Zac Brown Band fans gear up for one helluva party whenever the band hits town. They’ve memorized all the lyrics to “Chicken Fried.” They recognize the next song within two beats of the intro and feel a special connection to the band even if they don’t share their deep Georgia roots. Chances are, however, they are not aware of what the country rockers are all about off stage. For instance, how many would guess guitarist Coy Bowles is also a children’s book author? In fact, the motivating musician wrote the silly and empowering Will Powers: Where There’s A Will There’s A Way complete with a boy on the cover strumming a guitar. Who would’ve thought there is even more behind Bowles’ epic beard and cool vests than just his sweet smile, impressive slide guitar skills and killer hat collection?
The Georgia native, who began his strumming the guitar at age 11, is a multi-faceted player, writer, and ambitious Renaissance man. When Bowles isn’t joining his friends on stage, he is collaborating with the likes of Colder Weather and Knee Deep, playing and recording with his band The Fellowship, writing children’s books such as Amy Giggles: Laugh Out Loud and When You’re Feeling Sick, and producing children’s songs. The three-time Grammy winner even teaches classes at Kennesaw State. A family man who believes in the integrity of hard work in life and music, Bowles is constantly evolving in the spirit of creativity.
On tour with the Zac Brown Band in promotion of their new album, Welcome Home, Coy Bowles has a lot to celebrate. In addition to his baby daughter being born this past year, Bowles put out an evocative new Coy Bowles and The Fellowship album titled Tiger Pride. The guitarist/author has been a vital component of the honesty and power behind Zac Brown Band songs. Meanwhile, his alternative musical outlet allows Bowles to tell more intimate stories in a bluesier style. There is no telling what this affable Southern guy will do next. We can just be sure he’ll show up, work hard, and, once in a while, crack us up.
Are you enjoying your brief hiatus from the Welcome Home tour?
Yeah, we’ve got a week off. I don’t know if you’d call it a hiatus or a momentary lapse of reasoning or momentary pause for the cause (laughs). I have a seven-month-old right now so my life is completely different than it has ever been which is great. I’m really enjoying it. But, when you come back home, it’s go time, you know? We just went to the beach for a couple of days not too long ago. So, no complaining over here, for sure.
So you guys go back to your families on break…Do you ever spend these in-between moments working on new material or what may be coming next?
Yeah. For example, now we pretty much have the new material together for this show. We just released the album, so we wouldn’t be getting together to release new material for an upcoming album or anything like that because we are still supporting the last album that just came out a month ago. But, we hang out a good bit. It’s according to what’s going on in Atlanta when we get back home. The Dead & Co. are playing tonight, so I’ll go hang with one of our managers—I guess they are managing that tour as well—so, I’ll go and see the show. I stay in touch with the guys regularly. We all have kids that are roughly the same age so there are birthday parties and pool parties…The family vibe is pretty legit. It’s not manufactured at all. We’re like a tight-knit family.
It works out well then, you are all on the same page musically and personally…
It does. And these guys are my best friends, too, you know what I mean? I couldn’t imagine touring with somebody you couldn’t be in the same room with. It would just be horrible. I look forward to every time I get to see these guys whether it’s on the road or off the road.
You hear these stories—an Atlanta band, The Black Crowes, with the two brothers—I’m a huge Black Crowes fan and had the chance to write music with Rich, the guitar player who wrote a lot of the songs—just the idea that they can’t work it out musically and Sting and Stewart Copeland from The Police…all these legendary acts that have so much trouble personality-wise with each other. Man, it’s hard enough as it is. It’s like some of the old rocker guys who were all ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ the whole time…It’s hard enough just getting exercise and eating well, getting sleep and doing this, much less, hating each other and partying all the time. I couldn’t imagine.
The Black Crowes were one of the best rock’n’ roll bands ever, especially, if you’re an Atlanta guy. My uncle gave me a Black Crowes tape when I was about 10 years old, and he leaned over and said, “Don’t tell your mom I gave you this.” I was like, I’m going to get in trouble. “Oh, sh**! This is awesome!” But, it couldn’t have been too bad if he’d given it to me. There weren’t cuss words or anything like that on it. I guess he was just trying to be cool. So, I would definitely hide out and listen to the album, Shake Your Money Maker, and all that stuff when I was young.
