Zac Brown Band shrugs off script




If you go

What: Zac Brown Band, in concert.

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 13.

Where: Sleep Country Amphitheater, 17200 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

Cost: $40.30 to $81.15 through Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000 or

Information: 360-816-7000 or Sleep Country Amphitheater.

In February, the Zac Brown Band won its third Grammy Award — this time for Best Country Album for its 2012 CD, “Uncaged.”

Obviously, it was a special award, and perhaps even more of a prestigious honor than the first two Grammy Awards won by the Zac Brown Band — for Best New Artist in 2009 and Best Country Collaborations with Vocals in 2010 for “As She’s Walking Away” (a song that featured guest vocals from Alan Jackson).

“To us, the Grammys are very important, because they’re voted on by your peers as musicians,” guitarist/keyboardist Clay Cook explained in a mid-April phone interview. “You have to have certain criteria to vote for the Grammys. They don’t let writers or managers vote for Grammys or people who just happen to work for a record label. You have to have recording credits. So you kind of look at it as your peers.”

But a week after taking home the Best Country Album Grammy, it took on another layer of meaning, when nominations were announced for the Academy of Country Music Awards.

“We love the fact that we win Best Country Album, and then a week later, when they came out with the ACM nominations, we weren’t even nominated for best country album,” Cook said. “It just kind of exposes the fundamental problem inside of the country community as far as awards shows and stuff like that.”

Indeed, the Zac Brown Band did not come up through the usual country channels — by getting signed by one of Nashville’s mainstream record labels.

Instead, singer/guitarist Brown followed a do-it-yourself path when he formed the Zac Brown Band in 2002, starting his own record label, Home Grown Records (later renamed Southern Ground Records) and hitting the road — hard — quickly building up to a yearly schedule that numbered 200 dates or more.

Since then, the band has released five studio albums and the lineup has evolved to include Cook, fiddler player/tenor vocalist Jimmy De Martini, bassist/baritone vocalist John Driskell Hopkins, guitarist/keyboardist Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar and percussionist Daniel de los Reyes.

Cook joined in 2009, after releasing two solo albums, doing stints in Sugarland and at the outset of his music career, forming a duo with fellow Berklee College of Music student John Mayer.

Considering that the Zac Brown Band’s wide-ranging mix of country, soul, rock gospel and island music has little in common with Mayer’s folk-tinged pop sound, the partnership of Cook and Mayer seems surprising. But Cook, who co-wrote two songs that surfaced on Mayer’s 2001 debut album, “Room for Squares,” put it into perspective.

“To be honest, we were both coming out of college together, and we were both learning to write at the same time,” Cook said. “So (Mayer) went in one particular direction, and honestly I like his newer direction … I feel like he’s really hit his stride.”

“There’s (been) a whole lifetime of experiences and learning instruments and getting out there and playing with different people and in different styles (since then),” he said. “To think of me as someone who played with John Mayer at one point, that’s just one Polaroid from the entire picture book.”

In fact, after parting ways with Mayer, Cook went on to release a pair of solo albums, join the Marshall Tucker Band (his uncle is the group’s current lead singer), tour for a year with Sugarland and tour, write and record with Shawn Mullins for a couple of years.

Cook was asked to join the Zac Brown Band shortly after “Chicken Fried” had become the group’s first number one hit. But Cook said he didn’t leave the Marshall Tucker Band to join the Zac Brown Band because he thought the group was on the verge of big things.

“When I was in the Marshall Tucker Band, it was kind of a legacy band, and they were touring around and playing songs from 30, 40 years ago,” Cook said. “It’s nice (now) to be a part of something where you’re a contributing member for music that’s coming out today.”

Lots of people are hearing the music. The three albums that have followed — “The Foundation” (2008), “You Get What You Give” (2010) and “Uncaged” have produced seven number one singles and made the Zac Brown Band bona fide stars.

The success does create one challenge. It limits the band’s flexibility with its set list for its concerts.

“That becomes more of a hardship after awhile, because all of a sudden you look down and you have an hour worth of material that you have to play,” Cook said. “So there’s less that you can move around. Our set is going to change from week to week. Every now and then, if we’re going to play five hours apart (each of) three nights, we may play the same set with a couple of tiny changes, especially if it worked really well the first night. But we’re going to play Red Rocks this year for three nights straight and that doesn’t scare us one bit. We’re really kind of looking forward to that because we can spread that hour of (hit) material over three nights, maybe playing ‘Chicken Fried’ two of the nights or something.

“But it allows us to stretch out as a band.”