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Zac Brown Band's guitarists on being each other's favorite players and why having a singular leader keeps them together

(Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

2019 was yet another massive year for the dynamo that is the Zac Brown Band. The band played over 60 shows in the US and released The Owl, their fifth straight number one album on the US Country Charts. 

Despite this, the album is in no way contained within the country genre as it also contains elements of electronic, pop and more. We recently caught up with ZBB guitarists Clay Cook and Coy Bowles to talk about the album and mass appeal of their music.

You both started with the band at different points - did you both expect the band's sound to change over time the way it has?

Cook: "When I came in the band, it was just after they had some success with Chicken Fried and at that point even country music was in a different place. We were the different guys.

"The very first album had Brent Mason playing guitar on three or four of the songs. So it was coming out of the 90's and 2000's country scene. So that's what was happening in the band when I came in on the actual record. Live though, it was a lot more jam-bandy, with a lot of it improvisation and jamming.

"I'm coming up on 11 years for my anniversary and Coy I guess is at 13. We've seen lots of changes in not only country music but in ourselves. And even in the style of songs that Zac is writing."

Bowles: "I would answer that question completely differently just to give a different perspective. I mean, I think Clay's completely right. I wouldn't say that I'm surprised.

"From the very beginning it's always been just a journey and there's never really been one clear genre defined. So the fact that we are where we are right now is not surprising to me at all. 

"From the very beginning the idea was that we had a home country radio. We had songs that were getting played there and that was where we had a connection to our fans. Still, we were doing all kinds of crazy stuff on albums and all kinds of crazy stuff on the live show. Things that were way outside of that box. 

"We ended up here I guess because this is where we're supposed to be if that makes sense."

Does the success you've had stagger you considering this type of music doesn't fit into one genre? You’re not just in the country bin at the record store!

Bowles: "It's really interesting and I think that has something to do with the idea that we don't necessarily fit into one style. We've been blessed with success because if you're a hardcore country person then there's probably a way to listen to our albums as there'll be a few songs on each one that sound just like us five years ago.

We had all been in failed bands that we'd all put a lot of energy and effort into and we weren't going to screw this up

Coy Bowles

"Then another person could listen to the album in a certain way and enjoy all this new stuff thinking this stuff's not country. So it's the idea that just one piece of art can be represented in so many different ways.

"I think music is at a really interesting point. My wife's father passed away years ago and his sisters sent us his record collection probably a year ago. It sat in a box for a long time because Clay and I both have really young kids so we've been pretty busy with that.

"My wife recently unboxed the records and I had a chance to start listening to them. I never got to meet him as he passed away before my wife and I met, but the cool thing is he had an amazing taste in music. I looked at the records and found that it was all my favorite stuff, too!

"So having the experience of holding a record in your hand and getting to visualize, touch and hold the art, look at the liner notes then take out the record and play it. It's such an experience.

"So, coming from that to how people listen to playlists now, I don't think the way people listen to music has necessarily settled into one thing. Things are headed to streaming services and it's probably going be based more on songs than albums. But then again, physical albums are still doing well because people my age still want that tactile experience."

A song like The Woods doesn't necessarily fit someone's preconceived notion of what country music is. Do you feel any pressure from the radio at all in that regard?

Cook: "Honestly, in some respects I think The Woods is actually more representative of what's on country radio right now than anything else on the record.

if there's one thing that we'll go down in history for, it would be the ability to play a lot of different styles of music

Coy Bowles

"But yes, it's not what we would think of as Alan Jackson country. It's just one of those things where it was written and produced in a certain direction and that's where it ended up. It feels a little like Thomas Rhett and a couple other things at once."

The one of the things that impresses me most about you guys is that variety of styles, especially live. Even though you've sold a gazillion albums and you’re playing giant venues, this is real honest music and not cookie cutter.

Bowles: "I appreciate that, man. That means that you get it. From the very beginning, the idea was that we didn't have a lot of rules. None of that stuff was ever taken seriously as long as it made sense to everybody. 

"I think if there's one thing that we'll go down in history for, it would be the ability to play a lot of different styles of music. At the same time we are trying to have our own sound which is hard to do."

Do you guys get involved at all in the planning of the setlist?

Cook: "It starts out with our tour manager and he kind of lays out a good idea. He knows what we played last time we were in that city. He approaches it from an almost mathematical perspective.

"Then about an hour before we go on, he comes into our warm up and we're playing songs and warming up with acoustic guitars and he presents that setlist. Then we tear it to shreds!  We play what he writes but we move things around."

At the end of the day, a lot of people pay a lot of money to show up and hear us play so we're all determined to deliver the best show we possibly can

Coy Bowles

Bowles: "He basically comes in with a really rough idea of it and sometimes we’ll be like cool, this is killer. Other times it's literally like somebody handing in their homework.

"So it's kind of an ongoing joke with us, with him bringing the set list and we basically do whatever we want with it.

"The cool thing is he's bringing some legitimate concerns because at the end of the day, a lot of people pay a lot of money to show up and hear us play so we're all really determined to deliver the best show we possibly can. 

"So there's a couple of different checkmarks that need to get checked off. The crowd needs to have fun. We need to have fun, but the crowd comes first for sure. So there are certain songs that we know that we definitely need to play. 

