When the Zac Brown Band’s latest studio album, “Uncaged,” won the Grammy for Best Country Album this year, the band was surprised for a number of reasons.
Not the least of these was the fact that the album was up against Miranda Lambert’s 2011 offering “Four the Record,” an album that in some way may have influenced Zac Brown and his cohorts in the studio.
“We kind of all believed that her album had a better chance — in fact, we were listening to her album when we were making ours,” longtime bassist John Driskell Hopkins said recently from his home in Atlanta. “We felt like it had been around longer, and it’s just a fabulous record.”
Beyond the stiff competition, though, “Uncaged” just didn’t seem to be the likely choice. The album’s 11 songs find the seven-piece band expanding its already formidable range of influences, with songs touching on everything from classic country sounds (“The Wind”) to hard-driving Southern rock (the title track) to the band’s much vaunted reggae and jam sounds.
Zac Brown Band
With: Dugas, The Wood Brothers
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
How Much: $79, $52, $40 (lawn)
More Info: 800-745-3000, www.livenation.com, www.ticketmaster.com, www.spac.org
“This was kind of the least country record we had done, and I think that speaks towards a change in the genre,” Hopkins said. “Now, the ones that might have been typically thought of as Best Country Album maybe may not fit that category, because we branched out of it a bit. Maybe that’s what people were asking for this year.”
Since 2008, when the single “Chicken Fried” off the band’s Atlantic Nashville debut “The Foundation” hit No. 1 on the Billboard U.S. Country Chart, the band has seen its Southern-inspired hybrid sound take off with fans across the country. Last year, the band made its debut at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and promptly sold out the venue, debuting a handful of songs from the then-to-be-released “Uncaged.” On Saturday night, the band will return to SPAC with the new material fully fleshed out from a solid year of touring.
“People in the Northeast and the Midwest, all over the East Coast, have really shown up at our shows,” Hopkins said. “We don’t expect to only appeal to the South; we have kind of a broader musical spectrum than that sort of specific genre placement. It’s nice to know that the stuff we’re doing is appreciated in other regions. When it all comes down to it, we’re trying to just make good music, and we’re hopefully attracting people who respect and enjoy something that’s a little different than normal radio.”
Hopkins has been with the Zac Brown Band since it was formed in 2001 in Georgia. While the band formed around eponymous singer-songwriter Brown, it has grown to become a fully collaborative band in a true sense, not just a group hired to back up a singer — Hopkins, Brown, guitarists and organists Coy Bowles and Clay Cook, percussionist Daniel de los Reyes, violinist Jimmy de Martini and drummer Chris Fryar have all contributed equally to songwriting on the band’s five studio albums, alongside others within the band’s inner circle.
Texas native Hopkins, a singer and songwriter in his own right, was working primarily as a producer out of his Brighter Shade studio in Atlanta when Brown first approached him to join his new band. What was originally just a fill-in gig became full time for Hopkins, as he began producing Brown’s independent debut album, 2004’s “Far from Einstyne.”
“The thought process changed within a month [of joining the band],” Hopkins said. “I could see very clearly that the stuff we were beginning to do was really going to be very rewarding and musically challenging, and just a lot of fun for all of us. It wasn’t a very hard decision to make obviously — even with the many years before our success, I feel like staying in the group has never been a difficult choice.”
Turning the corner
The band’s second album, “Home Grown” (2005), featured the first recording of “Chicken Fried,” a song co-written by Brown and friend Wyatt Durrette, who continues to write with the band to this day. The song was rerecorded in 2006 by The Lost Trailers, who withdrew their version as a single shortly thereafter to make way for the Zac Brown Band’s rerecorded version in 2008. Even before the song was released as a single, Hopkins could tell there was something special about it.
“We had been playing ‘Chicken Fried’ for three or four years before it hit radio, and Zac had been playing it — we recorded it for his first album in 2001, so it’s been around for a long time,” Hopkins said. “I think we all kind of knew that that was going to be a big favorite. When people finally got a chance to hear it on a grand scale, I’ll tell you this, when it got to the top five and then hit No. 1, my daughter was being born, so I was off the road for three weeks. When I came back, it was like somebody opened up the sky. In that three weeks that it hit number one, the crowds doubled. It became a lot bigger a lot faster when that happened.”
“The Foundation” and subsequent albums “You Get What You Give” (2010) and “Uncaged” spawned more successful singles — the band has charted nine No. 1 singles, most recently the second single from “Uncaged,” “Goodbye in Her Eyes.” That album’s first single, “The Wind,” featured an animated video from Mike Judge, of “King of the Hill” and “Beavis and Butt-Head” fame.
“One of our songs that’s more country than the others, ‘The Wind,’ seemed to have the least amount of impact on radio — it was almost too country,” Hopkins said. “Country radio is very poppy at this point, so to throw a country song out there right off the bat — ‘Ah, this is too country.’ Well, we hope you liked it, but that’s what it is. There’s no real preconceived notion on what we’re going to create next, and you certainly continue to be surprised probably by the reactions that people have to different tunes.”
Once this current round of touring wraps up, the band is looking to start recording again next year. This will be the band’s first album on its own label, Southern Ground, taking things back to the band’s independent roots. Some writing has already been happening on the road.
“That’s kind of where we get a chance to assemble a lot of our ideas. We sit together on the bus after the show, we sit around and talk through a bunch of the things we’ve been working on,” Hopkins said. “It’s very casual, obviously. We go open a beer and start playing a few tunes we’ve messed around with. Some get excited reactions, some get softer reactions. It’s a chance for us to kind of bond.”