Q&A: Coy Bowles, Zac Brown Band

We catch up with Grammy Award-winning band’s guitarist and organist, who eventually gets "tender" on the state of Georgia

Calling the Georgia-based Zac Brown Band a band actually seems a little insulting. Sure, the three-time Grammy winners and multi-platinum artists have sold more than 6 million records and have 10 number-one hits. But there’s more to them than music. One of the hardest-working bands in the business, they’re also the masterminds behind Southern Hide, a line of leather goods; Camp Southern Ground, a camp for special-needs kids; Southern Ground, a music and food festival, and Southern Ground Artists, a label to promote up-and-coming artists. Here, we caught up with the band’s guitarist and organist Coy to talk food, music, Atlanta and all things Southern. 

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

A: I started playing when I was 11, but most people didn't even knew I played guitar or music while I was in high school. It was kind of my own personal thing. I studied biology in college. I was just about to graduate when I got bit by the bug of music. I dropped biology and graduated with a music degree and never looked back. My parents have always been my best friends and so supportive. I was lucky to be able to shake and move and do what I was passionate about and have so much love and support behind me. Hey mom, hey dad.

Q: You’ve been with the band since the beginning. What was your “Aha, we made it!” moment?

A: It seems like there have been so many "Aha" moments. Winning the Grammy for best new artist, winning the Grammy for country album of the year, and getting to play with all the incredible musicians that we admire so much are some that come to mind. Doing the Grohl Sessions that Dave Grohl recently played on and produced for us was definitely up there. But as a creative person I don't think you truly ever arrive. I still think I need to be so much better at my instruments, writing and the art of music.  

Q: Most country acts find a successful formula then stick pretty closely to it, but that’s not true of you. To what do you attribute your success?

A: Every member of this band has an insane work ethic. Zac is a wonderful leader. He allows all of us to bring our creative minds to the table. The songs that we write are like our religion. That and I think that people believe Zac when he sings, and they believe in us as a band. That's really important. It's everything to me, to believe in the artist.

Q: What makes the band such a tight-knit group?

A: Haha. That's a funny question. Umm, living on a bus for the last six years with each other. Living on a bus will get you tuned-in to pretty much everything about your fellow band members. Being in such close quarters teaches you a lot about yourself too. You can't hide from the things you do or say. There are seven other dudes looking at you pretty much nonstop. In the beginning, it's kind of a mind twist to have to deal with that. After a while, you accept the things about you and the other guys, and you kind of become one with the road. That sounded like something you'd read on the back of a self-help book for touring musicians. We are around each other constantly. We still have a blast. I think respect and laughter are key for keeping it going and fresh. We know each other so well it's kind of ridiculous.  

Zac Brown’s Coy Bowles
Designing hats is one of many ventures that keeps Bowles busy. (©Cole Casell/Southern Reel)

Q: The band is not just about music—it’s a lifestyle. The Southern Ground Brand includes a record label, a camp, retail goods, plus a music festival and the Southern Ground Social Club. How did that come about?

A: I have a lot of respect for Zac for getting so much accomplished and striving for a greater creative vision than just the music angle. It's a lot of work, but you only live once.

Q: Your motto seems to be “tour, tour, tour.” How often are you on the road?

A: I think the best answer is always. Haha. We love playing, so it fits. We are home usually three to four days a week. We don't usually do long stretches. A lot of the guys have kids and don't want to miss out on the beauty of that, so we try to keep a good balance of home and the road.

Q: What items do you have to take with you?

A: You can make it a long time on the road with clean underwear and socks. My must-haves are my computer, a guitar, Bose noise-canceling headphones, and lots of underwear and socks.

Q: Does the band have any backstage rituals?

A: Every night we sit down with our fans and do what we call an "Eat & Greet.” It's a Southern gourmet meal that our long-time buddy and chef extraordinaire, Rusty Hamlin, heads up. After that, we do warm-ups on the bus together. We sit down and talk about the set list, tweak some things, and get psyched for the show. Right before we hit the stage, everyone puts their hands in a circle, Zac looks everyone in the eye, and we say "Ooh Girl.” The "ooh girl" statement is kind of a long story, but that's what we do and it works, so we keep it.

Q: Any favorite venues or cities to play?

A: I love Chicago, anywhere in California and Red Rocks in Denver. Playing at Red Rocks is like playing in the hands of God. The place is so beautiful and has such an energy that it goes straight to the soul. Don't take me for a wimp, but I've cried on stage every single time we've played. I'm a softy, what can I say. On the road we call that being "tender." I'm what you call a class-4 tenderoni. For us to be such husky, bearded men, we have a lot of "tender" floating around. Ask Chef Rusty. He's a tenderoni, too. Right after Red Rocks, I'd say The Gorge in Washington state. I love New Orleans as well.

Q: So when you are actually at home, what do you like to do? Describe a typical day.

