With all the incessant and never-to-be-resolved arguments of what country music is and what it should be, it’s enough to annoy a country fan right out of ever wanting to discuss the matter ever again. But even in an era where the boundaries of country music have been stretched and eroded like never before, there is still a limit. The Band Perry found that limit, and has paid with their careers by crossing it. And Zac Brown Band found a similar limit on their last record Jekyll+Hyde.
It’s not just the sonic parameters of country music itself that decide where that line is, it’s also the social contract an artist makes with their fans. Someone like Sam Hunt is afforded more latitude by fans because he never established himself as country or even rootsy in the first place. The Band Perry had ample warning that the direction they were going was adverse to what their fans wanted or expected, yet they doubled and tripled down until they passed the point of no return.
It wasn’t that Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll+Hyde was a bad album. It was a strange, diverse album with some bad songs. Yet its worst offense was that it wasn’t the Zac Brown Band. It was Zac Brown exploring a bevy of influences that he decided he wanted to satiate whether his audience wanted to hear them or not, while his bandmates seemed to only be there in name. And this wasn’t your average country or Southern rock band. The fans of Zac Brown Band had bought into this entire Southern lifestyle they had been sold for years. It wasn’t just music, it was a culture. It was food, it was a style of dress. It was a laid-back approach to life that didn’t at all fit with what Jekyll+Hyde embodied. He crossed that line, and in more ways than one.
“My dad always said nothing good ever happens when you stay out late. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way last week, being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a statement from Zac Brown began, tied to an April 2016 incident where Zac Brown was one of numerous people verified to be in a hotel room at 2:30 a.m. where multiple arrests were made for illegal drugs, and women from a nearby strip club were present. For the married Zac Brown, it was not a good scene. And though the incident was well swept under the rug by entertainment media, it went on to symbolize just how far Zac Brown had slipped from the person people thought they knew. This was not the Zac Brown in the beanie. This was someone different.
And though country music fans are notoriously pliable and forgiving, one of the bands that enjoyed one of the most loyal fans bases in all of music was beginning to unravel. And when fans turned on the Zac Brown Band, they turned hard. As participatory as Zac Brown fans were before and quick to defend him, now they went out of their way to vent their disappointment. Zac Brown was being vilified, even to the point of when he participated in a charity concert to benefit Sevier County fire victims in December’s historic fires, some bemoaned his participation.
Artists should have the ability to flex their muscles, and spread their creative wings to some extent, and have their fans support those endeavors as opposed to question them at every turn. That was the type of latitude Zac Brown Band enjoyed from fans when completely out of left field they decided to team up with Dave Grohl and release an EP that can only be described as progressive rock. It wasn’t what fans had come to expect, but it was cool, showed a side of the band some fans didn’t know about, and the result was music that crossed lines of genre and taste, but in a good way—in a way that brings fans together. This proves that it wasn’t a lack of open-mindedness by Zac Brown fans that eventually went on to create the acrimony.
It’s when Zac Brown decided to dabble in the EDM world, first as a collaborator with Avicii, and then with the very first song right out of the chute of Jekyll+Hyde called “Beautiful Drug.” The music wasn’t just different, it was derivative. That social contract with many fans was severed. And unlike other big acts, that contract was vital to the success of the franchise because of the family-like nature of the fan base.
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So give Zac Brown credit. He listened to his fans, as opposed to speaking down to them about how music needs to evolve, or some other line of flawed reasoning where he could justify his actions to himself if nobody else. He also didn’t lie about his desire to continue to want to make music outside of the country/Southern rock fold. Instead he has compartmentalized those efforts into a side project, and brought the Zac Brown Band back home to where it still might not be the best option for country purists or the traditional fans out there, but it is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise poisonous mainstream country music space.
It’s hard to describe Zac Brown Band’s Welcome Home as anything but what it is, which is a complete about-face in the direction of the band back to what made them one of the most beloved acts in country music beyond “Chicken Fried.” Isn’t it appropriate that the lead single “My Old Man” finds Zac Brown talking about the lessons of his father, when that was the first person he cited when apologizing for the whole “strippers and drugs” incident in 2016. Similarly, Welcome Home is a re-evaluation of life cover to cover, speaking about going back to one’s roots, appreciating the simpler things in life, giving thanks, and reflecting on who one is, and who they are supposed to be as a person.
Soliciting the services of Dave Cobb as a producer, Welcome Home is paralleled in message with the return of the delicious Zac Brown Band multi-part harmonies, fiddle and banjo, and the Southern sound mixed with a tinge of soul that created the foundation of what the band was known for through multiple records.
Even the most emotionally scarred of previously Zac Brown Band fans, or even for those that only enjoyed the band in passing, have to see all of this as a positive development, especially considering that in the current country music climate, this is all a risky proposition commercially. But none of this immediately makes the music of Welcome Home something phenomenal itself.
Like much of the Zac Brown Band’s output over the years, Welcome Home at times hangs on Southern platitudes and self-affirming lessons that ultimately are not as weighty as they are hoped to be. Apparently we can’t have a Zac Brown Band album without at least one beach song with its pot and Corona references, and they deliver that with “Start Over.” The album also lacks a little bit of energy, or that one song that you could call a signature, or a “hit.” It also feels a little too calculated, even if that calculation tabulates out in the favor of being more rootsy, and more country.
Welcome Home also has some really good moments. “2 Places at 1 Time” took a pretty standard wish and made it something resonant. The cover of John Prine’s “All The Best” may not be one for the history books, but feels like something that should be regarded above just your standard Zac Brown fare. And the entire record is endeared by the parallel themes in many of the songs where you feel like Zac Brown isn’t just affirming his commitment to a lover or his roots to himself, but his loyalty to his fans and his fellow band mates through the messages of the songs.
One of the eternal themes to the Southern way of life is being tempted off the righteous path and straying too far afield. Another is forgiving those who lose their way yet return and repent. Welcome Home doesn’t improve on what Zac Brown Band has always been, but it gets them back to their authentic identity. It gets them back home. And whether you’re a diehard fan with a closet full of concert T-shirts, or someone who enjoys them as a slightly better alternative on the radio, it’s good to have the Zac Brown Band pointed back in the right direction.
1 1/2 Guns Up (6.5/10)
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