Before the new Zac Brown Band album was released in April, the group had already sent a strong signal for why it was named “Jekyll + Hyde.”
The singles sent to radio in advance of the album were as close to being polar opposites stylistically as any group would get.
On one hand, there was “Homegrown,” a chunky mid-tempo country tune with a hearty melody and accents of fiddle and banjo that add to its down-home feel.
The other advance single, “Heavy is the Head,” was a whole different story. With its rumbling bass line, hard beat, stinging guitar lines and guest vocal from Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, it is the hardest rocking song the group has released.
What might be most surprising, according to guitarist-keyboardist Clay Cook, is that the two songs don’t quite represent just how wide ranging “Jekyll + Hyde” is.
“Let me just say this,” Cook said. “I think if you consider the extremes being ‘Homegrown’ to ‘Heavy is the Head,’ I kind of feel like ‘Homegrown’ is right in the middle. So there’s the new spectrum for you. You thought ‘Homegrown’ was all the way to the left, it’s right in the middle. ‘Heavy is the Head’ is all the way to the right. I think there’s more spectrum than people are going to imagine.”
The Zac Brown Band may be pushing the envelope further than ever, on “Jekyll + Hyde,” but each of the group’s six albums has had rock-leaning songs to go with the country tunes.
But “Heavy is the Head” is the first Zac Brown Band song to be pitched to Billboard magazine’s hard-rock-oriented mainstream rock radio format. The song connected, topping that chart.
For its part, “Homegrown” flew up the country charts, and only Sam Hunt’s blockbuster hit “Take Your Time” kept the song out of the top slot.
It’s unusual for any act to have separate hit songs on country and rock radio. But the Zac Brown Band has made a habit out of doing things unconventionally.
Instead of signing to a Nashville major label, singer-guitarist Brown followed a do-it-yourself path when he formed the Zac Brown Band in 2002. He started his own record label, Home Grown Records (later renamed Southern Ground Records), and in 2004 released the group’s first album, “Far from Einstyne.”
A turning point came when, before the group’s third album, 2008’s “The Foundation,” the newly re-started country division of Atlantic Records partnered with Brown’s own label to pick up the project. “Chicken Fried” became the group’s first No. 1 single.
There have been eight more No. 1 country singles since then, as well as a 2013 Grammy for best country album for the group’s previous album, “Uncaged.”
What has kept the Zac Brown Band consistently on the charts, in Cook’s view, is first of all the quality of the music.
“Songs are what connect to the people,” he said. “Whether they can relate to it or they can imagine it or they can love what the person is saying, it all comes down to the songs. It just always has and it always will.”
Another key, Cook said, has been the band’s spirited and honest live shows. “We’re real guys,” Cook said. “We’re not trying to do things for an image. We’re musicians through and through. Almost everything we do is because we want to make music better.”
In addition to Brown and Cook, the band includes fiddler player and tenor vocalist Jimmy De Martini, multi-instrumentalist and baritone vocalist John Driskell Hopkins, guitarist-keyboardist Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar, percussionist Daniel de los Reyes and bassist Matt Mangano.
Cook said the group is taking a bit of a risk by playing the entire “Jekyll + Hyde” album on its tour, which comes to the Toyota Amphitheatre in Wheatland on Saturday, Oct. 17.
“We’re trying to build such an entertaining show that hopefully it won’t matter too much if you don’t know those particular songs,” Cook said.
“We could actually do a greatest-hits show,” he said. “I think some of the people want to see that, but I think the reason people like us is we stretch out and do non-conventional things. We’re musicians. We’re not a jukebox up there on stage.”