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01/13/2011

Planning World Domination With the Zac Brown Band

The five other guys in the Grammy-nominated Zac Brown Band have achieved a Zen-like state of trust in their eponymous leader - but it's taken some time.

The guy has some off-the-wall plans, after all.

"The first couple times that Zac had a couple of crazy ideas," fiddler Jimmy De Martini said, "we were like, uh ... "

"It'll never work!" drummer Chris Fryar shouted.

"But it worked out," De Martini continued. "So now we're like, 'I bet that's gonna work.'"

"The crazier the idea the more likely it is to be highly successful with this group of guys," Fryar said. "It's amazing."

So far his surefire plan for world domination is right on schedule. Over the last three years Brown has suggested the band:

- Feed hundreds of fans club members at every show from a gargantuan custom-built tractor-trailer kitchen on wheels.

- Build and staff seven separate businesses that handle everything from publishing, film and music videos, and T-shirts - and why not throw in a machine shop for a planned line of custom knives?

- Start it's own record label.

- Retrofit a warehouse to hold it all.

Will Ward, a partner in the band's management company, ROAR, LLC, calls Brown "an incredible visionary."

"He's got this whole vision of greater things," Ward said. "And some of the ideas he comes up with I've found myself on occasion saying, 'Wait a minute, I should've come up with that. That should've been our idea.' Because he really gets it, and he understands. He really puts himself in the fans' shoes and wants to make the experience for them something above and beyond going to the concert."

The power of Brown's gift was on full display at a late December show at the Bridgestone Arena. A sellout crowd that overflowed into the obstructed view sections sang along to every song.

"Even the songs that haven't even been released on a CD yet, so it's pretty crazy," Fryar said.

"It's a surreal thing to walk out on stage now," Fryar said. "What was it - two years, two and a half years ago? - we were just starting to promote 'Chicken Fried' and we'd go and play these bars and there'd be maybe a hundred people in there. They didn't know who we were."

The band was in a jovial mood after taking its first extended break since the 2008 release of their debut album, "The Foundation," and many jokes were cracked. They had interviews and planning meetings all day and dinner with 200 fans, and gathered friends to play four solid hours of music that included a surprise drop-in by Alan Jackson - bearing the gift of a white convertible Cadillac. He sang "As She's Walking Away" duet with Brown, the first No. 1 hit from "You Get What You Give." Like the band's first album, which spawned four No. 1s on Billboard's country chart, the album is a hit.

The ultimate idea is to have 10 food trucks on site so every fan can experience Rusty Hamlin's Southern-flavored creations, a roster of radio hits from all points on the dial - not just country frequencies - and a live-show experience more diverse than anything currently offered.

"We want people to go to other concerts and feel like they got robbed," Brown said. "That's our goal."

It was a night few country music acts can top and a symbolic moment for a band that was turned down flat by the Nashville labels. All of them.

So they took a very different route, eventually selling "The Foundation" to Atlantic Records in New York. Unexpected enthusiastic support from country radio helped connect them with fans and the rest has been an uncommon success story, without compromise

In 2010 alone, the band won the Grammy for best new artist, opened stadium shows for Dave Matthews, played the main stage at Bonnaroo and had a No. 1 album. They ended the year with four more Grammy nominations, including best country album for "You Get What You Give." It's a category that sports the eclectic lineup of Dierks Bentley, Jamey Johnson, Lady Antebellum and Miranda Lambert, all acts who threw the bit headed in new directions that helped remake the definition of country music for a new century.

Lady A took it pop, Bentley headed for the hills with a rocking bluegrass sound, Lambert sparked white hot. Zac and the boys went mellow, riding a jam-band vibe that fits right in with their philosophy. Some critics and fans, hooked on the more traditional country sound of "Chicken Fried" and "Toes," objected, but no apologies are offered.

The six members of the band, which also includes bassist John Driskell Hopkins and multi-instrumentalists Clay Cook and Coy Bowles, bring diverse musical tastes, and bits of soul, R&B, hip hop and rock make it into the songs on "You Get What You Give."

It was another one of Brown's crazy idea that this mishmash of sounds could work on a grand scale.

Turns out the guy's money.

"I guess everybody is kind of all in on everybody else's crazy ideas," Bowles said. "I think that that's kind of the magic of the whole band. It has to do with songwriting and arranging music and living together and all that stuff. Everybody's kind of a lunatic on their own. So a lot of the ideas Zac comes up with, 'We're like, 'Yah, why not? What have we got to lose?'"

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