Jekyll + Hyde: How One Album Turned Zac Brown Band From Heroes to Villains

Zac_Brown_USO_tour

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This is the famous quote uttered by Batman in the Dark Knight. It’s a quote people have used in situations hundreds of times and it’s a quote I feel applies to the current situation with Zac Brown Band, or more candidly frontman Zac Brown. He was once a beacon of hope for country music and someone we could count on to uphold the values and roots of the genre. It showed in his music and in his interviews. He practiced what he preached. Then everything changed. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start from the beginning.

Zac Brown Band burst onto the country music scene in 2008 with their lead single “Chicken Fried,” a number one hit and double platinum single. It launched their careers and they’ve been an impactful force on the genre ever since, racking up ten more #1 hits on country radio. Now this first single was certainly not indicative of their full talent and they proved that with pretty much every single that followed it. Many consider “Chicken Fried” the worst single they have ever released, but it was excused because it was a foot in the door for them. Without this mega hit, we may have never gotten so many other great songs from them like the Grammy-winning collaboration with Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away.” We wouldn’t have gotten what I consider one of the best country albums in the last decade, their 2012 album Uncaged.

Needless to say, any fair critic would say Zac Brown Band have produced their fair share of quality music. Not only that, but quality music that gets played on country radio. So up until this year, you could certainly call the majority of the music Zac Brown Band produced to be of high quality and something that respects the true intentions of country music. Zac Brown Band has certainly pointed out how they’re not strictly country, as they’re more in the vein of southern rock and country music has always accepted them. This is a fair and honest assessment. Speaking of fair and honest assessments, Zac Brown gave one in August of 2013. He was asked about what he thought of Luke Bryan’s newest mega-hit “That’s My Kind of Night” and the bro-country movement. Here’s a refresher on what he said (emphasis mine):

“There’s not a lot of the country format that I really enjoy listening to. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I wanna throw up. There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artist.

“I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

“I see it being giant commercially, successful within what is called country music these days, but I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that.”

“I’m opinionated because I care so much about the music and the songs.”

This is was like heaven to the ears of disenfranchised country music fans everywhere who had grown disgusted and ashamed of the genre’s new direction. Finally, here was a mainstream artist standing up for them and being their voice of reason. This was an artist you could get behind and expect people to listen to them when they speak. Zac Brown Band was a group that made quality music and provided leadership to a genre that needed it. The criticism of course fell on deaf ears, but it was the attempt that meant so much.

That was the Zac Brown Band and Zac Brown of old times. Now let’s talk about the current Zac Brown Band and Zac Brown. The new Zac Brown Band began in the fall of 2014, when they announced they formed a strategic partnership with Big Machine Records, Republic Records and John Varvatos Records. Derek wrote an excellent piece breaking the deal down. It’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t read up on the details of it. At the time, I agreed with Derek that this would be a good deal for Zac Brown Band and didn’t necessarily mean they were selling out to Scott Borchetta, although Derek rightly pointed it out as something to keep an eye on (emphasis again, mine):

Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.

Derek expressed a faith in Zac Brown and the Zac Brown Band the majority of us felt at the time. There was no way he would let this new business situation affect the quality of their music. There was a proven track record to back this faith up. But it was really the first sign that change was coming to Zac Brown Band. We just didn’t want to see it. Another hint that things were about to change was a quote in an interview with Rolling Stone. Brown said this in the interview in November 2014:

Brown points to one new song titled “Beautiful Drug” as a step in this new direction. “Believe it or not, it’s about a girl,” says Brown. “But she’s the guy’s beautiful drug. I think that’ll be a big crossover tune for us.”

The words, “big crossover tune,” should have set off the alarm bells in our heads. But once again we reminded ourselves that Zac Brown Band are the “good guys” and we should have faith in them. A few months later this faith seemed to be confirmed, as they released the first single from the album, “Homegrown.” From my review:

I think this is a great choice of the first single from Zac Brown Band’s new album. It’s fun and vibrant, yet has a great sound (it sounds like it belongs in country music) and solid lyrics. “Homegrown” should get a lot of radio play and do well on the charts. I’ll be shocked if this isn’t a #1 hit. People in the industry love to talk about evolving the sound of country music with the incorporation of rap remixes and EDM elements, when really it’s just devolving it. If you want a true example of evolving country music, “Homegrown” is a perfect example. Incorporating rock elements into country music works well as long as it’s balanced and clearly Zac Brown Band know how to balance it.

