GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Zac Brown
(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, GRAMMY.com has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various GRAMMY winners who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)
Zac Brown had two constant companions when he was a boy.
"I had a Walkman," says three-time GRAMMY winner Brown. "And I had my guitar everywhere I went."
He also enjoyed the benefit of early musical guidance.
"I had older siblings, so I got into older music," says Brown, who is the 11th child of a family of 12 children.
Brown came of age in the '80s and '90s, but thanks to that exposure he related to the music of the '60s and '70s. Those sounds gave him refuge from tensions at home and later a solid foundation for the music of his Zac Brown Band as they barnstormed the South for several years before emerging as a torchbearer for earnest, earthy values in modern country music.
These thoughts inspired Brown's selections from the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, recordings he says provided equal measures of comfort and inspiration in shaping his sensibilities.
"One of the first records I had was an Eagles CD. To me that's what a real band is — the musicianship and the chemistry, great lyrics, [and] songs that are different from each other. And great harmonies. I was a huge fan of the harmonies. I was in choir and singing in barbershop quartets. I did that for 10 years [and] fell in love with harmony and vocal arrangement. That definitely bleeds into our music a lot, learning how to use color and leading tones and paying attention to the voices, along with chordal instruments, [and] how you can sing other chords on top of that. That's one of my favorite things about my band.
"I've been covering the Eagles forever. I just started my 17th year of touring. Back when I was 17 or 18, I was making a living playing in bars and singing 'Take It Easy,' 'Peaceful Easy Feeling' and 'Desperado.' 'Desperado' was the first song I learned at the piano. It was the first epic ballad I absorbed and was in awe of."
Zac Brown's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations Playlist
"The Wall was the first Pink Floyd album I had, and I wore it out too. I used to sneak out of the house when I was younger … to the golf course with a friend. I had a boom box and The Wall, a double cassette tape. We would listen to Floyd and lie on our backs. I felt it was the first music that took me on a journey. [It was] part scary, part desperate — definitely a lot of emotion in that record.
"I remember relating to The Wall. I had some crazy times growing up, my mom and stepdad going at it. I remember cranking up Pink Floyd to drown out the fighting. 'Goodbye Blue Sky,' 'Hey You,' [and] 'Is There Anybody Out There?' — [these songs were] comforting to me."
Sweet Baby James
Warner Bros. (1970)
"James Taylor, singlehandedly as an artist or troubadour — somebody who writes songs and comes up with the music — probably was the biggest influence I had. I listened to the James Taylor tapes so much that two of them wore thin. I was in 7th grade, probably about 12, listening to James Taylor and all the kids at school were making fun of me. They were listening to Nirvana, which I liked too. But I was learning to play James Taylor stuff on guitar and they were like, 'That's rocking chair music.'
"James' guitar playing is the biggest influence on me too. He would put the bass line in and integrate it into the melody. [It's] very complicated [and] doesn't really fit on the melody. Nothing about it was obvious or easy to play, especially while you are singing. I have songs pretty much done before I bring them to the band, and try to think about guitar like James Taylor would when I write."
"I fell in love with the Hammond B3, the way it glues everything together, and I knew I would have a B3 in my band. Carrying around an old archaic mechanical monster that you have to take with you, the rotating speakers — the two Leslies — on the road is tremendous work, but there's nothing like it.
"When I saw [the Band's 1978 concert movie] The Last Waltz for the first time, that changed my life. I was a fan of everybody who came up there with them. Joni Mitchell: I named my fourth daughter Joni. From Van Morrison to Eric Clapton to Mavis Staples, I realized when I saw The Last Waltz what a community of musicians could do together, and that's the same thing we do. When we played festivals for the first time I locked into that.
"Levon Helm's spirit and his voice, and the songs — Robbie Robertson wrote a lot of them — [have] amazing arrangements. When I started studying song structure, [looking] at the way the Band arranged music was very inspiring. Some follow a simple form, but some don't. The harmonies they had! The song 'It Makes No Difference' [from Northern Lights — Southern Cross] the harmony of that and the form of it is genius. The Band reinforce the same things as the Eagles. But the Band seemed grittier."
Bob Marley & The Wailers
Island/Tuff Gong (1977)
"My last choice is more about the spirit that music carries. If I could only have one album, period, my desert island disc, it would be something by Bob Marley. You can't be in a bad mood listening to Bob Marley. Bob was very [innovative] with his music … [and] such an incredible pioneer and spiritual force. I draw from Bob's spirit that was in his music, how it makes people feel and moves them. He wasn't afraid to sing about things that might have rubbed people the wrong way, songs about people, about oppression. But much of the music he sang was about being happy, about the positivity of spirit.
"His albums Catch A Fire and Exodus — when I got into Bob the first album I got was [the anthology] Legend with songs from both of those. But the song 'One Love' — you can take your religion or spiritualism or whatever how far you want, but if it's not based on love it's not real. Whatever you believe, if God is not based on love for you, then you're going the wrong way. That's my only opinion I would tell anyone else about this. You could tell that was a huge part of Bob Marley's message, even though it's different than mine. But if the love is there, that's what matters. Our business, our band, everything is based on love. I felt that."
(As the frontman for Zac Brown Band, Zac Brown has earned three GRAMMY Awards, including Best Country Album honors for Uncaged in 2012 and Best New Artist honors in 2009. On the 55th GRAMMY telecast, Brown joined T Bone Burnett, Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard, Mumford & Sons, Elton John, and Mavis Staples for a special tribute performance honoring the late Levon Helm.)
(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)