Country music’s merry maestro Zac Brown is known for his emotionally charged performances, but not like this: clearing his throat again and again, fighting back tears, and finally choking up as his audience sensed he was on the verge of a full-on breakdown.
“It’s gonna take me a minute to pull myself together,” he told the crowd of family and friends gathered Tuesday night at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. But try as he might, he couldn’t, and he did what any good band leader would do. He let the other musicians take over.
Just moments before, all eight Zac Brown Band members – by their own admission – had been emotionally blindsided when they viewed, for the first time, the museum’s new exhibit in their honor. No doubt they were anticipating just another public appearance. What they got instead was an intensely sentimental journey as they saw for themselves, in their own artifacts, the improbable distance they’d spanned between a scrappy club act and a stadium-packing band of brothers.
As Brown tried to offer his thanks at the museum’s VIP reception, it was all too much to absorb. And so he retreated to wipe his eyes with a handkerchief, and his bandmates each took turns to recognize the fact that, against enormous odds, all their dreams had come true.
“When you’re a kid,” fiddler Jimmy De Martini said, summing up, “you dream about someday having a song on the radio or playing in front of thousands of people – and we get to do that almost every night. These days, if you play for 10,000 people, it’s a slow night. Pretty crazy.”
Stories abounded from band members and guests alike of Brown’s passion, creativity, and generosity. Among those in attendance was Rory Feek, who toured with the Zac Brown Band with his late wife, Joey, several years ago. “They’re some of our favorite people, still,” Feek said. “My wife loved them, and they’ve been very good to us.”
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Feek went on to tell of the time, while on tour, that he and Brown visited a mandolin maker just to check out his custom instruments, each worth several thousand of dollars. “Zac said, ‘Which one do you like the best?’ and I said, ‘I like this kind of rustic-looking one.’ But they were all amazing instruments, and I didn’t think anything about it.”
Days later, as the tour ended and Brown was saying his goodbyes, “he handed me the mandolin and he said, ‘This is my gift to you,'” Feek recalled. “He is incredibly generous.”
Brown and his band’s more public charitable work is featured in the exhibit, but even more so, their playful side. Among the artifacts, for example, is a small cutout of guitarist Clay Cook mounted on a stick that was carried by band members one year to the Grammy Awards. Because Cook joined the band too late to be listed as a nominee, he didn’t get an invitation to the event.
A giant dragon’s head and glow-in-the-dark skeleton costumes, all stage wear, also highlight the band’s showmanship. A coyote that made a long-ago trip to a taxidermist also earned a spot in the exhibit – a prop intended to make the stage “kind of like a living room,” explained guitarist Coy Bowles, whose own name inspired the stuffed animal’s: Coy Ote.
Instruments, of course, are featured throughout, including multi-instrumentalist John Driskell Hopkins’ trio of bass guitars named after his daughters, Faith, Grace, and Hope. Inlaying the names in the guitars’ headstocks, Hopkins explained, was “to remind me what I want them to be in life,” though he has long since realized “I don’t have any control over what they’re going to be.”
“Please, Faith, Grace and Hope,” Hopkins made his plea, “be faithful, graceful and hopeful.”
“Homegrown: Zac Brown Band” officially opens on Friday and runs through July 2017.