For more than a decade, Coy Bowles has donned his fedora and guitar and stepped to the right-hand side of Zac Brown in the country star’s namesake band.
A native of Thomaston, Bowles is still awed by the success of the Zac Brown Band – the five No. 1 albums, including last year’s introspective “Welcome Home”; the dozen-plus No. 1 hits, such as “Colder Weather,” “Knee Deep” and “Goodbye in Her Eyes”; the Grammy Awards; and the massive tours, including their recent eighth consecutive sold-out performance at Boston’s hallowed Fenway Park, a record for the venue.
On Saturday, Bowles and the rest of the band – fiddler Jimmy De Martini, drummer Chris Fryar, guitar-banjo-upright bassist John Driskell Hopkins, multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook, bassist Matt Mangano, percussionist Daniel de los Reyes and, of course, Brown – will perform at SunTrust Park, the first time the band is headlining a stadium in its hometown.
The night before the big gig, Bowles and his side band, The Fellowship, will play a “pre-show warm-up” at Brickhouse Grille and Tavern in Newnan.
Earlier this week, Bowles – talkative, humble and quick with praise about his bandmates – chatted on a day off near his home in the Druid Hills area about the weekend concert, how the band decides which cover songs to perform and his moonlighting as a children’s book author.
Q: Considering how many stadium shows the band has played, it’s kind of crazy that this is the first time you’re headlining one in your hometown. That’s got to feel special.
A: Who in the world would have thought we would be the biggest band to sell tickets in Boston? If you had told me 10 years ago we’d sell more tickets in Boston than anyone else… (laughs) I don’t understand that. (But the Braves) venue is really amazing. I was really in support of the Braves moving to Cobb County. I thought it was going to be great for the baseball team, which is kind of what matters. The venue is killer. We have this way of turning these baseball stadiums into giant bars. They really have this iconic, we’re-all hanging- out-together vibe. It’s a really interesting environment. You would think it would be disconnected given the size, but the nostalgia of baseball connects everybody.
Q: The sound for concerts in stadiums always seems to be an issue, but the Zac Brown Band has prided itself on getting stellar sound everywhere. What types of things are done differently to ensure a better experience for fans?
A: Zac was very adamant in the beginning about wanting to invest in a state-of-the-art PA (live sound) system, so for the past five years we’ve had this PA system that I think only two other acts in the world use for touring. It’s super advanced and it really suits amphitheaters and larger venues. The volume is kind of the same, no matter where you’re sitting, so if you’re 50-yards back or on the left side of the field in the very back, you would perceive it as the same volume. Our front-of-house guy has been with us from the very beginning – literally longer than I have been in the band - and we have detailed conversations with him about every performance. He’s really intuitive about that stuff, too. A lot of it is the fact that Zac wanted to double down and make sure fans were getting supreme sound. One thing people say about our shows is, it sounds good.
Q: So far this tour you’ve done covers including Billy Joel and Imagine Dragons. What’s the process or discussion about choosing which to play each night?
A: Deciding the covers has become one of the most tedious processes. We tackled these giant songs – “Bohemian Rhapsody” took us six months where we could pull it off. One time we were like, “Let’s do ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and it will be the best thing ever!” and then you start playing it and realize it’s kind of a boring song for stadium audiences for the first five minutes. There are always songs you think would be amazing to do and then you start listening to them and everyone’s like, “That’s not gonna work.”
The Allman Brothers stuff (we do) is really easy because we’re from the South and we all grew up on that. Billy (Joel), we’ve been talking about doing an a capella song to show off our vocal ability.
But it’s very democratic. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to last for so long. Zac is very open to hearing everyone’s opinion, but Zac will make the last call on stuff; if we were a band that was all super-equal, that kind of stuff could get tumultuous. Zac is probably one of the most open-minded, creative people I’ve ever met in my whole life. As a leader and a friend, he’s just a killer guy. It’s really awesome to be in a band where the guy who is the main dude is still somebody who is a great dude.
Q: Why is the tour dubbed “Down the Rabbit Hole”?
A: We threw out a bunch of names for tours and the idea was the concept of going down the rabbit hole, which can be viewed as constantly seeking more and deepening the journey. When we started throwing around names, we thought it would be really cool for that idea to represent where we are right now. We’re still diving and still digging. A lot of acts who have been doing stuff as long as we have, at this point, it’s easy to get flat-footed. But I feel like we haven’t even gotten started yet. I still practice all the time and go over the songs every day before the show. I still get freaked out that I’m going to play a wrong note!
Q: The band is going to play with the Eagles in September. What is their influence on you as a musician and songwriter?
A: It totally makes sense that we’re doing it, but from a small-town guy from Middle Georgia, you get a phone call one day that’s, “We’re opening up for the Eagles!” and you go, “Wait, what?” They have a giant influence on the band, especially the four-part harmony. We’ve covered a bunch of their tunes over the years. Zac became good buddies with Joe Walsh and we’ve done some shows with him. He’s an anomaly, man, just an amazing musician, and just one of the most unique, eccentric guys, but really a nice guy. We’re really looking forward to doing the shows. But as far as the influence, I think Zac and Hop (John Driskell Hopkins) were most influenced by them as far as the vocal harmony thing. When Zac was young he was listening to a lot of Eagles. And songwriting, too. There’s definitely a similarity. I would consider “Colder Weather” to be our “Desperado” – not to compare ourselves, but you can see the similarities in the writing.
Q: A lot of people might not know that you’re also a children’s book author. What’s the latest on that?
A: I just did this awesome thing for State of Georgia Pre-K program. This is the 25th year of the Georgia Lottery, so I wrote a book, “Behind the Little Red Door,” and they gave it to 84,000 kids in the state…It’s really awesome to represent the band and the state and give back in this way. The book is about creativity. It’s been met with a lot of positivity and it’s really one of the highlights of my life to know 84,000 kids have this book. There’s an idea of taking some of the books and trying to get into a cartoon series and carrying those characters forward.
Q: Speaking of kids, how is life with two little ones (Bowles and wife Kylie are parents to 1 ½-year-old Hattie and 4-month-old Millie)?
A: I’m in full dad mode right now. I’m loving every minute of it. You realize life wasn’t fully worth living until they came along.
Q: Most of the guys in the band have side projects – as well as families. How do you find time for everything?
A: When I was 16 and sitting on the floor with my eyes closed in front of a Marshall amp and dreaming of playing in front of a field of people and all of them would care about what I was writing about … there’s this overwhelming responsibility that you do have a voice, you do have followers and this chance to affect people in a (positive) way. You realize there are parents who have kids who listen to the music. I could either go to sleep early and get rested and live five years longer or I could stay up late and write another children’s book and feel like I’m making a larger effect on life.
Zac Brown Band
With OneRepublic and Nahko and Medicine for the People. 6:30 p.m. June 30. $35-$106. SunTrust Park, 755 Battery Ave. SE, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com.