Caroline Jones' ascent in recent years as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has placed her under the learning trees of collaborators Jimmy Buffett and Mac McAnally and on the same bills as Kenny Chesney, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, The Eagles, co-headliners Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and even The Rolling Stones. Those and other opportunities paved a path to her critically-acclaimed sophomore album, 2021's Antipodes, and its TikTok dance craze-sparking single, Top 40 country hit "Come In (But Don't Make Yourself Comfortable)."
Jones' influx of superstar stamps of approval began with Zac Brown, a recurring character in stories about up-and-coming talents' earliest assist from an established name. Brown remains in Jones' corner, not just as a loyal friend but as a bandmate on Zac Brown Band's (ZBB) Out in the Middle Tour, which kicks off on April 22.
"Zac was the first superstar to take me under his wing," Jones told Wide Open Country. "In the early days of my career in 2017, I was supposed to open for him for a weekend, two dates. I ended up on the whole tour with him. He has been a mentor and my greatest supporter since then. I opened with them for three years--2017, 2018, and 2019--and then I joined the band as a special guest in 2021. I'm so indescribably honored to be deemed worthy of being on stage with them and to have the opportunity to get a musical masterclass every night from those eight guys."
Jones chips in on guitar, banjo and vocals as needed throughout a live setlist that defies genre classification.
"I try to contribute in any way that I can, and they usually help me out and make it clear how I can do that, with different instruments or adding different vocal parts. You know, a high harmony," Jones explained. "[Clay Cook] already sings super high, so I have to sing above him. He has almost like a female's register. It's incredible how high he can sing. They're really a harmony band."
What's billed as a "special guest band member" slot wouldn't go to just anyone, considering the skill level expected of ZBB members and collaborators.
"Caroline has a true appreciation for musicianship and artistry and is tireless in her pursuit of perfecting her craft," Brown shared via email. "She brings a fresh perspective and sound, is a total badass on the guitar with an amazing voice and she works harder than anyone. She is family to me and we're all so grateful to have her on tour with us again for this year's Out in the Middle Tour."
Other beneficiaries of Brown's hospitality speak glowingly of how he and his team conduct themselves on the road.
"Zac himself was so wise and such a teacher," said Tori Allen, who toured with ZBB in 2021 as a bandmate of opening act Ashland Craft. "He had so much he wanted to share and really taught us in that moment how a good tour starts and finishes and why and how the people with him have been with him for 22 years and why."
Dan Dixon, an Atlanta-based producer, worked in 2015 at Brown's since-closed Smyrna, Ga. studio Southern Ground. Dixon's memories frame more than ZBB tours as a picture of professionalism.
"It was a rad place," Dixon said. "There were so many beautiful instruments and just awesome gear. It was so clean and so nice in there. I mean I've worked in nice places that are still kind of trashy in their own way. It's still kind of cluttered or whatever. This was a tight ship. Everything was in its place all the time. That was due to [Tyler Walker] the studio manager, and I'm sure that's the way Zac likes it. You know, to come in and have a clean, good-looking spot to work when he's in town doing stuff."
Such lofty standards for the entire ZBB operation plus the expectations of the band's die-hard fans put anyone on stage with Brown in a high-pressure situation. For Jones, it's a reminder of the superstar goals that made her gravitate to country music in the first place, not a source of fear.
"What you dream of as an artist is having a fan base that's that dedicated and will come back year after year," Jones said. "That's why I got into country music because that dedicated fanbase and following is very unique to country music, and I want to be in this career for decades. That's what I love about country, that's what I love about Zac Brown Band is it's kind of a throwback to an old-school tradition of getting together in a circle every night, playing instruments and playing live music. It's really inspiring that way."
"One of the reasons, if I may be so bold as to say why they like to have me on stage... The reason is I bring that still wide-eyed joy," she continued. "They've been in it for a few years now, so I'm still the kid in the candy store which brings some good energy, hopefully."
Jones suits ZBB, if only because of her own growing catalog of songs that, despite being firmly grounded in country sincerity and storytelling, culled from a range of sonic influences. This comes across on such streaming hits as "Chasin' Me," "Bare Feet" and "So Many Skies," a collaboration with Old Dominion singer Matthew Ramsey.
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