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Chris Fryar has a different difficult task every time the Zac Brown Band takes the stage.
The band never plays the same show twice, while twisting its brand of country music in all kinds of directions. Fans can hear Friday night’s concert lineup at The Great Jones County Fair in Monticello.
“We change lanes every night when we play on stage,” Fryar said in a phone interview. “Our catalog is so varied, we’ll do something that sounds like a rock song, we’ll do a country ballad or a power ballad and then something that’s EDM dance music. We’re changing lanes, musically speaking from song to song.”
That has to be hard for the drummer, who has to keep the sprawling ensemble on track.
“It’s exceptionally challenging as far as the drumming is concerned,” Fryar said. “There are eight people on stage. I don’t want to overplay and step on anyone’s toes. Somebody might have a great musical idea that they’re playing and I don’t want to squash that. But at the same time, I have to be the weaver of the golden thread that stitches all these things together.”
The group is now getting back to touring behind “The Owl,” the genre-bending album it released in 2019, which incorporates EDM beats, hip-hop-style lyrics, a good helping of pop and some rock.
“Zac had this really beautiful idea about wanting to work with some of the greatest pop producers around today,” Fryar said. “We had several different guys get involved — Max Martin, Poo Bear and Skrillex. We were going down the path with these great pop minds — we’d do what we do, create what we create and have that producer come in and shape it and color it. … ‘The Owl’ for us, was to see what we could do to kick the genre up a little.”
The genre is country music. But well before “The Owl” was released, it was clear, from the group’s shows and previous records that it isn’t a straight-up country outfit.
Fryar said the band has never been pure country, even back in 2009 when “Chicken Fried” topped the country charts and sent “The Foundation,” the group’s debut album, up to No. 9 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart.
“I think it’s safe to say country music, country music radio and fans were the first sort of genre group to embrace what we do,” Fryar said. “Immediately, we were able to project to the fans that we’re the kind of band that likes to play different things. We’re not just a country band.
“At the risk of comparing us to an iconic group, which we might or might not be, it’s hard to pinpoint what we sound like in genre terms,” the drummer said. “What is the Dave Matthews Band? Only they sound that way. The same could be said for the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. The Alllmans might have invented Southern rock, but they’re really not a “Southern rock” band. The Grateful Dead is, in my opinion, more than just a jam band.
“I would like to hope that one day when we’re done, people will say we were a country band, but more than that,” Fryar said. “We all have varied musical tastes and influences and bring those in. We try to color outside the lines a lot.”
In returning to touring, the Zac Brown Band gets to once again face the challenge of assembling a set list that includes songs from “The Owl” alongside earlier material, without it becoming a show that runs for hours and hours.
“We’re in the really beautiful position of having had a lot of radio success over the years,” Fryar said. “While we don’t play all our singles, we try to include a lot of them, otherwise people might not want to show up. So there aren’t a lot of spots in the set list for new songs, and we have to choose them kind of carefully.”
Then there are the covers. On a recent tour, the band did either bits and pieces or full versions of — to name a few — Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic,” Hozier’s “Take It to Church,” Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” The Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone’ and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Which brings things to the unfair question. Do you have a favorite song or two when you play live?
“It changes from night to night,” Fryar said. “Everyone in the band, categorically, will answer that question this way. Sometimes, for me, it’s ‘Uncaged’. Sometimes, it’s ‘Chicken Fried,’ believe it or not. I never know what my favorite song is that night until I’ve played it.”