The Zac Brown Band became a household name in 2008 with the release of "Chicken Fried," their catchy ode to blue jeans, home-cooked meals, and beer. Penned by Zac Brown and his writing partner Wyatt Durrette, the song quickly became an American anthem of sorts, the kind that is played during Fourth of July firework displays and baseball games. Now an Isle of Palms resident, Durrette has since become Brown's top collaborator, co-writing eight of the band's nine No.1 songs and helping grow the group into one of the top country acts of today.
Durrette was raised on poetry and the classic storytelling of bluegrass and country music, but he later fell in love with Jimmy Buffett, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Marley. Over the course of those years, Durrette discovered just how influential a song could be. "Storytelling can be very powerful. Marley was able to change governments with his music," he says. "Knowing that someone could do that with a song was crazy to me."
A former bartender, Durrette used to book bands at the Dixie Tavern in Marietta, Ga., and it was there that he met a young Zac Brown. "I booked Zac there 15 years ago. He sat on a stool by himself and just played," Durrette says. "I eventually went up to sing with him."
At the time, Durrette let Brown know that he was also an aspiring songwriter. The pair wrote four songs that night. "Zac grew up with a passion for lyrics, so it was easy to connect with him," he says. "We have the same idea about where a song should go. It's become easier to write with him than anyone else."
With the help of Durrette, Brown moved from bar to bigger bar until they achieved a following. Zac Brown Band's first major studio album, The Foundation, was released in 2008 and led to a Grammy for Best New Artist the following year. Since then, Durrette has helped write two-thirds of the band's last three studio albums.
For Durrette, the songwriting process he shares with Brown has remained the same. "I don't read or write music, but I think of a melody and start writing lyrics. The whole song comes together that way, and then I send it to Zac, who makes changes or adds things. We pull from other parts of songs that we've started and match things together to make a better song."
Often times, those songs are centered around beach life. "We're trying to sell the idea of paradise. The beach is part of who I am. It gets me the most inspired," Durrette says.
Case in point: the song "Toes," which describes a weekend bender in Mexico, complete with "pretty señoritas" and Jager shots but concludes with the speaker returning home to Georgia to find happiness sitting in a lawn chair with a PBR. "For me, music is about taking someone away from the crap in their life. Whether it's for two hours at a concert or three minutes with a song, that's my mission," Durrette says.
But Durrette doesn't just write about booze and beaches. One of his favorite songs is "Highway 20 Ride," an emotionally packed piece about a father picking up his son for visitation after divorcing his wife. "One of the best things about music is that you can be feeling sad and down and think no one understands you, but you can turn on the radio and discover you're not the only one feeling that way," he says.
A new Zac Brown Band album is currently being finished and is expected to be released in late spring.