This is kind of scary to read in hindsight, no? Not long after this it was confirmed that Zac Brown Band would be cutting “Dress Blues,” a Jason Isbell-penned song on their new album. And they performed it on national television. This was unbelievable. They released a quality single to country radio and cut a song from one of the most respected and beloved Americana artists in the country on their new album. This was like a love letter to the disenfranchised country music fan. This caused the hype for their new album Jekyll + Hyde to really go through the roof. Many people in the industry and country fans I knew were pre-ordering this album without hesitation, including yours truly.

ZBB Jekyll + Hyde

Then Jekyll + Hyde finally arrived to our mailboxes and we ripped off the plastic wrap as quick as we could for an album we all anticipated to be great. The first track on the album? The song Zac Brown predicted to be a crossover hit, “Beautiful Drug.” And then it happened. The moment Zac Brown Band took the metaphorical knife and stabbed it in our backs. Of course we didn’t recognize it yet, as the faith was still there, despite it being reduced. My ears didn’t know what to think. The rest of the album was rocky too. It took several listens for the anger and realization to sit in: Zac Brown Band cut an EDM song and blatantly led the album off with it. Betrayal and disappointment immediately came to mind. There were good songs on the album of course, but there were so many bad songs too. I ultimately deemed Jekyll + Hyde a mixed bag with no direction.

There was a lot of backlash online against these EDM songs, but eventually it died down. The reason? We all convinced ourselves that they wouldn’t release them as singles. Zac Brown and the group surely would see the criticism and choose to ultimately keep it away from country radio. After all they care about the music, as they feel the people deserve better. They ended up releasing “Loving You Easy” as the second single of the album, a Motown influenced song. While not one of the best songs on the album, it was a decent enough song and the band actually pulled off a Motown country song well, much better than Thomas Rhett. It’s not a terrible song and one of the better ones on country radio, which really isn’t saying much, but the point stands. As this song continued to move up the charts in the past few weeks, speculation began on what their third single from the album would be. “One Day?” “Castaway?” Nope. It’s “Beautiful Drug.”

To add insult to injury, this quote was uttered by Zac Brown Band member Clay Cook in an interview with The Boston Globe:

“With ‘Jekyll + Hyde,’ we were really starting to think of how this would play in a show,” he explains. “We’re not really an album band. The album is basically a business card to get people to see us play live.”

And with that the turn of Zac Brown Band to the dark side was complete. It was this quote that finally drove the point home. The Zac Brown Band that said they cared about the music and the fans deserving better than the stuff on country radio was gone. The faith of the fans in the band doing the right thing for country music has evaporated. Zac Brown Band is no longer in it for the fans, but rather the money and the business only. Scott Borchetta’s influence is as plain as day. The yearning for fame and crossover success is evident and the appeal to serve the roots of the genre has disappeared. “Homegrown” and “Dress Blues” were simply ruses to get us all to buy the album and dump EDM songs onto us. It was bait-and-switch advertisement at it’s finest. How is it not? When you dangle these two songs in front of fans they expect the album to be in a similar vein. When you for year after year release music that upholds the integrity of the genre, people expect to hear the same again. When you publicly admonish the trends plaguing country radio and your promise to make better music, the fans expect something good. They don’t expect EDM music. Zac Brown Band could have been open and candid about this change of direction, but instead they wanted to get your money first before springing this surprise on us. This is the definition of a crook and someone who values money over honesty.

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Zac Brown Band chose not to fall on their sword, but instead surrender to the mainstream country agenda and laugh their way to the bank. They put their new suits on with a smile on their faces. While their wallets may have just gotten bigger, my respect for them had dwindled significantly. I no longer have faith in Zac Brown Band to do the right thing. They’ve now lived long enough to become the very thing they once spoke out against. Sure they can go back to their old sound on the next album, but they’re seemingly sterling track record and penchant for honesty through their music and words is damaged forever. This is a permanent scar on Zac Brown Band and possibly the sanctity of country music, something they may never live down again.