"But at the end of the day, it's good to know that we played Whipping Post in whatever city the last two times we were here. So we probably don't need to play that song again because they've heard it already. So we switch it up and do something different."

Cook: "Another thing that is really predictable is that Paul, our tour manager, will send the list earlier in the day and every single time our bass player Matt Mangano comes back and has notes [laughs]. It could be the most perfect setlist in the world and Matt has notes."

How do you handle production? You are not playing a small club or theater where you can just throw some thought lights behind you and jam. You've got video screens and prerecorded video.

(Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

Cook: "They deal with it all the time. I'd say once a weekend at least, if not more, Zac calls an audible on stage. Every now and then we'll scramble but the songs that have pre-recorded material on the screen are pretty much song by song. 

"So it's pretty easy for them to dial up if Zac says, 'Hey I want to play Beautiful Drug.' It might cost us an extra 15 seconds between songs."

Bowles: "One of our main video guys, a good buddy of mine, really enjoys that element of it because there's so many shows he's been a part of where he says you just go into autopilot. So it's fun for them to be part of the improvisation."

So many bands can end the show within a minute or so of the previous night because they're so regimented with click tracks and the videos. Everything is so precise.

Bowles: "You know, to each their own, it's all good. We've found that on a night-to-night basis, depending on where Zac's voice is, there may be a handful of times where we switch it up.

How do you guys decide who does what night to night?

Bowles: "It's really interesting you mention that because honestly we don't do a lot of talking about it. Specifically, when we're in the studio it all falls into place but there are some guidelines. 

"For example, if it's chicken-pickin' or a traditional country kind of element, that's probably more of Clay's guitar alley than mine. If there's maybe an Allman Brothers slide kind of thing, that probably falls in my lane. Clay's really good at that jangly funk stuff. The riffy stuff is up both of our alleys.

Clay's one on my favorite guitar players. Sometimes during the show I'll look over and think, 'Damn, dude - you can play the shit out of the guitar'

Coy Bowles

"We play a lot of the same instruments but we play guitar very differently even though we're influenced by a lot of the same people. I mean, we're definitely blues influenced, definitely Allman Brothers, '90s stuff, classic '70s rock and we both are very heavily influenced by jazz as well. 

"We could go on for days talking about Grant Green and Wes Montgomery and all of that world or we could start talking about shredder stuff like Eddie Van Halen and '80s hair-metal. But we still come at those influences from different angles."

Cook: "I think whoever has an idea will try a part and we start there. Just like Coy said, if it's jamming then that's where it comes from. It's like a tag team thing."

Bowles: "I remember recording the Alan Jackson song As She's Walking Away. I remember being in the studio and having a guitar in my hand and fiddling around with it for a few takes and it was just completely obvious any ideas that I had were forced and Clay said, 'Let me give it a swing.'"

"The part he came up with is one of the coolest guitar parts ever. I think part of it is we're both really, really good friends with each other. I mean, we hang out with our kids aside from the show, during the show and when we're on the road cutting up. We're both really supportive of each other's playing. 

"I know Clay's one on my favorite guitar players. There are nights when we do shows on our own and he'll come and sit in with me and my band. I'll look over and think, 'Damn, dude - you can play the shit out of the guitar.'"

It's nice to hear is that there's humility and you guys are checking your ego. Guitar tandems can be notorious for breeding jealousy.

Cook: "That may have happened if we were 21 when we got together. We were 32 years old when we started playing together. People ask me, 'How is this band still together?' And I say, 'Number one is that it's one central leader and one guy makes all the real decisions.  Number two is that we weren't 20 when we all got together.'

(Image credit: Diego Pernía)

Bowles: "We had all been in failed bands that we'd all put a lot of energy and effort into and we weren't going to screw this up. We had all been there before so when it started poppin’ everybody got in gear.

Cook: "I don't see music as a competition. I really don't want anything to do with being in a competition. From day one that was never a part of it. It's an art, it's creativity and there's no competition when it comes to art. To me, this is what it really boils down to and you appreciate it for what it is. I don't want to be compared to anybody else or have to compete with anybody else because I do my thing."

Bowles: "It is so strange about the reality singing shows. I guess it's based just purely on entertainment but you're removing all of the art aspect of it."

Cook: "I mean, look at Neil Young. I don't know if anybody is going to say that he's the best singer in the world. But he's definitely one of the most emotional singers in the world. If you asked my dad who his favorite singers is, he'd say Neil Young all day long."

You guys are heading out on the road after the holidays. Right now just the spring dates have been announced in the US. Is 2020 going to be The Owl tour part two?

Cook: "We're gonna be playing a good amount of the new album. We're talking about new covers. We're talking about how to reimagine some of the older songs.

"This is just how we're talking about it so it may be something completely different once February rolls around. You can expect Zac Brown Band to come out there and do what we do."

How do you guys approach picking cover songs?

Bowles: "It's actually a very complicated, long discussion going back and forth. Ultimately, it comes down to if Zac is comfortable singing it. We've worked out a bunch of different tunes, and ultimately Zac has to pick up on the vibe of it."

The Owl is available now via Wheelhouse Records. Catch Zac Brown Band on tour this Spring.