Zac Brown made no secret of his creative curiosity. He ventured far from his "Chicken Fried" roots with his Chris Cornell duet "Heavy Is the Head." His EDM group, Sir Roosevelt with fellow country singer Niko Moon, steered Brown even further from his home genre. And when he released his Max Martin collaboration "God Given," critics spewed ire.
At the time, Brown felt as if people turned his learning experiences into weapons against him.
"I wanted to know how things work," Brown, 43, told PEOPLE. "I want to know what's around the corner. I've always had the courage to go down these roads, learn as much as I can, and then be able to bring it back to our roots. Exploring all these other things … is just part of being an artist. I never abandoned the core of what we are."
Danny Clinch Zac Brown Band's The Comeback
The Comeback, a thoughtfully crafted, poetic and bravely personal collection of country, bluegrass and southern rock anthems, is where Brown's circuitous journey pays off. The 15-song album, available now by Zac Brown Band, showcases the warmth and power of Brown's voice, his storytelling skills as an artist and songwriter and gives his band a chance to show off, too.
Without the pandemic, Brown said The Comeback wouldn't exist as it sits. The band typically shoe-horns making albums into a couple of weeks between shows and raising kids. Having some solitude and more than a year to write is a foreign luxury of which he was determined to make the most.
Brown co-wrote each of the songs and built the music around his acoustic guitar. He figured out how he wanted each track to move and flow, and then he made demos of them for his players. He saw his band for the first time in 18 months when they came into the studio to record The Comeback.
Danny Clinch Zac Brown Band
"This time, we had time to craft it," said Brown, who also co-produced the album. "I had this amazing reunion and energy from my guys. Then we had all these songs that I busted my butt to write with a handful of new people. I'm so pumped about this album and about getting out there because it's exactly the same excitement I had for our first album. But, it's like a new evolved version of the same thing."
On this album, Brown's lighthearted creativity manifests with a kazoo, various sound effects and a toe-tapping melody on "Fun Having Fun." The bluegrass ditty spins tales of good-natured trouble-making against a fingerpicking frenzy.
Lyrics include: "The worst decisions make good stories/Grab your helmet and your cape/ Break your leg and duct tape it straight/Chicks dig scars and get well cake."
"I love making songs that are absurd," Brown said. "There's the serious songs that rip your heart out. There's the nostalgic songs. There's the songs that pump you up and make you want to rock in a stadium. And then there's the ones that are just made to be absurd. It's funny when people try to make sense of it."
Brown, who has 15 No. 1 songs to his credit, attempts unity in the band's current Top 10 hit "Same Boat."
"I'm not going to take a political stance as an artist because that's just going to create enemies on one side or the other," Brown explained. "Philosophically, if I have something that's meant something to me, or in rebuttal to all this division that's happening, I wanted to create something that would help to remind people of how we're the same. I just wanted to throw some light out there for people."
"Wild Palomino" and "Slow Burn" are more of Brown's personal favorites. He called "Wild Palomino" one of the band's "masterpiece songs" and said the nostalgic qualities of "Slow Burn" catapulted it close to the same category. "Wild Palomino," he explained, is his story.
"I've always had a soft spot for really great cowboy songs," Brown said. "To me, 'Wild Palomino' symbolizes when two people might love each other, but they need very different things. I love his steadfastness that he's staying there. If he tried to force her to stay, he's never going to get her back. But I think in his mind, he loved her so much that he would rather just be alone than to have anyone else."
Brown admitted shouldering the creative and production process was challenging. But the time off the road and alone with his guitar gave him new perspective.
"Without our fans, we're nothing," he said. "And that's what immediately we were reminded of when all this happened. By ourselves, we're worthless. It takes all the people to make it work."
He hopes fans find multiple points of connection on The Comeback.
"I've tried to capture little shades of the human condition on this album," he said. "I hope we made a really classic album, and people find something they can really personally relate to that makes them feel something. That's my wish."