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The slow, steady rise of Zac Brown Band 

From the tavern to the top, Georgia's 'Chicken Fried' son keeps success all in the family

NO ONE-MAN BAND: Zac Brown Band is Coy Bowles (from left), Daniel de los Reyes, Chris Fryar, Zac Brown, Jimmy De Martini, John Driskell Hopkins, and Clay Cook

COLE CASSELL/SOUTHERN REEL

NO ONE-MAN BAND: Zac Brown Band is Coy Bowles (from left), Daniel de los Reyes, Chris Fryar, Zac Brown, Jimmy De Martini, John Driskell Hopkins, and Clay Cook

The moon shines down on the softly rippling Caribbean as a hulking Norwegian cruise liner bobs from side to side. It's March 2009. Floating singer/songwriter festival Cayamo is in full swing, and no one on the boat this week seems more omnipresent than Zac Brown Band. Riding the wave of breakthrough single "Chicken Fried" — an earnest ode to the simple pleasures of small-town Southern life — the bandmates are celebrating their first taste of success by doing what they love: staying up all night playing music. Along with artists Levi Lowrey and Sonia Leigh (friends they'd later sign to their Southern Ground label), Brown and company are in the cruise ship's tiny lounge, cranking through tunes literally until the sun comes up. By 5 a.m., only a handful of people remain, but the band plays on, Zac in his trademark knit cap, bushy beard, and blue jeans. This is who they are. What they live to do. What they've always done. And three years later, they're still doing it, only on a much larger scale.

Since "Chicken Fried" and their appearance on Cayamo, the band has continued storming the country and pop charts, its 2010 album You Get What You Give reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200, not to mention their eight No. 1 country singles and Best New Artist Grammy. But so what, right? Plenty of artists who make terrible music and are even worse people sell records and win Grammys. What's really impressive is the way Brown is handling all this success, which is the realization of a lifelong dream after years spent playing divey bar and grills in the singer/songwriter trenches.

On "Day That I Die," from Zac Brown Band's forthcoming album, Uncaged (out July 10 on Southern Ground), Brown sings that he was born with a song inside of him. It's this passion that's kept him going, even during the lean times. "I never thought about quitting," the 33-year-old Dahlonega native says. "I've always loved what I've done for a living. I've had friends who've had four college degrees and still don't know what they want to do, but I've known since I was real young that I wanted to play music."

The ball really got rolling for Brown more than a decade ago, during a gig at Marietta's Dixie Tavern. It was there that he first met Wyatt Durrette — the restaurant/club's bartender, manager, and booker — and the two soon began a songwriting partnership that's still going strong today. "The second time [Zac] played there, somebody asked me to get up and sing with him," Durrette told TasteOfCountry.com. "Afterward, I was like, 'Hey man, I write songs. I've got melodies and words — lots of them! Why don't we get together and see what we can come up with?' That following Sunday, we sat down and wrote four or five songs ... something crazy like that. Automatically, we clicked as friends and as writers."

When Brown met his tour chef, Rusty Hamlin, back in 2000, Hamlin says he knew immediately that there was something special about him. Brown was playing solo acoustic that night in front of about 60 people at Hamlin's Smyrna restaurant, Atkins Park, and he had the small crowd mesmerized. "The way Zac commanded the stage by himself, and the music he was playing — it was amazing."

It's now 2011, and the members of Zac Brown Band are holed up at Brown's river house in Dahlonega, arranging and dissecting the songs for what will become their new album, Uncaged. Between running tunes down, they banter back and forth about every tiny detail — the stops, the harmonies, the dynamics and chord changes. "We'd just sit around the table kind of like a jury," Brown says. "Just lay the song out there without any ego, [the goal being] to make it the best it can possibly be."

After a little more than a week, they're ready to record, and head to Asheville, N.C.'s Echo Mountain Studio — the same converted church where the Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, and many others have recorded recently. There, they track all the instruments together live. With all the time they've put in on the road over the last few years, it just feels natural to do it that way. The vocals are overdubbed later, during short breaks from touring, at various studios in Nashville and Atlanta, as well as Jimmy Buffett's studio in Key West.

"The only drawback about recording in Key West," says ZBB member Clay Cook, is that "there's a lot of trouble to get into down there. When you should be resting, you're out drinking. ... But it was a good time."

That good-time vibe is front and center on Uncaged, the album's title hinting at the freedom the band feels as it chases its eclectic, genre-hopping muse through pop, country, reggae, world beat, acoustic ballads, Southern rock, bluegrass, and Bakersfield.

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