Zac Alexander Brown was born into a family of eleven other children in Atlanta, Georgia. He was given his mother’s guitar at age 8 and immediately began classical guitar lessons until he developed an interest in bluegrass music instead. After ending his classical guitar lessons, he began voice lessons instead. In high school, Brown began playing local shows covering country and pop songs and after graduating college, he started touring the U.S. with a drummer (and his dog). Zac Brown Band was formed in 2002 in Dahlonega, Georgia when Zac Brown invited a drummer and bass guitarist into his performances and they began touring full time in 2004 after the purchase of a tour bus. Brown was definitely a talented enough guitarist and vocalist to be on his own, but was quoted by CMT saying that the reason he decided to add people to his act is because “it’s not as much fun playing by yourself. It’s cool to do every once in a while, but you’ve got a band of brothers up there, and we arrange the music together, we rehearse together, we do it all together…. the sound is a lot bigger with more people and more harmony. I love harmony.” Later that year, he added a violinist and tenor vocalist and the band was complete, their masterful harmonies becoming one of their signature sounds and what they are most known for (besides ZB’s guitar skills).
Zac Brown Band found immediate success with their first major-label album The Foundation, released in late 2008. It sold over 3.4 million copies and the band received a Grammy Award for Best Country Album of the Year the following year, as well as a Grammy for Best New Artist and an ACM nomination for Album of the Year. Foundation peaked at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard Top Country Albums chart and went triple platinum; 5 of the 12 songs were released as singles—four of them peaked at number 1 on the Billboard Top Hits chart and one peaked at number 2. The band’s official entrance into the country music world was smooth and simple, it seems.
Flash forward two years to September 10, 2010—ZBB had set high expectations for themselves with their first album; Zac Brown Band released their second major record label album, You Get What You Give, which has sold over 1.9 million copies since. Immediately after its release, the album rose to number one on the Billboard 200, beating out Maroon 5’s Hands All Over, and Billboard’s Top Country Albums. Within the first week of its release, You Get What You Give sold 153,000 copies. After the extreme success of The Foundation, The Zac Brown Band far exceeded expectations.
On the Deluxe version of the wildly popular album there are two bonus tracks, one of which is a live version of the song “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” This song may not be familiar to you because it’s not one of Zac Brown Band’s top hits, nor is it a single. It may interest you to know that “Sweet Carolina” isn’t originally Zac Brown’s song. In fact, a lot of their songs were mostly written by people other than members of the Zac Brown Band.
When I say “mostly written” by other people, I mean that a lot of song-writing began with other people, but Zac Brown polished or helped finish them. Wyatt Durrette, a country song-writer, is one of the masterminds behind some of Zac Brown Band’s songs. Durrette first met Zac Brown (and his band) in a bar in which Durrette worked as a bar tender in Georgia. Since then, Brown and Durrette have penned numerous songs together, including top hits “Chicken Fried,” “Toes,” and “Colder Weather” (To my surprise every single one of my favorite songs is written by Wyatt Durrette).
Zac Brown also covers plenty of people out of appreciation for their talent. Often, he covers country legends like Hank Williams and Charlie Daniels, but other times he gives in to his rock side and covers Aerosmith or James Taylor. Of all his songs on his albums, only two are covers—“Jolene” by Ray LaMontagne and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” by folk/rock singer Ryan Adams. When Zac Brown Band covers songs that don’t receive a lot of attention, they profit immensely from it because of royalties paid and more listens to the original because of ZBB fans’ curiosity. Ryan Adams, the original writer and performer of “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” however, had his own long career before Zac Brown Band ever covered his song.
Adams, born in the small town of Jacksonville, North Carolina in 1974, had a somewhat dysfunctional childhood that lead him to his “tortured artist” persona. Because of his rough early life, he developed a dislike for his home state and when his music career took off, he refrained from playing shows in North Carolina if he could. At the age of 14, his mother and stepfather bought him an electric guitar, so he formed a band that recorded one 3-track record and then broke up afterward. Adams then dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to pursue a career with two other bands before he founded the band that would be his big break: Whiskeytown. Previously identifying as “punk-rock” (he thought it was too hard to sing), Whiskeytown saw Adams transition to alternative country. The band had three successful albums before eventually disbanding in 2000 so Adams could launch his solo career.
Enter Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams’ solo debut album containing the song “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” He was somehow able to swing backup vocals by famous country singer EmmyLou Harris in the song, which is probably why it became so popular (He was compared to artist Gram Parsons) and was picked up by Zac Brown Band. The lyrics seem somewhat deceiving after hearing interviews of Adams slamming his home state North Carolina, as the entire song is about his affection for it. Although he had a less-than-perfect childhood, it was filled with love from his mother, stepfather, and his grandmother who raised him and “made [him] who [he is] today;” North Carolina was the place he fell in love with art and poetry, and the place he received his first guitar. It was where he formed his first band and recorded his first song.
The song lyrics allude to his life after leaving North Carolina and how it makes him miss his home state. He refers to the common experience of leaving your hometown in search of something better and great, but coming up short. He talks about his personal experiences of drug/alcohol addictions and gambling, losing all his money, and feeling like his chance in the “big city” has come and gone quickly. His lyrics are definitely relatable—often we think that our hometowns are drab and lifeless until we leave them and find that we miss them.
Although the reason for Adams’ success is undeniably country music, he, like Zac Brown Band, has a tendency to bite the hand that fed him and trash-talk country. He is quoted saying that he “only [likes] country music as an irony,” while we know that really he just doesn’t want to like it because it isn’t “hip” and “edgy” like his newest album 1989, in which he covers Taylor Swift’s most recent album. Since Heartbreaker, he has diverted from country to alternative, singer/songwriter, acoustic tunes, but dabbled in hard rock and metal.
Ryan Adams may think that he can get away from country music, but it was Heartbreaker and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” featuring Emmylou Harris that made his name known to big name artists who later featured him in their songs and performances, like Willie Nelson and Judd Apatow, and later why Zac Brown Band decided to cover him. Since his debut with Emmylou Harris, other notable artists have discovered and covered him: Tim McGraw, Counting Crows, and The Fray, The Lumineers, and Elton John, to name a few. “Oh My Sweet Carolina” is significant more so for Ryan Adams than Zac Brown Band because it furthered his pre-existing career, but Zac Brown also profited immensely from putting the song on their second most successful album (in terms of charts) to date.
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