13 thoughts on “Jekyll + Hyde: How One Album Turned Zac Brown Band From Heroes to Villains

  1. Raymond August 18, 2015 / 11:27 am

    Man I am actually scared what Scott Borchetta is doing too some of these acts. You have Beautiful Drug from ZBB. The Band Perry which Borchetta wants them to try this album to crossover to pop. Eli Young Band and Thomas Rhett making pop songs in Thomas Rhett’s case trying to be Bruno Mars. Then you have Cassadee Pope with the meh I Am Invincibile how is it that she’s the one who’s looking good. I am most intrested of what they do with Danielle Bradbery. She also has a couple of live songs.

    Anyways with this release I can see it being really successful since ZBB is high on momentum but could be polarizing since I think fans on the radio have grown to expect ZBB to have songs that don’t sound like Beautiful Drug. This is why I also think Sam Hunt’s Breakup In A Small Town might also be too polarizing.

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    • Lisandro Berry-Gaviria August 18, 2015 / 12:02 pm

      Sometimes a polarizing song can be good. As people have pointed out before on the site, a song tends to have more success if listeners have some kind of passion about it, whether it be hating the song or loving it.

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  2. Derek Hudgin August 18, 2015 / 11:36 am

    Well I put my faith in the wrong person…….

    As Nadia has commented on several occasions in comparisons to DMB’s Everyday, I hope this is an anomaly of the Zac Brown Band. I get that the Zac Brown caters to their live shows. I’ve seen them twice and both times I was blown away – I can confidently say that the last ZBB show I saw (July 5, 2012 at Summerfest in Milwaukee) was the best concert I’ve been to. The reason why they’re a great live band, in my opinion, is because their instrumentation is nearly flawless and transfers well from the studio albums to the stage.

    But this is where my confusion lies. And it’s not that Zac Brown Band are making EDM songs or whatever. I said it before, I’m fine if they want to, but I’d prefer it on a dedicated experimental EP/album (like the Grohl Sessions). But putting EDM inspired songs like “Beautiful Drug” or “Tomorrow Never Comes” on an album designed to get people to live shows doesn’t make sense because the musical effects take away from the actual instrumentation play of the band! In fact, on most songs, the band’s instrumentation seems very subdued, even on “Homegrown.” To me, this business card for live shows takes away the big draw for me to want to see live shows.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisandro Berry-Gaviria August 18, 2015 / 12:13 pm

    It’s definitely a huge disappointment. And what’s worse is, unless “Beautiful Drug” bombs (which it won’t), ZBB will be further encouraged to keep making music like this.
    This is a long shot, but is it remotely possible that ZBB built up their whole career to this? They made quality country music over their first three albums, fooling people like us into thinking they were a great artist…and then sprung this trap? I don’t think so and I don’t want to think so; it’s far more likely that Scott Borchetta just corrupted them; but that thought just popped up in my head and stuck there. Hopefully it’s wrong.

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  4. Tom August 18, 2015 / 1:37 pm

    This is the most misguided article I’ve read here, and why people think independent music fans are hipster assholes. Seriously, reread what you just wrote. ZBB makes great music for 8 years, and then decides to something a TINY BIT different, and they become, “the definition of a crook and someone who values money over honesty.” Get the $%& over yourself. One song doesn’t define a band that has been around for 8 years. So what, ZBB released an EDM song, you’ve never like club music- what makes you an authority to judge it?. It doesn’t make them bad people, it doesn’t make them crooks. It makes them a group of guys trying to have fun, do something different and introduce their catalog to a wider audience.

    And get the hell out of here with this bait and switch nonsense. Here they are actually catering to the closed-minded bloggers like you by having their more traditional stuff out there, and you’re still upset. If their promos had been Beautiful Drug and Tomorrow Never Comes, you would be calling them even worse sell-outs. But somehow cutting a Jason Isbell song makes them somehow worse, gotcha.

    “They’re seemingly sterling track record and penchant for honesty through their music and words is damaged forever”. Because they’re releasing one song that’s different over the course of 8 years. Learn to laugh off a song you don’t like by a great band, and not declare them the Benedict Arnold’s of country music.

    And FYI- I don’t love it being a single on country radio. I’m just not a traditionalist hipster who ignores a careers worth of work because of one decision. It would be me like saying this entire website is a piece of crap because of one article I disagree with.

