A few years ago, a song about Southern food and drink – fried chicken and cold beer – put the Zac Brown Band on the country music map.
Obviously, it wasn’t the most meaningful song ever written but it said a lot about this team of musicians from Atlanta who didn’t sound like a typical country act but were loved by country fans and praised by critics.
John Driskell Hopkins, the band’s bass player, called from Atlanta to talk about the band and their sold out show at Cruzan Amphitheatre on Saturday.
“We come out to play for a cross-section of America that likes storytelling and wants their music to be fun and simple and true. I think there are a whole lot of redeeming qualities in that,” Hopkins said by phone from his home in Marietta, Ga.
Hopkins has been a staple around the Atlanta music scene as a singer and a guitar player since he graduated from Florida State with a degree in theater in 1993. He met Brown in 1998 and the man with the crazy sideburns immediately bonded with the man with the crazy beard. In 2005, Hopkins told Brown he’d sit in as a bass player for the band until they found someone permanent. He never left.
“Anyone can play the bass, but hardly anyone can play the bass correctly,” Hopkins said. “I’m a student in every aspect. I’m learning something every time I pick it up. To me, the bass is the coolest instrument because you get to be both rhythmically involved and melodically involved.”
Even though ZBB is played on country radio, they’ve been called a band without a genre. Hopkins, whose roots are in rock, agrees. “I don’t know if I would classify it all as country. Some of it is, for sure. I think we’ve asked the question, ‘What are we supposed to sound like?’ And the answer is, whatever we want to sound like. So we go out there and do what feels good, and people are liking it.”
That’s an understatement. Hopkins remembers the period when “Chicken Fried” sizzled into the Top Five because he was home with his wife who had just given birth to their first child.
“We were out with Los Lonely Boys and the band had a sit-in for me, and I was checking in and the shows were going really well. Then, in a month, the security went crazy!” The crowds had doubled, then quadrupled in size. “I said, ‘I’ve only been gone three weeks! What happened?’ ”
Most of those people were fans of country radio, who became fans of Zac Brown Band almost overnight. “I think we are very aware of country radio and the fan base that goes with it and how much they embrace us as a band. We don’t always give them exactly what they’re used to, but I have a big appreciation for them as a listening audience.”
That audience is in the back of their minds when they produce an album now, Hopkins said. “We want to make sure that we’re true to our fans and we have some songs that lend themselves to radio. We want to make our fans happy.”
They’re succeeding. Since releasing “The Foundation” in November 2008, ZBB has racked up eight No. 1 singles and two No. 2 hits. They followed their debut with two more albums: “Get What You Give” in 2010 and 2012’s “Uncaged,” which Billboard called the second best country album of 2012. In recent weeks, the band has performed at the National Football League playoffs and the Grammys, where it won Best Country Album of the Year.
In the early days, the band itself was a work in progress with different players trying out the slots. Atlanta is a treasure trove of musicians of many genres.
“The scene up here is so varied and so wide, there are a lot of choices when you’re looking for someone to play in your band,” Hopkins said.
“Sometimes, the person may be a great player but they’re not bringing a certain vibe to the table. We kept waiting to find who fit the right way and we’ve been very blessed to have such a great group of guys who get along really well and put together the kind of songs we do. I don’t think that happens every day.”
Rounding out the band are Jimmy De Martini, Coy Bowles, Chris Fryar, Clay Cook and Daniel de los Reyes, with more than 100 years devoted to music between them. There’s no substitute for experience, or the seasoning that comes from years of playing. “It’s learning how to play well with others,” Hopkins said. “We’ve been in so many bands in our lives and we’ve taken valuable lessons from that and applied it to where we are now.”
It helps when you have someone like Zac Brown leading the show. The man seems to have been born without an ego, happy to let each of his bandmates have a chance to shine.
“Zac is a fabulous nurturer,” Hopkins said. “The father of four girls and just a sweet guy. He’s never said we couldn’t do what we wanted to do. We know Zac Brown Band comes first in our professional lives and why wouldn’t it? It’s been so good to us, been so fulfilling in so many ways, musically as well as the relationships we’ve built over the years. We’re home a lot and there’s always a guitar around, and we write way more songs than could ever go on that record and you need somewhere to put them. Instead of just sending out demos, it makes more sense to me to make another record. So that’s what I’ll keep doing.”
So no complaints?
“The grass don’t get no greener.”
Zac Brown Band with Blackberry Smoke
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury’s Way, West Palm Beach
Tickets: Sold Out
Info: ticketmaster.com; 800-745-3000