By: George Varga
LOS ANGELES — The Zac Brown Band made history in at least two ways when it won Best New Artist honors at the 52nd annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 31.
The six-man group became the first country-music band — as opposed to solo artist — to ever win a Best New Artist trophy at the Grammys. Equally notable, this year’s Best New Artist winner isn’t exactly new, although Grammy Award rules are flexible in defining who qualifies for such a designation.
That’s a good thing for Brown, who formed his Atlanta-based band in 2000, several years after launching his music career, and released his group’s first album on his own label in 2003.
Or, as the bearded singer-guitarist said backstage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Grammys were held: “We’ve been very blessed to do what we love for a living. After 13 years, to be recognized on this level is one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”
Intriguingly, the Zac Brown Band was the only one of the five Best New Artist nominees to perform on the Grammys telecast, which found it duetting with legendary singer-songwriter Leon Russell on “America the Beautiful,” Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby” and Brown’s “Chicken Fried.”
Even so, the Grammy victory appeared to come as a genuine surprise to Brown and his bandmates, who include guitarist-organist Coy Bowles, violinist-singer Jimmy De Martini, drummer Chris Fryar, bassist-singer John Driskell Hopkins and multi-instrumentalist and singer Clay Cook.
“We did not think we were going to win at all. We’ve been on a lot of awards shows this year, and performed (on them) and didn’t win,” Brown, 34, said. “I mean, we didn’t plan on winning anything. We’re performers and to be recognized on this level is insane. It’s surreal.”
Now, this hardworking sextet faces perhaps its biggest challenge yet, as the group seeks to take its career to a new level.
Case in point: Brown and his band’s Tuesday show at the San Diego Sports Arena, which kicks off the 15-city West Coast leg of the group’s Breaking Southern Ground Tour.
Depending on the seating configuration, the Sports Arena can accommodate up to 13,000 fans. That’s 12,600 more than the 400-capacity Brick By Brick in San Diego, where the Zac Brown Band appeared a year ago.
Yet, even though Tuesday’s Sports Arena gig will use a scaled back “theater” configuration, with a 5,000 capacity, playing such a large venue one year after a club date here seems daunting. Or is it?
“We had to bet on ourselves, as to what we’re becoming and as we get more and more radio (air) play,” Brown said. “I would rather have 2,000 or 3,000 empty seats than turn away 1,000 people, who might otherwise be following us for the rest of their lives.”
Brown and his band’s major label debut, the million-plus-selling “The Foundation,” was released in late 2008 by Atlantic Records. Now ranked at No. 10 on the national Billboard pop album charts, “The Foundation” sold 40,000 copies the week after the Grammys (a sales jump of 82 percent over the previous week). The 12-song album is a notable crossover success, as befits a crowd-pleasing act that has opened concerts for artists as varied as B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Sugarland.
In June, the Zac Brown Band plays the annual Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, where it will be part of a lineup that includes fellow 2010 Grammy winners Jay-Z, Kings of Leon and Jeff Beck. In July, Brown and his group open seven shows for the Dave Matthews Band.
On March 19 comes the TV debut of “CMT Crossroads: Jimmy Buffett and the Zac Brown Band.” Meanwhile, Brown is featured (sans his band) on the recently released “We Are the World” remake, which has been retitled “We Are The World 25 for Haiti” and features nearly 80 other performers, including the Jonas Brothers, Snoop Dogg, Tony Bennett and Jason Mraz.
Fitting comfortably in so many stylistic settings might be difficult for other country-oriented artists. But with “The Foundation,” Brown and his band have crafted a listener-friendly blend that, while less than innovative, draws deftly from reggae (“Where the Boat Leaves From”), funk (“Different Kind of Fine”), bluegrass (“Mary”) and sly, Jimmy Buffett-styled balladry (“Toes”).
“Man, it’s just one love, one music, one common goal, and that’s the thing about it,” Brown said. “There really are no walls, except for the names that the (music) industry tries to apply. But (to us), it’s all the same thing.”
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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