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    • Josh Schott August 18, 2015 / 2:10 pm

      And comments like this are why I’ve come to loathe Zac Brown Band fans because they refuse to criticize the band. You’re blatant fanboys who love everything ZBB puts out. Zac Brown could fart into a mic for three minutes and you guys would call it genius. Keep in mind I’ve been a fan of ZBB since the beginning. I’ve defended them for years against the actual traditional country hipster assholes, something you would realize if you actually read the site like you claim. Believe me there are much bigger asshole traditional country fans than me. I clearly gave them credit for eights years of mostly quality music right in the article. I can defend them making southern rock passed off as country. I can defend them making beach music passed off as country. I can’t defend them making EDM music passed off as country.

      I happened to enjoy EDM and club music, just not in my country music. It doesn’t belong on country radio or the genre. If I want to listen to this music I listen to top 40 or EDM radio. If they want to introduce themselves to a wider audience, why not just release the song to top 40/adult contemporary radio? I wouldn’t have wrote this article if they had done this, but instead they’re shoving a clear crossover pop song with hardly any country elements down the throats of country fans. So yes they are crooks just like others trying to pass off pop music as country.

      It makes them a group of guys trying to have fun, do something different and introduce their catalog to a wider audience.

      You know who else I’ve heard this argument from? Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt fans. This is only the second most ridiculous argument behind the “evolution of country music” argument. This is desperate justification.

      You don’t understand what bait and switch means and I don’t feel like explaining the concept to you. I clearly explained it in the article already, so I suggest you re-read it.

      It is damaged forever. Music doesn’t die. Jamey Johnson still gets criticized for co-writing Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and he’s released a lot of quality traditional country music. People don’t forget these missteps. I put quotes right in the article where Brown himself said that country music fans deserve better and quality stuff than bro country and other trends on radio. Yet here they are going right along with the trends. This is not the type of song to laugh off. ZBB’s “Chicken Fried” I laughed off. Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” is another example of a song I laughed off. Because they were actually country, despite stupid and/or cliche themes. “Beautiful Drug” isn’t country and the lyrics are some of the laziest I’ve ever seen from Zac Brown Band. It’s a song clearly driven by greed and lust for popularity, something I thought Zac Brown Band was above. It’s no coincidence after years of not caring about popularity and mainstream appeal that they’re now going for this very thing after partnering with Borchetta. Look at the rest of Big Machine and there are various artists releasing the same pop crap trying to be passed off as country. You’re naive if you think this is not purely business driven because artistic wise “Beautiful Drug” is a clear step down. The only people who won’t acknowledge this are Zac Brown Band fanboys like yourself. My advice to you is to laugh off articles you disagree with like this one and not act like a hostile asshole.

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      • Tom August 18, 2015 / 2:52 pm

        Yea yea yea, I get the bait and switch thing, you felt like they led you on and then stabbed you in the back once you bought the album / faith in them. I dont like Beautiful Drug on country radio, but I don’t think it taints everything they’ve ever done, and definitely don’t think it makes them crooks. This single could be Big Machines condition to release a less radio ready song like Dress Blues in the future. Who knows, sorry for getting all worked up.

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  5. Nadia Lockheart August 18, 2015 / 5:20 pm

    I actually think the title of the album itself, “JEKYLL + HYDE”, implies that this is a one-off type of foray that nonetheless isn’t indicative of their overall artistic direction as a whole.

    Like I’ve stated before (and was also pointed out by Derek), I’m predicting this will be an anomaly. I have no evidence to directly point this out, but I fail to see why this group would title their album “JEKYLL + HYDE” if they didn’t want to make a disclaimer that this album would resemble a dissociative identity disorder; at the very least in terms of sound and musical influence, if not stretching more broadly in some form of mild commentary.

    And truth be told, again, I still found “JEKYLL + HYDE” a decent album. I rated it a Strong 6 out of 10. It is without a doubt their least cohesive album to date and also has experiments and filler that falls flat. But it’s also a sort of listening experience that succeeds in commanding my attention and has moments of experimentation that work resoundingly well. Especially on the heavy rockers “Heavy Is The Head” and “Junkyard”, which I actually considered the lyrical high marks of the album that they wrote. I actually think they should keep pursuing that facet of their sound more, especially if their rock sound brings out better lyricism.

    *

    At any rate, we’ll just have to wait and see.

