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

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“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.

Zac Brown Band’s New Strategic Partnership for Southern Ground

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On September 19th at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Zac Brown announced a partnership of his own music label, Southern Ground, with some of music’s biggest label groups and brand masters. Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Republic Records (The Band Perry, Eli Young Band) and John Varvatos Records are the three labels lined up with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, who was previously signed with Atlantic Records, in this strategic partnership.

Back in February of this year, renowned fashion designer John Varvatos began a partnership with Republic Records launching John Varvatos Records. From Universal Music’s website, Varvatos’ role in this Republic partnership is to focus on “spearheading the signing of new acts and the release of high-profile reissues and compilations. The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.” Musical campaigns launched since this agreement included legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, ZZ Top (a Republic Record’s artist) and Dave Matthews.

For Brown and Southern Ground, this is certainly a positive move in respect toward the young music label. For Zac Brown alone, however, this is a curious move. Zac Brown famously criticized Luke Bryan (and subsequently Dallas Davidson) about his song “That’s My Kinda Night” calling that song “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Alongside those comments was further commentary about how the same guys were writing the same songs in different arrangements.

Furthermore, Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records’ CEO, has ruffled quite a few feathers among country music purists due to the control he has over his artists and the way he markets them. Republic Nashville, who also includes Florida Georgia Line, is a branch of Big Machine Label Group. Essentially, Scott Borchetta’s label features two of country music’s most successful crossover artists in Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. From a musical standpoint, Brown’s decision to partner up here is a bit of a head scratcher. However, as much as he is a lead singer of a band, he’s also the mastermind behind Southern Ground Artists and this partnership provides several advantages to Southern Ground Artists. While the main motivation for this move revolves around more exposure and growth for the Southern Ground brand, we may see some other musical benefits as well.

Exposure for Southern Ground’s lesser-known artists – Alongside country’s big names on Big Machine, Southern Ground Artists may find more exposure from this partnership. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, singer-songwriters Niko Moon and Levi Lowery, and Americana, blues band The Wood Brothers already have a deep collaboration history with the Zac Brown Band. Many of these acts have toured with the band and have great musical catalogs of their own. The exposure that this partnership could provide may elevate these musical careers to a higher, well-deserved level. Not to mention, young acts like the AJ Ghent Band, Dugas and Little Feather may see a quicker rise in popularity as well. Also this exposure should help these artists, along with the Zac Brown Band to get increased radio play and maybe more award show appearances. If these award shows are as political as some claim, then a partnership with Big Machine can only help Zac and his band get some more votes on their side to win more well-deserved hardware.

Crossover Appeal – Blackberry Smoke is a southern rock band. AJ Ghent Band are self-described as “southern soul” with a blend of funk, blues, soul and rock. Dugas have a pop, rock sound. Simply put, Southern Ground Artists do not feature only country music. This label covers a wide range of genres, and Republic Records has the crossover capability to further this exposure. Lorde, Drake, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat are all signed under Republic. These artists from Southern Ground can potentially find a new audience for their music. And it’s not like they’re struggling for a fan base, but Zac Brown Band could also find success in this way too. Their newest EP, The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 is more rock than any other genre. If these guys continue moving toward rock, then a label featuring ZZ Top, Pearl Jam and Godsmack can’t be a bad partner to have.

Possibility for more mainstream lyrical quality – This is my own opinion, but I don’t believe you’ll find a better group of songwriters than those in Southern Ground. Levi Lowrey’s two records feature great songs like “Wherever We Breakdown,” “Urge for Leaving” and “The Problem with Freedom.” Lowrey is also a credited co-writer on “Colder Weather,” which is arguably one of Zac Brown Band’s best songs. Niko Moon (formerly Nic Cowan) has songs like “Reno” and “Sun Dress” on his studio album, and has co-written Brown songs like “Keep Me In Mind,” “Lance’s Song” and “Day That I Die.” With a writing team like that including Brown himself, frequent co-writer Wyatt Durette, the men from Blackberry Smoke and The Woods Brothers, there’s a chance we could see these names on songs cut by other country artists like Eli Young Band, The Cadillac Three, or even Florida Georgia Line (we can dream, right?) And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, Zac Brown Band has released some great, quality songs to country radio.

More Musical Collaborations – Zac Brown Band and the fairly well-established Blackberry Smoke have collaborated with some of music’s best. It’s no secret Zac Brown enjoys playing and singing alongside his heroes. His band has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Gregg Allman, Dave Grohl and Dave Matthews just to name a few. And Blackberry Smoke has recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with the late, great George Jones and Jamey Johnson. With Varvatos’ work with musical legends, we may be treated to more collaborations between Southern Ground Artists and some of music’s best.

Arguably the most important potential benefit here is branding. Southern Ground is more than an independent record label; Southern Ground is a brand of life. Zac Brown has built the Southern Ground Music Festival, Camp Southern Ground, and Southern Grind, a metal and knife shop, just to name a few. Zac Brown commented on John Varvatos’ clothing line and the success of his brand since 2000. Varvatos’ branding skills and marketability should certainly assist in molding the Southern Ground brand Zac Brown has already worked to build.

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.

From the beginning the Zac Brown Band has done it their way and I don’t expect that to change with this partnership. Overall this strategic partnership is for the Southern Ground brand. This brand is Zac Brown’s baby and as a leader for this brand he made a business move that should positively impact Southern Ground. Zac Brown has a grander vision than simply making music and this partnership is indicative of his efforts to take that vision to the next level. Time will only tell if this will lead to the additional musical benefits listed above. The first big release from this joint-venture will be the newest Zac Brown Band album, which is due out in the early half of 2015. And for that band, at least we’ll get a good idea of what the future will hold with Southern Ground, Big Machine, Republic and Varvatos coming together. Zac Brown is a man who surrounds himself with individuals whose talent moves his vision forward. When the band released “Chicken Fried” there were only five official members in the Zac Brown Band. That number has jumped to eight this year, due to Zac wanting to add more instrumentation and harmonies to the band’s music. Through adding more avenues for his brand and label to grow, it’s obvious Zac Brown expects big things to happen as a result. And if his band’s growth is any indication, I bet this business move will be successful in its efforts to improve everything enveloped in Southern Ground.