The Zac Brown Band finds themselves in a position that most any other band or artist would be lying if they said they weren’t envious of: owning their own label, calling their own shots, and nestled in a niche carved out in the music world where they’re beholden to no industry or radio play or sound to ensure butts fill the seats at shows. At the same time they’ve enjoyed the gracious support of the country music industry, while still openly admitting they veer much closer to the Southern rock side of things, giving the band the latitude to experiment and collaborate outside the genre while receiving much more interest than flack. They’ve created their own Zac Brown culture, with loyal fans, fun side enterprises like Zac’s foodie endeavors, and his Southern Ground Music & Food Festival. It’s a modernized space where bands like The Allman Brothers used to sit, attracting their own crowd as big, jam-style bands tend to do.
In the midst of the brushup between Zac Brown and Luke Bryan, when Zac chided Luke’s song “That’s My Kind Of Night” for being the “worst song ever,” defendants of Luke’s and other industrious bystanders proffered up Zac’s first big hit “Chicken Fried” and his roster of island/beach songs as grounds for hypocrisy. However “Chicken Fried” was released over six years ago now. Where the Zac Brown Band has settled since securing its independence from a label is somewhere much closer to the compositional-heavy style of its Southern rock forefathers than anything near country radio clichÃ©.
After the success of “Chicken Fried”, the band added multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook, known previously as a member of the Marshall Tucker Band. In 2012 they designated percussionist Daniel de los Reyes as a permanent member. Instead of working with many of the usual suspects in the mainstream country music world, Zac Brown went out on tour with Dave Matthews during the summer of 2010. In September of 2013, Brown sat in with legendary jam band The String Cheese Incident. On Zac Brown’s current “Great American Road Trip” tour, they’ve invited Kacey Musgraves, Keb Mo, and Sturgill Simpson to tag along. Despite a few undeniable plays for radio attention peppered throughout their discography, The Zac Brown Band has displayed themselves as a heady, progressive group, especially when contrasted with the company they keep come country music awards show time.
This leads us to a side project the band released with former Nirvana drummer now turned Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. The well-liked and universally-respected musician played drums for Zac Brown during the November 6th, 2013 airing of the CMA Awards, and though it was a cool collaboration, the pairing appeared to just be one of those one-off, prime time awards show situations meant to get curiosity seekers to tune in. But behind the scenes, Grohl had been working with the band on a new EP.
The Grohl Sessions has not exactly been hush hush, but it is clear everyone approached the sessions as a special thing, and not a full-blown release. The 4-song EP was initially released on December 10th, 2013, but only to iTunes, and only a couple of weeks after Grohl let it slide that he was responsible for the production during an interview at the American Music Awards. It wasn’t until April 28th of 2014 that The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 arrived in physical form, with a complimentary 45-minute DVD delving into the making of the album. Zac Brown released the EP’s single “All Alright” to country radio on April 28th as well, and it has since met with some moderate success.
At its heart, The Grohl Sessions is the true answer to the “country music must progress” charge regularly levied by mainstream artists like Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and Eric Church, to justify their trespasses of mixing country with other genres. Coincidentally, Eric Church appears in the songwriting credits of the first song and single “All Alright”. However unlike some of the “progressive” songs on Church’s latest album The Outsiders, including the title track, the songs on The Grohl Sessions don’t show signs of self-indulgence, or simply jarringly shifting between complex movements to wow the listener without and real compositional basis or underlying message or direction.
The songs of The Grohl Sessions are marvelously complex, yet still with a heart, still with a pentameter that never stops beating, keeping the music in a pocket, and the ear enraptured. Though mixing things like rap and EDM into country is certainly different, that doesn’t necessarily make it good, or progressive. It is a fair argument to say that country hardliners regularly bemoan hip-hop treatments to songs, but when it comes to blending rock & roll into country, it is more often given a pass. The Grohl Sessions are certainly guilty of being way more rock than country, with elements of blues and Motown soul. But nobody ever accused Zac of being country, and just because it isn’t country, doesn’t mean it’s not good.
The most grounded song of the four is the single, “All Alright”, arising a soulful, Motown-feeling Southern inflected Muscle Shoals vibe that is not all foreign to country, but is pretty far off. “Let It Rain” is exquisitely unintuitive, and resolves in twisty, chordy moral that is indicative of the wild-eyed West Coast string band Larry & His Flask. “The Muse” reminds you of all those great songs The Avett Brothers used to write, but with more full arrangements, and like every song on this extended player, embellished head to toe with brilliant, multi-tiered harmonies. “Day Of The Dead” takes you to a whole other place entirely, full of intermingled influences, dancing in harmony, not sandwiched together as gimmick, resolving in a most glorious vocal choir, illustrating that despite a few moments of off-the-wall guitar shredding, this album’s foundation starts with voices.
Dave Grohl himself said about the project, “They’re unbelievable, the band is so good they can be tracked live; we didn’t fuck with computers, we tracked live, four-part harmonies around one microphone. It’s rocking. People are like, ‘Oh, it’s country.’ ‘No, it’s not, it’s like the Allman Brothers.’ ‘No, it’s not, it’s jam band.’ I don’t even know what you would call it, it’s fucking great.”
I would pretty much concur.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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