NASHVILLE - Reba McEntire had never seen anything like it in a career that's spanned nearly three decades.
When country music's entire cast of luminaries leapt to their feet in the middle of the Zac Brown Band's cover of "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" during last year's Country Music Association Awards, it was a defining moment for a band that has earned its fame one fan at a time out on the road.
"I was so thrilled with that performance," McEntire said. "I thought it was very gutsy of them, too, not to do their single, but to do a live performance. It was a showstopper. They do go against the grain a lot. They're kind of renegade in a way, but they back it up."
The Zac Brown Band is riding some serious momentum right now with an in-demand live show, three No. 1 singles, a recent Grammy win and two albums in Billboard's country top 10. Their most-recent album, "The Foundation," continues its slow burn at No. 3 with 2 million copies sold and the new two CD, one DVD live set, "Pass The Jar: Live" is No. 9 on the charts.
The six-piece will enjoy the highest visibility it has seen this summer, starting with two prime festival performances this weekend. The band gets 30 minutes Saturday on the CMA Music Festival's biggest stage and a prime spot Sunday at Bonnaroo, playing right before The Dave Matthews Band.
They will play for more than 70,000 fans down on the farm in Manchester.
"The amount of people and everything there's going be unreal," Coy Bowles said. "It's going to be one of the biggest shows we've ever done."
"We're going to try to whip it with a belt," Brown said.
Zac and the boys better get used to the big crowds. They'll join Matthews on his stadium tour later this summer. By September hundreds of thousands of listeners will have heard the Zac Brown Band for the first time, and if past practice is any indication, they'll come away with even more fans.
Rory Feek of the duo Joey + Rory says that's because "they don't look, sound or work like any other band out there."
"Zac Brown Band is taking their own path and they have a unique way of breaking out of the normal boundaries - mostly I think, because they don't know that there are any," Feek wrote in an e-mail.
That's the way the band approaches its live show. They don't really care what everyone else is doing and in a way, they look at it as a competition.
"I want to give more to the fans than what everybody else does," Brown said. "I want to give them good food. We want to give them a four-hour show. We want to super serve the fans. We want to be known for that."
Brown said the show's content continues to get stronger. Besides popular songs from their breakthrough album, they're debuting songs off a new album that should come out this fall.
Then there's their nod to Charlie Daniels. More than 17 million viewers got to see them bring down the house during the CMA Awards last November with the scorching "Devil" cover.
Fiddler Jimmy De Martini says the reaction was a tribute to Daniels, but the band's crossover version is white-hot and provoked a visceral reaction from country stars like Kris Kristofferson, Reba and scores of others.
"It was surreal-looking out there and seeing Kristofferson and seeing a lot of our heroes out there standing up and clapping," Brown said. "I saw Keith Urban getting down and laughing. It was crazy. If you come see our show, that's what we do."
Brown says "Pass The Jar," a live concert recording that included guests Kid Rock, Shawn Mullins, Joey + Rory and Little Big Town at the Fox Theatre in the band's hometown of Atlanta, is a reasonable facsimile of the live show.
But there's nothing like being there in front of the stage shoulder to shoulder with thousands of fans. Bowles says the band - which also includes John Driskell Hopkins, Clay Cook and Chris Fryar - watches video of performances to tweak the show and the technology that enhances it.
The group takes a blue-collar approach, Brown said, and feeds off the energy of the crowd. They always know in minutes if the show's going to go to another level.
"You feed off the crowd," he said. "Whatever they give you, as much as they'll give you, it comes back to us and it makes this big turbine of energy in the room. We'll know stepping out how much they want to give us. It gives us that extra. Literally when we get done playing we're exhausted. We're covered in sweat and we're soaked and we feel like we've given them their money's worth."
© 2010, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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