A self-described “country-Southern rock-bluegrass-reggae-jam record,” as Zac Brown told the Associated Press earlier this year, ZBB’s third major label album ventures into excitingly unchartered territory as the band takes its rightful place as one of the genre’s most unique and daring mainstream acts.
Uncaged, due in stores July 10, was produced once again with Keith Stegall, and the relationship continues to be a powerful force for musical exploration. With a sound derived as much from island-infused Jimmy Buffet and jam legends Widespread Panic as it is from country greats like Charlie Daniels, the 11-song set shows that this Georgia-bred band is still evolving.
The title of the project, and the song that bears its name, conjures images of freedom both lyrically and musically. Over a revolving guitar-driven groove, “Uncaged” spills into warm psychedelia as Zac sings, Gonna swim in the coldest river / Gonna drink from a mountain spring. The theme of ditching the city for a backroad is common, but the country-boy-meets-southern-hippy delivery here is one of a kind. On the revved-up lead single “The Wind,” it’s as if The Eagles had a writing session with Hank Williams, Sr. as Zac lets the twang hang with a loose Western feel. The city lights look like a country sky when staring at the stars turned upside down, he sings like a cowboy poet wishing he were back out on the range.
While the band is constantly pushing to break new ground, there is always a sense that ZBB is really just a bunch of very down to earth country boys. The beautiful, acoustic “Sweet Annie” looks for redemption over a road-weary story, soft rolling harmonies and an intricate guitar / fiddle passage. “Goodbye In Her Eyes,” which subtly recalls their No. 1 hit “As She’s Walking Away,” features honest and revealing lyrics like, Sometimes I feel like a clown that can’t wash off his makeup, as the musical repetition creates a sense of fixation mirroring those sad eyes. And on “Natural Disaster,” a ’70s country/rock-inspired epic full of rich harmonies and vivid imagery, Zac displays a deep connection to the wild outside with a string of interwoven metaphors with strong impressions like “sunshine in her thunder” and “holding lightning in both hands.”
Zac co-wrote 10 of the album’s 11 songs, including the Caribbean-infused opener “Jump Right In” co-written with pop artist Jason Mraz. Deep into the record, Uncaged features a trio of songs noteworthy for their collaborations and inspirations. Modern jazz/soul virtuoso Trombone Shorty guests on the R&B-inspired “Overnight,” adding vibrant new textures to the record while folk singer/songwriter Amos Lee trades verses on the introspective “Day That I Die.” On “Lance’s Song,” however, it’s what’s missing from the track that is most poignant.
Drawing inspiration from the untimely passing of Atlanta-based drummer and ZBB friend Lance Tilton, the stripped down arrangement of “Lance’s Song” pays tribute through a beautiful web of vocal melodies, acoustic guitars, dobro and fiddle. Missing are the drums, and that one powerful decision creates a lasting, breathtaking memory long after the album is over.
Uncaged is another step forward for Zac and his bandmates. There’s most certainly a great deal of freedom that comes when a group’s first two major releases sell a combined 4.5 million albums, and on Uncaged, the result is a collection willing to push harder and reach farther.
Key Tracks – “Lance’s Song,” “Goodbye In Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “Uncaged”