Album Review – Zac Brown Band’s “Welcome Home”
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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May 15, 2017 @ 9:07 am
Nice review Trigger. Just glad they’ve returned to their old style and don’t have any EDM on this record.
May 17, 2017 @ 2:28 pm
If Zac Brown wants to spread his musical wings he should do that on a side project not on a mainline Zac Brown Band record. While there were a handful of songs off Jekyll & Hyde I liked, Dress Blues, Heavy is the Head (I am a big Chris Cornell fan), Tomorrow Never Comes, Young and Wild and Young and Wild the rest of the songs were not my cup of tea. I have spinned the second album a few times now and my biggest problem with it is that Zac Brown seems to be in full retreat to the sound of his early records. I wished he took some of the better experimental elements of Jekyll & Hyde and used them on this album.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:20 am
Here’s my hot take: seeing a top hat in a country context makes me think of those awful promo shots from Sugarland’s last album and that makes me think of “Stuck Like Glue” and that, my friends, is not a good association.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 15, 2017 @ 10:49 am
Honestly…I thoroughly enjoy Stuck Like Glue for what it is.
There are a lot of very, very bad Sugarland songs, but that one’s a guilty pleasure.
May 15, 2017 @ 11:25 am
Aw man, don’t tell me that! What exactly is it?
Cool Lester Smooth
May 15, 2017 @ 11:27 am
It’s a catchy pop song with an earworm of a hook and a strong vocal.
It’s not good, but it’s something I’ll happily roar along to after my 4th beer.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 15, 2017 @ 11:28 am
…and I’ll gladly take that over shit like Beautiful Drug.
May 15, 2017 @ 12:04 pm
Well, I wouldn’t take Sugarland over anything, but I agree that Beautiful Drug is garbage.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:30 am
I was curious where this album would go, and so far I have enjoyed this album. One of the few genres of music I don’t like is EDM, but I don’t have a problem with people who do like it. And as someone who likes a wide variety of music, I can totally understand artists who want to experiment with different styles of music. So my problem with Jekyll & Hide was never so much the direction, as that it attempted to force fans to buy a different style of music, by tying it to some country songs. So with the new Sir Roosevelt Project, I think that’s a good compromise.
Side note: the sales forecast for this is excellent 170k+ – although it is tied to a massive ticket bundle.
May 15, 2017 @ 10:55 am
I’ve seen some projections of Chris Stapleton actually being ahead of Zac Brown Band at the moment in sales. We’ll have to see if those projections hold up, but it could play into your late rally theory with Stapleton after his late-week media appearances. I think a lot of folks weren’t even aware Stapleton released an album until Wednesday.
May 15, 2017 @ 12:43 pm
If ZBB hits 170k+ and Chris beats them out for #1 that would be amazingly, awesome, epic, great second week for Chris. I do think they’re trying to spread out sales, but even another 100k+ would be fantastic.
And if ZBB does 170k+ and comes in 2nd, it’s still an amazing opening sales week. Number of units moved is more important then the chart position # next to your name IMO.
May 17, 2017 @ 4:16 pm
“Welcome Home” is currently projected to open with 155-165K in aggregate sales, while Chris Stapleton is projected to sell an aggregate 75-85K sales in his second week.
Chris Stapleton will all but certainly win the war, but Zac Brown Band will all but certainly top Stapleton in weekly sales for at least these next two weeks.
May 15, 2017 @ 10:01 am
Can’t say I was a huge fan before thier last album. I liked thier debut, but each corresponding album started to become dull. This album is a return to that old sound, and while better than the last album, still dull sounding in my opinion. with the missteps of the last album and the not much better than average songs on this one, I’m not sure I’ll be spending my music allowance on this.
May 15, 2017 @ 10:31 am
I’ve listened to this album a couple times over the weekend and actually enjoyed it.
It was pretty easy listening. At no point did I feel like I was force feeding the album to myself.
ZBB has his fans and his not so fans. I’ve always kinda been in the middle, but for the most part have liked the band. They were fantastic in concert the one time I saw them..
This album was better than I thought it was going to be. It will continue to get some spins in the rotation.The instrumentation, vocals, and harmonies are there. I’ve always thought that was the strength of ZBB.
