, goodbye in her eyes.’ A lot of times, the things that hit you the hardest end up being the best songs because it just digs deep.”