Zac Brown Band, famous for the feel-good country song “Chicken Fried,” makes a bold departure from the status quo of the country genre on their latest release, “The Owl.” The album mixes R&B, EDM, rap and country music and represents a huge step outside the band’s comfort zone and former discography, with positive results.
The album combines Zac Brown Band’s classic country sound with a more heavily altered electronic production. From the drums to the guitars, each instrument gets modernized on the tracks, leaving behind the band’s toned-down acoustics.
Needless to say, the album is not country by the strictest definition of the genre. Despite not adhering to the usual tropes of most country albums, the record entices a broad swath of listeners by forging a new, more daring path that keeps country music relevant and proves the musical dexterity of the group.
Zac Brown Band pushes the boundaries of their genre with “The Owl,” offering exciting, original content that is at times creative and daring, and at others, alienating for longtime listeners and passionate country fans. This album breaks the predefined but unwritten barriers of country with every single song. Each melody and mood conveyed is completely distinct and wide-ranging from one song to the next; there might just be a song for everyone on “The Owl.”
“God Given,” in a contentious move, brings hip-hop inspired lyrics such as “Gucci bag / Stacks on stacks / Diamonds fill up the champagne glass” together with country guitar licks, offering an interesting departure from the sometimes repetitive classic country sound. The chorus, however, retains the essence of country, professing love for a woman, by declaring “You have class that they just can’t buy / ’Cause damn, girl, what you got is God given.”
Still, the album at other times reflects what fans of Zac Brown Band have known and loved about the band. “Warrior,” an ode to the armed forces, draws upon the band’s more traditional sounds and themes. The band clearly has not completely abandoned their characteristic southern rock roots, with lyrics that build off of the patriotic themes that inundate country music, like “He will miss the quiet pride of his men at his side as he leads them into victory.”
The album follows the lead of many other prominent country bands by teaming up with producers and artists whose track histories are distinctly not country. It brings to mind other collaborations such as The Chainsmokers’ 2017 release “Last Day Alive,” which featured country band Florida Georgia Line. Likewise, Zac Brown Band chose to collaborate with pop stars Shawn Mendes and Brandi Carlile and superstar songwriter Max Martin, representing a significant change of pace for their new album.
The progression tapped into by the Zac Brown Band reflects a wider trend occurring in country music, in which genre gatekeepers resist the inevitability of new, groundbreaking artists. For example, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was removed by Billboard after it topped its Hot Country chart, only to achieve worldwide success and acclaim. Based on the recent popularity of Lil Nas X and his many “Old Town Road” remixes, though, it seems that Zac Brown Band’s shift to appeal to this newer country sound is a wise decision.
Zac Brown Band has indeed changed their sound and approach, and they have also chipped away at the barrier that determines what defines country music. However, the band has not embraced the change wholeheartedly, opting instead for an album that lies somewhere between the old world of classic country and the current, changing landscape of both the genre and the music industry as a whole.
The times are changing, sure, but based on Zac Brown Band’s release, it is a change worth celebrating. Country music could afford to incorporate electrifying jazzy riffs and stadium-filling bass drops, especially when paired with Zac Brown’s deep, charming voice. Genres are constantly evolving, and Zac Brown Band helps lead the way with “The Owl.”