Country giant Zac Brown Band will headline the American Family Insurance Amphitheater Saturday, July 1. In anticipation of the band’s performance, we sat down with Zac Brown Band fiddle player, Jimmy De Martini, to ask him about the band’s return to Summerfest and their new album.
How do you feel about coming back to play during Summerfest’s 50th anniversary?
I didn’t even know it was the 50th anniversary. That’s pretty cool. I love coming up there. It’s always great crowds and great atmosphere. It’s a little cooler than it is down here in Atlanta. But yeah, people are always psyched up for our show when we come [to Milwaukee]. It seems like everybody is ready to party when we roll into Summerfest.
The band’s played there at least a few other times in the past.
Yeah, we’ve played there, shoot, at least three or four times now at Summerfest. So they keep on having us back and we gladly accept. It’s a good time every time we’re up there.
It must be exciting to be part of the festival’s 50th.
It is. It’s a great opportunity to play with some of the acts. I was just looking up — Paul Simon’s going to be there and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Luke Bryan. So there’s some great artists that we get to sort of share the festival with. So that’s a unique opportunity.
What do you recall of the band’s first time playing Summerfest?
I just remember walking out of the amphitheater and seeing just a packed house. There were a lot of people there, and it’s always exciting anytime you have a lot of people with really good energy in it. And it helps us perform with high energy on stage. We always try to give back whatever we get from the crowd. So, I remember the first time being amped up walking out there on stage and feeling the energy and feeding off of that from the crowd. I think it was four or five years ago.
Have you noticed any changes in the festival from the first time to the last time?
No. The only difference would be the crowds have gotten bigger every time we’ve returned. Anytime you can build a following within a city or market, you know you’re doing well when you get there on stage and more people come back the next time. That’s basically what we’re trying to do, is win over the crowd when we first roll into a city or festival and hope that we can come back. And hope that we can get more people from word of mouth. So it seems like the crowds are getting bigger each time we’ve played there.
What are some of your favorite Summerfest memories?
One time we had [NFL player] J.J. Watt come out and hang. He’s been a good friend of the band. We’ve done some commercials with him and have gotten to know him pretty well. He’s an amazing athlete and great person. So that’s one thing I remember, is being able to hang out with him. We actually did a little thing on stage where he was on the side of the stage watching the show. And somebody from the crowd had jumped up on the stage and he came out and literally tackled the guy who was trying to dance with Zac. That was quite a memory.
Did you get a chance to talk to him at all?
I did. I have three sons of my own and they’re into sports and watching football. My little guy got to get a picture with him and he was very generous and talked to my son. That made his whole year.
Did you find out a lot about Wisconsin talking to him?
Yeah. We talked about his brothers. I think they were playing for the University of Wisconsin at the time in football. And he was hoping that they’d be able to make it to the NFL and I believe that they just did. His youngest brother just made it into the NFL. So we talked about Wisconsin and sports and coming up through college football. So it was pretty cool to get his perspective, because he came up through the same route. So that was pretty cool to hear the information about that.
Any other notable memories of playing at Summerfest or Wisconsin?
I remember one time we played at the Packers stadium with Kenny Chesney. The coach of the Packers came out and brought the Super Bowl trophy and we were actually able to hold the Super Bowl trophy and get a picture with it. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never seen it, much less hold it. Our whole band was excited. Zac and I and everyone got a picture with the Lombardi Trophy. That was incredible.
What’s your favorite non-performance thing to do in Milwaukee or Wisconsin?
I just love hanging out. There’s always some good beer. I love going out with the guys and hanging out and having some beers. And the weather’s always so nice up there. Until winter when it gets freezing. But the fall and summer and spring are all beautiful. So I just really enjoy the weather.
How does it feel to be one of the big names in country music these days?
It’s quite an honor. At the Country Music Hall of Fame, we were able to have an exhibit up for us. And they had all our instruments up and they asked for some personal memorabilia. They had this exhibit and I think it ran close to a year. It’s closing down now, but that was an honor just to be considered one of the premiere acts of country music. And the fact that they asked us to do that and have an exhibit for us was really amazing. We got to reminisce about – since it went through a time – the early days and when the band formed. And when the band took some momentum on until now. That was pretty amazing that they set that up for us.
The band’s been together quite a few years.
Yeah, the band will be together 13 years in December. My first gig with Zac was 13 years ago playing a little bar here in Atlanta. And after that we continued to add members to the band. It’s been quite a ride.
Does it make anyone in the band nervous, having to live up to that standard of being one of the premiere country acts?
No, I don’t anyone’s nervous about that. We just try to put on the best performance and write the best songs that we can and just try to do our best as musicians and performers and recording artists. I think as long as we put our heart and soul into it, then things will be fine. We don’t tend to worry too much about what other institutions think. As long as we believe what we’re doing. And so far, that’s worked out for us.
The band returned to its country roots on the new album Welcome Home. Can you talk about that and why that was important?
We try to take on a theme with every album we do. The first album we did was called Foundation. And it was really bare bones and all about the songs and supporting the songs and Zac’s vocals and the harmony vocals. We tried to strip it down to where you weren’t trying to do too much instrumental wise. Except for some of the faster bluegrass songs. With each album, we kind of experimented a little bit more. And with the album before this one, we got to try all different genres of music. It was really fun. We had an EDM song and even a standard jazz tune. We had all sorts of songs. We did a hard rock song with Chris Cornell that ended up going number one on the Rock charts. That was our experiment album.
And later we were like “What if we went back to the original bare bones album that we did to begin with?” Because the songs that Zac had written came from a very personal space and he was talking about family and was very introspective. So we figured the best way to do that would be to strip down the instrumentation and let the songs and vocals speak for themselves. And I think it turned out wonderful.
Zac wrote many of the lyrics during a trip up to Alaska. How did that affect the album sessions when he got back?
Yeah, he and some of his buddies went up to Alaska and he had some songs that hadn’t been finished. These days it’s hard for Zac to get away from media and that kind of thing. And he has a really big family. So he’s a great family man. When he went up to Alaska, he was able to get into the wilderness and clear up his mind and finish up the songs. You can definitely hear that in the album. One of the songs called “Your Majesty” is about Alaska and the feel it gave him being up there. It was a great place for him to clear his head and get a lot of work done.