May 15, 2017 @ 10:38 am
Good review. the new album is good, not great. I saw them at Verizon amphitheater in Alpharetta GA on Saturday night. The live show is still fantastic. When he played beautiful drug, that was my cue to get a beer and go to the bathroom
Cool Lester Smooth
May 15, 2017 @ 10:54 am
I saw them at Xfinity in Mansfield, MA a few years ago, and they were great.
They pulled off both “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Enter Sandman” with the exact same band.
May 15, 2017 @ 11:49 am
Their Enter Sandman is fantastic, they did Bohemian Rhapsody at Rodeo Houston a couple of years ago and THAT was quite amazing.
May 15, 2017 @ 1:19 pm
hate that place. will not go there.
May 15, 2017 @ 11:18 am
You nailed my feelings about this album exactly, including my sentiments of it being “calculated.”
At the end of the day, for me, anyways, it’s a welcome return to form. I’ve also categorized the ZBB as being more “country” influenced than hard country (though the players in this band can deliver when needed), so I’ve never bemoaned their “old school” country credibility (or lack thereof, if you choose.)
There’s a time and place for me to listen to them, and this disc fulfills that. Good for them, and for me.
May 15, 2017 @ 11:41 am
At the end of the day, Zac Brown just isn’t a very dynamic songwriter. The band can play, Zac can sing, and it is good that they have made this transition back to a more “Country” sound. Still, while Brown is capable of stumbling onto a hit or a great song every now and then, by in large the best songs the band has put out have all been written by other writers (Ryan Adams, John Prine, Jason Isbell).
I know Zac has a few good songs in his songwriting catalogue, but too often his writing is just boring and cliché filled. Shame, cause a lot of the members of the Zac Brown Band have shown serious songwriting chops on their solo efforts (Clay Cook, Levi Lowery, John Driskell). I don’t know why, but it never seems to translate to an entire album for this band.
May 15, 2017 @ 12:28 pm
now that’s country!
May 17, 2017 @ 6:24 am
It was awful when I saw them last year, easily the worst part of a really good show!
May 15, 2017 @ 12:35 pm
Completely agree with that not one song seems to be a “hit,” but there isn’t one where I say “that sucks.”
What drew me to ZBB in the past was the fact that when they’re playing live, they’re more of a jam-band and really bring out their musicianship on stage. The moment that I think this album is missing, is a “Who Know” from their You Get What You Give album.. or basically a song that really shows their talents.
Not that this would make the album perfect, it just seems to be missing that something.
May 15, 2017 @ 12:51 pm
Cheesy and boring..this is the WORST music there is
May 15, 2017 @ 1:25 pm
FGL is on line 2 for you…
May 15, 2017 @ 1:40 pm
Sam Hunt holding on 3…
May 15, 2017 @ 1:53 pm
Kelsea Barbierini on 4
May 15, 2017 @ 4:27 pm
The guy from Sugarland is on line 5 and he wants ZB to give him his hat back.
May 16, 2017 @ 7:03 am
That’s some funny shit right there!
May 15, 2017 @ 6:58 pm
Luke Bryan is on 6.
May 15, 2017 @ 8:36 pm
Jason Aldean holding on line 7
May 15, 2017 @ 1:37 pm
I agree that this album was kind of boring and calculated. However, I saw them debut about half of the songs in their show on Friday night (5/12) in Atlanta, and the songs fit well alongside the rest of the ZBB catalog. They sound really amazing live, and Zac had some very quiet moments with acoustic standouts of “My Old Man” and “All the Best”. “Real Thing” became my favorite from the record after hearing it live. I think they remain a talented band that lost their way when trying to show off their musicianship and ability to play in a variety of sandboxes.
May 15, 2017 @ 4:12 pm
I actually like this album a little bit. There were a couple lame songs. Overall, it was decent.
Truth be told, “All The Best” is one of my favorite covers ever. It is beautiful!
May 15, 2017 @ 5:25 pm
I’ve said it before ….this is a band who’s songwriting skills were always just sub-par ,in my estimation, and could benefit HUGELY from some better outside writing input . They have ( had ) a unique sound vocally and musically ( in todays’ pop-county music landscape ) which stood them apart . THAT is a feat in itself with everyone else chasing the same sound , the same songs , the same demographic . If ZBB would only look to some far better finger-on-the-pulse hit-you over-the head writing and stayed true to the sound that brought them to the dance they would be a force to be reckoned with ( Doobie Brothers …? As a band , I guess its you’re right to explore musically but , as you state Trigger , when that exploration is at the expense of the fans who got you to where you are I think you owe them . You owe them what they came for and MORE . How ’bout starting with way better material from REAL experienced songwriters ?
