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It took a little convincing, but Coy Bowles talked his parents into not using their attic for storage when he was a kid growing up in Thomaston, Ga.
That little room beside his bedroom became a musical getaway for the teen. The current Zac Brown Band member brought his CD player over and hung a hammock from the ceiling. If he wasn’t practicing his guitar, he was in the hammock listening to his favorite Seattle grunge bands.
“The coolest thing for me to do was listen to Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten,’ Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind,’ or Soundgarden and play along to it and think about how awesome it would be to be in one of those bands and be up on stage,” Bowles said. “When I’d close my eyes at 13 and dream of being in Pearl Jam or one of those bands, it was exactly like how it is now with the band I’m in. Everyone is cool, has fun, and we play music that matters, that affects people, and we make a difference in the world.”
The Zac Brown Band’s music has made a difference. There have been nine No. 1 singles, including “Chicken Fried,” which began a string of chart-topping hits when it was released in 2008.
The lineup consists of Bowles on guitar and organ; Jimmy De Martini on fiddle and vocals; John Driskell Hopkins on bass guitar and vocals; Chris Fryar on drums; Clay Cook on guitar, keyboard, mandolin, steel guitar, and vocals; Daniel de los Reyes on percussion, and, of course, frontman Zac Brown.
“People believe Zac when he sings, and he means it when he sings. That’s a gift,” Bowles said. “Zac has such vision and knows who he is and what he wants to be. Early on in our career, we opened for some people, including Alan Jackson. But then Zac said, ‘We aren’t opening for people anymore. We’re a headlining band. I don’t care if we play for 2,000 people.’ Within a year and a half, we went from playing for 2,000 people to 8,000 people, and it kept growing.”
The band’s three albums have all gone platinum for sales of more than 1 million copies.
Their major debut album, “The Foundation,” went triple platinum and yielded four No. 1 hits (“Chicken Fried,” “Toes,” “Highway 20 Ride,” and “Free”). While today’s country is turning more and more pop and features crossover artists like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, ZBB has been successful while staying true to the southern roots sound they established while playing in Georgia bars.
“We pride ourselves on being great songwriters. If we’re aiming for a fun summer song, we want it to be the best summer song, that makes you want to be on that island drinking beer. If it’s a ballad about lost love, at the end of it we want you to be near crying,” Bowles said.
The chart and commercial success has led to dates in sold-out arenas but also other opportunities. Brown was playing at the Grammy awards show a couple years ago and struck up a friendship with longtime Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. That friendship eventually led to Grohl agreeing to produce the band’s latest project, an EP titled “The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1,” which was released in December.
The Zac Brown band in studio with Musician David Grohl.
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That collaboration paired Bowles with his boyhood idol and fulfilled many of those dreams he had while swinging in his attic hammock.
“It couldn’t have been cooler. Here I am in a studio, sitting behind Dave Grohl, listening to old Nirvana stories. He is a special guy,” Bowles said. “He didn’t do anything mind-blowing or try to sculpt us. But being who he is, he was able to push us, and gave us permission to rock out and push it a little harder. If we were already amped up to 8, he pushed us to an 11.”
The energy that the band generates in the studio gets carried over to the stage, where impromptu jam sessions can break out and the camaraderie between band members is genuine, forged during years of friendship.
Bowles and Brown met while attending West Georgia College. Bowles and his roommate went up to a local bar to check out an open mic night and were greeted by Brown blowing the doors off the joint.
“He was singing his butt off. My first introduction to him was being smacked in the face by his voice,” Bowles said.
Those early days in the bars, singing for tips and beer money, were very important in creating the band’s entertainment style. At one point in the middle of the show the band is bringing to the Huntington Center, the band members will grab their acoustic guitars and form a circle in the middle of the crowd and just start jamming.
“Zac knows a bazillion songs. There’s no telling what he’ll play. It keeps it fresh for us and the audience,” Bowles said.
And the audience is what it’s all about for Bowles and his pals. Each of the band members interacts with fans through Facebook and Twitter, and the band’s concerts are crafted with fan interaction in mind.
“We put a lot of time and energy into being able to perform the best show we possibly can,” Bowles said. “The band is dialed in. I think we’re sounding better than we ever have.”
The Zac Brown Band will be in concert, along with guests Levi Lowrey and the AJ Ghent Band, at the Huntington Center on Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $69.50 and $74.50 and can be purchased at the Huntington Center box office, at Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at 1-800-745-3000, or online at ticketmaster.com.
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