    I think the performance of “Beautiful Drug” will quite likely prove to be a bellwether moment for the group. If it somehow explodes in popularity in terms of digital sales and crossover airplay, then maybe there will be reason for concern in that Brown’s ego may be aggressively fed. But if it underperforms digitally and on other radio formats, then I’m certain that Brown, being as much a businessman as anything, won’t miss the writing on the wall and realize where the core of the group’s fanbase resides…………….and recalibrate back to a more natural means of production and experimentation in the vein of “Uncaged”.

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  6. Zack August 18, 2015 / 10:11 pm

    It’s really not that Zac Brown Band recorded an EDM song that bothered me, granted I’m definitely not thrilled with it, but I can let it go. Everyone’s favorite band has done something in their career that made them mad at one time or another. No, what bothers me is that these guys are releasing this Club song to COUNTRY radio. Coupled with the fact that it looks immensely hypocritical coming from a guy who criticized Luke Bryan for having the worst Country song ever. Acts like these guys and The Band Perry are just hoping for crossover success and using Country as a springboard. I knew that the time would eventually come for this shit, but I didn’t think it would be the Zac Brown Band who ultimately succumbed to the pressure…..

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jacob Sudduth August 19, 2015 / 7:30 pm

    I’m not giving up on them yet. They’ve released so much good stuff since they erupted onto the mainstream country scene, I just can’t believe that this is how they die. It’s just because they are releasing Beautiful Drug. If they wouldn’t release it, the good songs on the album (Heavy is the Head (tied for best song), Bittersweet (tied for best), Dress Blues, Homegrown, Junkyard (their current rock single, great song), Remedy) would make the album not that bad to me. Beautiful Drug fucked it all up.

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  8. Jerold Draleau September 5, 2015 / 3:33 am

    On the basis of its 13 top 10s on the Hot Country Songs chart prior to Jekyll + Hyde, it s tempting to describe the Zac Brown Band as unreconstructed Southern country-rock. That pun on historical Reconstruction is deliberate, given the Georgia-based group s fondness for larding platitudes on faith and patriotism into its deep-fried tributes to romance and laid-back good times.

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  9. Dillon October 14, 2015 / 4:44 pm

    I get it…you didn’t like Beautiful Drug. You don’t like EDM, or the fact that it is creeping into your favorite genre of music the same way it’s creeping into every genre. As in most cases, I blame Nickelback…but that’s not important. What is important is that you seem to have completely missed the point of Jekyll + Hyde.

    Yes, the album gets off to a terrible start with the aforementioned EDM abortion, but the first 8 songs all go in wildly different stylistic directions. In order, the album’s songs go from EDM to Motown, Gospel, Country/Southern Rock, Jazz/Swing, Rock, Indie/Coffee Shop, Jimmy Buffett, more EDM and so on (there is also some great Bluesy stuff).

    You’re obviously so upset by the EDM music, you missed the larger story arc: almost every song on the album is in a crazy different style.

    I’m not a Country music fan. I never gave Zac Brown a second thought until Dave Grohl used Brown’s recording studio for a song in Sonic Highways on HBO. I only wound up on this article after listening to Junkyard and hearing an amazing Pink Floyd reference jammed right in the middle. I googled it to find out about the Floyd reference (Roger Waters co-wrote the song…amazing) and I stumbled onto this misguided attempt at criticism.

    I realize this is a Country website, and you probably love that genre far above all others. But as an outsider, I’m far more interested in Jekyll + Hyde than in listening to an album of 12+ songs which all fall into your definition of Country.

    And this is where you make your biggest mistake: your characterization of the “business card” mentality that Cook mentions. You take it to mean that the album is just a money-making tool (which is crazy in its own right, given how little artists usually make on their own recordings – check out Jared Leto’s “Artifact” documentary to learn more). Cook also mentions that Zac Brown Band is “not an album band”, which is a much bigger part of the quote if you understand it. What he’s saying is that you’re not going to see ZBB doing 3/4 of their album during their live shows. They’re writing songs which will fit in with their current live show which, I’m led to believe, is very eclectic. Brown is a ridiculous — and classically trained — guitarist, and he obviously draws inspiration from a myriad of different sources. All artists do.

    I’m not saying the album is perfect, not even that it’s great, but it’s definitely diverse. And if the band’s goal is to illustrate their wide range or — to put it another way — “The album is basically a business card to get people to see us play live” — I think it does a great job of just that.

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