May 15, 2017 @ 6:18 pm
I really like this album,but for some reason”My Roots” sounds like something you would hear for the next 4 years on a Ford commercial.
May 17, 2017 @ 4:59 am
And “Real Thing” is a throw-back to 90’s Coke commercials.
May 17, 2017 @ 4:09 pm
And “Family Table” is screaming “Please adopt me for your next ad campaign, Cracker Barrel!”
May 15, 2017 @ 7:31 pm
Maybe too much to expect ZBB to release something remotely close in quality to Stapleton and Moreland. In any event, listening to this the first time through was almost torture and made me glad i sold the tickets i bought to see them in August. maybe i should give it another listen because, frankly, this was a much higher rating than i expected from you.
May 15, 2017 @ 8:36 pm
Call me crazy, but coming into this month I was really curious whether I’d like Stapleton’s new album, or ZBB’s better. As it turns out I absolutely love this new Zac Brown Band album! Definitely enjoy it more cover-to-cover than Stapleton’s. ZBB has always been my favorite band though…so maybe I’m biased
May 15, 2017 @ 8:36 pm
I didn’t expect to like “My Old Man” very much, but I wound up quite enjoying it.
Think I might check out some more of the ZBB repertoire.
Judging by some the comments here, I am thinking that ZBB might be an excellent live act – one of those that (arguably) struggles to deliver in a sterile studio environment. There are possibly quite a few performers like this in the Country genre, which can thrill a live audience but their studio albums lack a certain spark. The mention of ZBB doing live renditions of “Enter Sandman” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” really intrigues me, for instance.
May 16, 2017 @ 7:29 am
ZBB is one of the best live acts there is. Hands down. I’ve seen them about a dozen times and they are unreal.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:42 pm
I’ve always been on the fence with ZBB – sometimes I love what they do, other times I feel like their material all sounds the same and it bores me to death. BUT I listened to this and found myself enjoying it (except the god awful “island” song). I actually liked it a little better (at first listen) than Stapleton’s (who I consider myself a fan of – seeing him for the second time this week). I don’t know why…and I’m a bit bothered that I feel this way….but I’m not going to lie about it. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I am not digging Stapleton’s latest – after having some time to listen I’ve come to the realization that while he sounds great I’m a bit disappointed in how predictable the whole album is…it is just so, so….expected? I guess that’s what it is…predictable and expected. But he’s been put in a box…straying now will not go well for him. Unfortunate. Guess I should expect more of the same from him for the remainder of his career. Anyway, tangent, sorry…random Monday night thoughts…
May 16, 2017 @ 8:05 am
For anyone familiar with Stapleton’s ” Steeldrivers ” records , I think his solo stuff has been a bit more difficult to embrace than it may be for folks who weren’t aware of that earlier stuff . His solo sound , like it or not , is unquestionably amazing in its vocal uniqueness ( in terms of its conviction and emotional quotient , if not killer lyrically ) and stands heads , hands and feet above ANYTHING else mainstream ‘country’ is offering …ANYTHING ! .It is undeniably authentic and coming from a whole different place than all other radio stuff . But again , I think the best Stapleton music lyrically and arrangement/production-wise was the Steeldriver stuff with that acoustic-based setting and those incredible harmonies .
May 16, 2017 @ 8:11 am
No doubt he’s one of the best in mainstream country today! I did love his work before his solo venture – I think he’s amazingly talented and blends rock, soul, blues and country so well…I just feel like his latest didn’t make the most of his uniqueness….
In other news, I listened to ZBB again this morning and didn’t enjoy quite as much….so I think Stapleton’s still narrows them out in the long run.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 17, 2017 @ 12:26 pm
Yeah, I got really into the Steeldrivers into the runup to From a Room…and even the best cuts from that record and Traveler pale in comparison to Can You Run, Angel of the Night, Sticks That Made Thunder and If It Hadn’t Been For Love.
May 16, 2017 @ 7:47 am
“… especially considering that in the current country music climate, this is all a risky proposition commercially.”
But is it? The last album was a risky proposition, but this is about as safe and sound as you can get; back to the tried and true formula. (That’s not to say I love the last album, as I think it excels only as a beer coaster.)
