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Madcap country thrasher Zac Brown and his eponymous band are some of the most sonically adventurous artists working out of Nashville — they rock, they strum, and occasionally, as they did on their 2015 genre-defying Jekyll + Hyde, they even fold in flashes of EDM and grunge. The frontman has duetted with a wide range of acts including Jimmy Buffet, Kid Rock, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Dave Grohl, and many others. But on their fifth studio LP, Welcome Home, out May 12, they return to the porch-rock that made them.
Surprisingly, it was their foray into dance music that brought the band back, Brown tells EW. As he experimented more with electro for his new side project — the trap-, disco-, and funk-influenced Sir Rosevelt — he says, “It moved all of that out of the way so I could go back and make a purist, back-to-our-roots record, like the music I grew up on: James Taylor, Jim Croce, Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Now I can live in both of those worlds.”
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Brown penned the entire upcoming ZBB collection with longtime collaborator Niko Moon and Jekyll + Hyde teammate Ben Simonetti; together, the trio also make up Sir Rosevelt. “We wanted it to be the most personal album that we’ve ever written,” he says of Welcome Home. “Normally, an album for me is just the collection of the best songs I have [at that time]. This is the first album that we set out to write a full album for a single project.”
Across Home‘s 10 songs — nine originals and a cover of John Prine’s “All The Best” featuring Kacey Musgraves — the singer and multi-instrumentalist considers the here and now of being 38-years-old, married, a father, and a touring musician. He ruminates on his relationship with the road (“2 Places At 1 Time”), where he comes from (“Roots”), fatherhood (“My Old Man”), and longterm monogamy (“Real Thing,” “Long Haul”). And where many of the Nashville kings keep their thrones slinging tunes about trucks and hot young things in cutoffs, the matured perspective here is as delicious as the melodies Brown backs it with.
Brown has been married for a decade to his wife, Shelly, and together the couple shares five children. Managing all those relationships, as well as the one with his rabid fanbase, is not without challenges, Brown says. “It’s constantly balancing being a dad and being present; being a husband and chasing all the things that I love; staying up all night writing songs and traveling and then being grounded. Every day is a thousand missed opportunities, so I have to decide what success for that day is and feel good about it.”
That struggle shows up most movingly in “2 Places At 1 Time,” which Brown admits is the song closest to his heart when it comes to tracks he’s written. “My convictions are that I want to be with my kids and my family,” he says, “but I have to play music. There’s a line in that song about needing islands when I’m home and missing my family when I’m gone. [But] music saved me. I would have been completely lost without it. So giving myself to music is something I will also do. I will always play music.”
The group recorded Home in January of this year and enlisted a brand new name for production: Music City studio maven Dave Cobb, who has helmed recent collections from Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell. The partnership works on many levels. Musically, Cobb injected the set with his signature airy, understated touch, but he also jelled personally with the band. “He’s from Georgia where we’re from,” Brown explains. “It felt like he was my neighbor. All of the jokes make sense. And he’s an incredible soul as well as talented. He’s good at extracting the best of what you got yourself.”
Brown says he’s excited for people to hear his renegade outfit return to the sounds that catapulted them way past platinum-selling artists, like on 2012’s Uncaged, 2010’s You Get What Your Give, and 2008’s The Foundation. But although the music itself might sound a bit familiar, the band — famous for touring with tens of instrumentalists all year long — is taking a new approach this time around when it comes to their live shows.
“We have a whole new album, a new set, new video, a new approach,” Brown says. “We’re not using the horns or the choir right now. We’re gonna be playing all of this new stuff, some new covers. It’s going to be something really special when people come back. And that’s our job. We owe that to these people. They choose to come see us opposed to any of the other people they could go see.”