Zac Brown Band Stretches Country’s Limits (And Its Legs) On Uncaged


Country music has never had a simple relationship with Mexico. While outlaws like Waylon Jennings once warned that there “ain’t no God” on the other side of the border, Tim McGraw more recently took the opposing position, suggesting that God in fact created the country, but only as a place for trapped American adults to go when they needed a vacation.

No matter one’s position in this rather limited point-counterpoint, the “Mexico song” has become a staple of nearly all mainstream country albums. Kip Moore, for instance, recently gave the genre a nostalgic turn on Up All Night‘s emotional center, “Everything but You”; Brad Paisley, never one to pass up a chuckle, rounded out last year’s This Is Country Music with the Blake Shelton-featuring “Don’t Drink the Water” (“No one I know / goes to Mexico / to drink the water anyways” rolls the punchline). Shelton, meanwhile, once pushed the senorita-chasing, Van Morrison-quoting “Playboys of the Southwestern” up into the country top 40, though the tune never caught on as successfully as Kenny Chesney’s chart-topping “Beer and Mexico,” Toby Keith’s “Stays in Mexico,” or Zac Brown’s platinum-selling “Toes,” the opener on the band’s 2007 major-label debut, The Foundation.

“Toes” begins like all the rest: The narrator, exhausted by the “concrete and cars” that “are their own prison bars,” hops a plane heading south and spends four days emptying his pockets living the life he’s always wanted. But where the majority of these songs must eventually return back to the everyday grind of life in the U.S. of A., “Toes” turns the vacation into a way of life and concludes with its singer posting up on a Georgia lake just as he once posted up on a Caribbean beach.

Combining this attitude toward the world—so Buffett-influenced that their eventual collaboration felt almost superfluous—with subtle, harmony-filled arrangements and the repetition of a few gloriously empty clichés, the song couldn’t have been clearer statement of purpose. Five years later, it instantly comes to mind upon hearing the “island lullabye” opener to Uncaged, the band’s third major studio album and the country crossover hit of the summer—it sold some 234,000 copies in its first week.

Still, when breaking down those sales figures, it’s the crossover that’s key: Although country radio has yet to fully embrace any of Uncaged‘s eleven tracks, still preferring 2010’s “No Hurry,” to any of the newer material, the traditionalist band has cultivated audiences via non-traditional routes, developing a jam-ready sound that’s best heard live and which coincided perfectly with the recent festival boom. Just as Eric Church recently reached a new market by shedding some twang and delivering a hard rock set at the Metallica-curated Orion Festival, Brown was taking the I-24 from Nashville to Bonnaroo way back in 2009. Lately, that sound has found a more comfortable fit at New Orleans’s more roots-driven Jazzfest, and Uncaged‘s Trombone Shorty guest spot “Overnight” finds the singer embracing this collision.

As I was organizing this blog post, I was surprised to walk into a D.C. Starbucks and find the record sitting directly in front of the register, ready to be purchased by an audience about as far from “Stays in Mexico” as you can get. In turn, this new audience moved from purchasing Uncaged to exploring previous efforts like the aforementioned The Foundation, pushing that record to the top of Billboard Catalog Albums chart and the live Pass the Jar.

At the same time, beyond the bluegrass fiddles that endear the band to Jazzfest or the overpriced coffee crowds and the extended jams that fit right in at the Phish-headlined Bonnaroo, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that this record has reached so many people in part because, to paraphase that “Knee Deep,” pop has its mind on a permanent vacation more now than at any point in recent memory. After all, what group of artists, DJs, and producers have turned the getaway into a way of life more successfully than those who brought four-on-the-floor Eurohouse off of the island resort and onto everyday radio? If the EDM-inclusive playlist that warmed the crowd for Lady Antebellum’s recent Radio City Musical performance is any indication, audiences have no problem listening to both.

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