A: It's either full-speed or nothing when I'm at home. A typical full-speed day would be wake up, check emails, do some phone calls, let the pug out, let the pug back in, eat breakfast, probably teach at KSU School of Music Business program, have a meeting about my children's book, “Amy Giggles-Laugh Out Loud,” then call my mom and dad. Next, I might write something silly on Facebook or Twitter, practice an instrument, run some errands, come back home and write or rehearse. In the evening, I’ll try to eat dinner with my loving wife after she gets off work, then head back into the studio till the wee hours of the morning. It's either that or doing absolutely nothing, meaning movies and a couch. Maybe if I feel energized, I might get out if the house for an hour and walk around. The day on the couch doesn't happen very often though.  

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do around town?

A: I visit all the music stores that I like at least once a month, those being Atlanta Boutique Guitars, Atlanta Discount Music, Atlanta Pro Audio, and Guitar Center. Zac, Clay and I are all gear freaks, so I'm constantly on the hunt for new gear. I have some key lunch spots—the Mediterranean joint, Ali Babas, in Little Five is my jam. If I'm in Atlanta, I eat there. I try to go to Northside Tavern once a week if I'm home to hang with buddies, sit in on some tunes and just listen to music.

Q: Where do you take visitors?

A: If you've never been to Atlanta, then I have to take you to the late-night staples. Those are Northside Tavern or Blind Willies for music. For food, I take them to Ali Babas in Little Five or Urban Cannibal Bodega in east Atlanta for lunch. The Urban Cannibal has a dish called the Carnitas Po-boy that I'd lose a leg for. For dinner, I'd probably take them to Rathbun’s or Nuevo Laredo.

Q: Food seems to be really important to Zac—does that hold true for everyone in the band?

A: Oh yeah. We don't play when it come to food. We are Southern boys—it comes with the territory.  

Q: How collaborative is the song-writing process?

A: I'd say it's very collaborative. Some people might not know this, but we have a secret/missing member of the band. His name is Wyatt Durrette. He doesn't play a single instrument, but he writes amazing songs. He's been with us since the beginning, and goes with us everywhere we go. Wyatt is a super awesome guy. He is also our official party coordinator. After shows, we stay up writing all the time. It usually starts with someone having a creative idea for a song, and then it kind if goes from there. Who writes what will usually depend on who is staying up late during that particular night’s writing session.

Q: You recently released a four-song EP produced by Dave Grohl—tell us about the sound.

A: It’s hard to explain in few words. It wasn't like Dave came in with this master plan and shaped us into anything; he came and we played songs for him. He would say, “I like that one, let's start there.” We would then play the track, record it, and he would give his opinion on a few things here and there. Overall, it was his vibe and energy as a person and musician that made everyone push everything a little harder, and play a little more intensely than before.

Q: How did that collaboration come about? Who else would you love to collaborate with?

A: Dave Grohl and Zac met at a Grammy event a year or so ago, and it kind of grew from there. I'd love to collaborate with Stevie Wonder, Sting, Aerosmith, Garth Brooks, and geez the list goes on forever. I'm a big fan of all different types of music so it's endless.

Q: Who are some of your music inspirations?

A: Ray Charles is the man in my mind. My roots are in rock ’n’ roll—Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Aerosmith and Foo Fighters. From there, I went into the blues and jazz world—Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I'm a sucker for a great melody, so the Beatles have a huge place in my heart.

Q: You guys have reputation as a jam band. Do you love performing live?

A: Performing is basically who we are and what we do.

The Zac Brown Band
Though constanly on the road, the band does manage to be home in Georgia three or four days a week, Bowles says. (©Cole Casell/Southern Reel)

Q: What’s your favorite song to play live?

A: Right now, it's probably “Day for the Dead” off of the The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1, “Goodbye in Her Eyes” off of "Uncaged," and we've been doing “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. It's a great beer-swigging, sing-along anthem that feels great when you’re playing it in front of a lot of people. It's like a musical group hug with the band and the crowd.  

Q: Can you please tell us a little about your book?

A: The book is called “Amy Giggles—Laugh Out Loud.” It's a illustrated children’s book that tackles the issues of self-esteem, self confidence and anti-bullying through the eyes of a unique little girl named Amy Giggles who battles getting made fun of because she has such a intense laugh. I'm currently working on the second book; it's going to be about the "entitlement" issue that teachers and parents are facing with today's youth. You can get ”Amy Giggles—Laugh Out Loud” on Amazon and iTunes for eReaders and iPads, and also at http://www.amygiggles.com/

Q: You designed a hat, “The Troubadour,” with Southern Hide. Can we expect any more designs in the future?

A: I'm currently working on my next solo album, producing a few albums in Atlanta, and working on the children's books, so I stay pretty busy with all that. I've been working with a hat company called Peter Grimm—they are just the coolest. We have a great relationship, and I think the next plan is to do a kids hat. 

I know this isn't a question that you've asked, but if possible, I'd like to say something to all the readers. Zac Brown Band has played in 49 of the 50 states in America. Georgia has a feeling of tangibility to it like no other state—from the hugs of the people, to putting your feet in the soil and water that runs through it, the state of Georgia has to be the absolute best, and I'm not saying that because I was born and raised here. OK—maybe I am. I wake up every day pinching myself that I'm so blessed to play music, create and make a positive influence on people. All of that would not be possible if it wasn't for the support of Georgia, both now and in the beginning. So, I'd like to say "thank you, Georgia, for all the love and support." I think I just got tender on ya, Georgia.