Now, when their debut album came out, I think it was risky, putting real music with real musicians front and center, instead of the frat boy drum machine drivel down by the river. But complimenting them for that today seems like giving them a sticker for peeing outside their pants.
May 16, 2017 @ 7:55 am
The new album is decent, but they put on an amazing show. I saw them last Friday when the album dropped and they kicked off their new tour here in Atlanta; sticking with the “Welcome Home” theme.
23 songs and 3 hours later… I had a great time at the show.
May 16, 2017 @ 11:37 pm
Honestly, while Jeckyl+Hyde is incredibly messy with some BAD songs, at least it tried harder than this album. Sure, there’s nothing as bad as Beautiful Drug, but there’s also nothing as good as Tomorrow Never Comes. Controversial opinion, but there it is
May 17, 2017 @ 4:07 pm
I agree with you for the most part, though I consider “Bittersweet” and “Junkyard” the high originally written high points of the album.
Nothing from this album towers up to their heights.
May 17, 2017 @ 11:52 am
I enjoy Trigger’s reviews, but don’t always agree with them (nobody ever or should agree 100%). This website is the number one purveyor of incessant arguments over what country music is, so a little kettle calling pot black on that one. Jekyll and Hyde had 4 number one records (on garbage radio of course), was commercially successful, and they sold out arenas. I disagree that they really lost any hardcore fans. As far as an artist spreading wings to some extent, I had to laugh out loud at that line. Who are you or we to say what an artist makes? If they have something to get off their chests they will whether we like it or not. It’s up to us to consume it if we like. Bands never make their old stuff. It’s just the way it is. But as a fan I also see a step in the right direction. This album is growing on me, but let me down because it did not really go back to the bands roots at all. I agree with Trigger that their isn’t that one classic song. Prine cover maybe. That’s amazing. I also agree they got back to their super tight harmonies. Not a lot of bands that do it better. I also think we’re seeing the chink in the Dave Cobb armor. Not a good effort from him. Record sounds forced. Because the record was so short and next year is ten year anniversary of The Foundation I’m really hoping we get something new next year too. Maybe deluxe edition with b-sides or outtakes or something.
May 17, 2017 @ 4:02 pm
This album is weakened by too much of an “all hat, no cattle” feel.
As much as I can give the band credit for enlisting Dave Cobb as a legitimate producer to re-integrate them to their rustic roots, it almost feels as if they obsessed too much over style and most everything else came a distant secondary priority.
The lyricism, in particular, often reads more commercial jingle than well worn in. “Family Table” and “Real Thing” are the worst offenders of this in that the lyrics read crassly like ads for Cracker Barrel and any given whiskey brand most notably. “Roots” too.
Then you have better tracks like “2 Places At 1 Time” and even the John Prine cover that feel like facsimiles to earlier efforts that fall short of their net poignancy. Has Zac Brown not delivered an anthem about homesickness better via “Colder Weather”? Has he not delivered a laid-back island ditty better via “Toes”?
Even the musicianship usually is stick in one of two modes: either 1) sounding more like a Zac Brown acoustic solo record cut, or 2) a less layered and textured reprisal of previous ensemble efforts. Take “Your Majesty” for instance. It SCREAMS a blatant Xerox of “Day That I Die” but without the same degree of emotional punch. And “Family Table” sounds like a close cousin of “Let It Go”.
So yeah: all in all, I consider this their weakest album to date despite being much more consistent than “JEKYLL + HYDE”. The latter was all a frustrating disjointed heap of peaks and nadirs, but the peaks were compelling. Here, it’s a largely flat and uninspired affair.
I’m thinking a Light 5 out of 10 for this.
May 17, 2017 @ 8:23 pm
I like this album overall but I agree with the sentiment that it feels a little reactionary. It gives me the feeling like when you say to your partner “we never say I love you anymore” and they immediately respond with “I love you.”
May 21, 2017 @ 1:12 pm
Just saw Zac Brown band play live in Australia; great concert (opening act, Pierce Brothers, won themselves quite a few new fans; check out their Tram Sessions on youtube) and I have to say, as much as I hated it on the album, Beautiful Drug came across quite well live.
I am enjoying the new album but it hasn’t grabbed me in the way his previous albums (forgetting Jekyl & Hyde) have