Each week for the next year, Wide Open Country is highlighting a country album that played a pivotal role in the genre. These records come from every corner and decade of the genre: from classic country, to the outlaw movement, to modern mainstream hitmakers and everything in between. But the one thing they have in common? They deserve a deeper listen, from front to back.
Week 5: Zac Brown Band, The Foundation
Truthfully, there are only a handful of real bands in country music. That is, groups with the word “band” in it where the members have all been together for the majority of their career. On top of that, each member offers something generally irreplaceable with a creative input that directs the overall sound. Zac Brown Band may be the best example of a true band in country music since, well, the Eagles’ first record.
At the intersection of “massive international touring act” and “critical darlings,” you’ll generally find the Zac Brown Band. Easily one of the most beloved of the “mainstream” country acts, Zac Brown Band got there by not acting anything like a lot of the other mainstream country acts.
Though they were working and writing for years and years before it (including an independent album called Home Grown in 2004), their major label debut in 2008 redefined the terms of what a band could do in country music.
Why The Foundation Is Important: So many layers to this one. On the business side, The Foundation represented one of the band’s smartest business moves. They were originally signed to a deal with a company called Live Nation Artists, but parted ways when their contact at the company left. Though Atlantic Records didn’t have a Nashville office, much less a presence in country music, the band signed a joint label venture with Atlantic after their single “Chicken Fried” already had significant clout. Their deal allowed the band to control much of their sound and creative direction. And when it comes to true artists, that’s everything.
The Foundation completely changed the aesthetic of country radio at the time. Five singles gave the record serious legs, despite much of the album having roots in the previous century (no exaggeration). Four of them — “Chicken Fried,” “Toes,” “Highway 20 Ride” and “Free” hit No. 1 status. “Whatever It Is” landed at No. 2. The record also introduced the band’s incredible musicianship, rivaled only by their eclecticism.
What To Listen For: Being a true band, they make efforts to spotlight their various musicians more than typical acts relying on Nashville’s stable of insanely talented studio musicians. They somehow manage to combine the string shredding of Metallica with the vibe of Jimmy Buffett (“Mary”). Then on the same record, the heart of James Taylor with the harmonies of the Eagles (“Highway 20 Ride”). And their cover of Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene” is truly better than the original.
Brown also has an affinity for nylon string guitars. You won’t find many records that so prominently feature nylon over steel string. Much less singles ranking in the most important songs in country music (“Chicken Fried”) relying entirely on nylon.
“Chicken Fried” is a great overall example of Brown’s gumption. When he was living out of his van on the road, a band called The Lost Trailers asked to record the song. Brown agreed, as long as they didn’t promote it as a single. Because he still had plans to. But then The Lost Trailer’s label, Sony, did it anyway. When Brown heard it on the radio, he asked his lawyer to issue a cease-and-desist letter. And that’s despite knowing it could ruin his name in Nashville. We all know how that turned out.
Final Take: The Foundation ultimately earned the Zac Brown Band three Grammy nomination and the coveted Best New Artist win. It’s both a crossover album and a traditional album. And, true to its name, it laid a foundation for one of the most inspired careers in country music. Most importantly, it did so while proving you can stick to your guns, even in an insular industry.