Zac Brown Band Makes Comeback Sort Of
The Zac Brown Band, and its eponymous lead singer, are something of an anomaly in modern country music. Super star country artists tend to fall into two buckets – Americana and country pop. The latter is the successor to the Nashville Sound that proliferated in the 1970s and 80s. Zac Brown is, arguably, not modern country. Much of the band’s output is actually southern rock. This is why they play so much classic southern rock at their concerts including Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Zac Brown Band can sometimes play classic country, but in the Garth Brooks manner, heavily integrating rock into the music. Brooks always skirted rock and southern rock as does Brown.
The Zac Brown Band takes musical diversity up a notch in their latest album The Comeback. I’m not sure what they are making a comeback from other than their last album, The Owl. The Owl was mostly a pop album with little country or southern influence. It was just plain too. The Comeback, on the other hand, is a pastiche of songs and styles. There are ballads, mid-tempo confessionals, classic rock, 70’s country rock, pop country, and southern rock with a smattering of blues. This diversity of styles is what makes The Zac Brown Band so popular – there is something for everyone. They appeal to rock, southern rock, country, and pop fans.
The unfortunate side effect of such diversity is that it’s hard to pin down a “Zac Brown Sound”. About the only unifying force is lead singer Zac Brown’s voice. He has a rich baritone with a lot of twang. That could describe any number of country singers but there is something unique in the timbre of Brown’s voice that makes him instantly recognizable. That rich voice is prominent on The Comeback and its best asset. This is very much on display from the first song, “Slow Burn”. The contrast between Brown and blues singer Marcus King is also obvious in the duet “Stubborn Pride”. While King’s guitar playing is exceptional, it’s Brown’s voice that carries the vocal track. Brown shines on harder rockers where the band compliments the big voice. “Out in the Middle” and “GA Clay” are standouts on the album because the band is big and loud and melds so well with Brown’s voice.
Like other albums from The Zac Brown Band, the album is chockful of country music tropes. Musically, you have lots of mid-tempo songs about love and loss as well as upbeat sing-alongs. Some, like “Fun Having Fun” come across so cornpone as to feel stupid. “Same Boat”, on the other hand, is the perfect sing-along with an easy to remember tune and memorable chorus.
Lyrically, there is plenty of songs about warm days, listening to radio stations, and putting on records so that you can dance with your lover. Why do country songs always talk about listening to the radio as in “listening to the radio all summer long”? Do people in rural America really sit around listening to the radio? I thought radio was only for middle-aged commuters these days. It’s a trope that sounds hilariously anachronistic. It’s starts right from the first song, “Slow Burn” and continues through a number of other songs. Similarly, “Old Love Song” pulls out the “let’s put a record on” trope. Does his audience even use records anymore? Do they even know what it means to put a record on? I think these are meant to invoke an old timey feeling but end up sounding outdated. Maybe, the whole point of country music is to evoke a simpler time and place, where radios still played and you put a record on to dance with your girl (because God forbid a man dances with another man).
Some of the more homespun metaphors, though, feel truly sweet. “Wild Palominos” lights up the hearth with lyrics such as “Home is still home no matter which road you choose”. Here, however, the song is about the balance between longing for home and going out into the world. Brown spins a tale of loss and longing that’s hokey but heartwarming. The Zac Brown Band may trade in tropes but it’s what makes them easy to listen to. The one trope that they do avoid, however, is the “I’m a man with a pickup truck and a dog and you’re my woman who’s here for my amusement.” I’m glad to see male country artists leaving behind misogyny, at least a little. The band may come across like good old fashioned party boys at times, but they don’t have to be jerks about it. It’s nice to see them move beyond those type of stories.
The Comeback is a good Zac Brown Album. It has something to please just about every type of fan. Sure, it’s formulaic, but so are most Zac Brown albums. It’s still a lot of fun. I’m betting this will help drive fans to concerts over the next year. And it’s not The Owl. Thanks goodness for that. We have the old Zac Brown back and that’s a pleasure.