With your strong foundation in jazz, beginnings in punk rock and now playing country-rock with ZBB, do you feel they’ve all informed your current playing style or was it more of a shift?
I think it’s all part of one thing. I wasn’t the kind of guy who dressed one way when I was hanging out with a certain group of people and another when I was hanging out with other people when I was in high school, college, and even now. I definitely know how to blend in a little bit, you know, as far as that’s concerned. I think it’s kind of an analogy of that, to a certain degree.
I got out of school studying jazz, and I was really excited about playing jazz. I just couldn’t find the people. I love all of the people in the Atlanta jazz scene, and they’re all great guys. I never really just got in line with a group of guys who wanted to do what I wanted to do, and it was sort of becoming frustrating. To me, frustration and music don’t go all that hand in hand. There’s a certain part that can motivate you, but there’s a certain part that is pretty crippling. So, I decided that I wanted to be in a group. I like playing music with other musicians. I’m not a solo-acoustic guy. I wanted to play with other people, so I formed my own group and started doing that. It was kind of a blend of everything I was into.
Then, I met the Zac Brown Band guys. It was kind of right-off-the-bat. As soon as I met them, I was like, “These guys are not playing around. They’re prepared for war.” At the time, I had never met anybody [like them]—and I was extremely connected in the Atlanta scene, too. I knew hundreds of musicians from the jazz, blues, rock and singer/songwriter scenes. I had spent five years of my life trying to go out and meet everybody. And I have the kind of personality which works for that kind of stuff. I enjoy talking with people, and I’m not scared to strike up a conversation. Anyway, I had never met anybody in my entire life who wanted it so bad, and they were so prepared. It was like, “Wow. I’m going to hang out with you guys.” And then it all just started taking off.
So you found the vibe with these guys was instant…
If the music sucked then I wouldn’t have been into it, you know? I wasn’t trying to find my ticket or anything like that. It was just the idea that these guys are doing a lot of different styles of music which I was really into, and they have their act together. They were keeping tabs on how much gas it was going to be to get to the next place other than having a beer after the show, having fun and all that. This wasn’t just an opportunity to get drunk and go back home, they were trying to go somewhere. And where they were going is where I wanted to go, too. So, it’s still like that today.
When we go overseas, and we’re in different countries and we’ve got to win them over—we did that this year. We went to Australia, London and Scotland—there is this attitude that we came over here to play, to show these people that we’re not just an ordinary band, you know? We’ve got something to prove.
Would credit that attitude and commitment to the band’s well-earned success then?
Yeah. It’s weird. I teach this class, a music business class at Kennesaw State in Georgia every semester, and I’m with these young kids who are in their early twenties and some of them are ready to take on the world or are thinking of working a job in the entertainment industry. They look at me as if I’ve made it. I’ve come to this realization with them that you never really make it. It’s according to what “making it” is.
If you stop writing good songs, and you stop practicing your instrument and ticket sales start going down…You could’ve been awesome five years ago, you know? It’s that kind of thing. But, all of this stuff is hard work. Somebody like Sting, for example, still has to stay on top of his chops and make sure he takes care of his voice and that his guitar chops are up to speed. Even when you’ve got a solidified career, and you’ve got 30 songs under your belt that are huge hits, you’ve still got to stay on top of it. So, to a certain degree, creatively, I don’t think it’s cool to think you’d ever make it. There’s always a mountain to climb (laughs).
As a teacher, do you find it difficult to convey the importance of focusing on the passion versus the goal or outcome?
I’ve got a routine now. I go in, and I ask everybody—I had a pivotal moment when a teacher in high school asked me what I was going to do when I got out of high school. My parents and I had talked about going to college so I figured that was something I was going to do, but I’d never really had another adult that I was friends with care enough about my life to ask me what I wanted to do with it. It caused me to think, “Wow. I’m not exactly sure. Let me think about this and get back to you.”
So, a week later, I went up to him and said, “I think I want to do this…” He said, “Okay, cool. Sounds like a plan.” It really was an awesome experience for me, for somebody besides a family member to ask me what I wanted to do with my life.
So, when I first start the class, on the first day, I go in and ask everybody, “Pipe dream. What do you want to do with your life?” And then everybody tells me. Then I say, “Raise your hand if you would consider yourself lazy.” Anywhere from one to five or six out of 30 people raise their hand. I’m like, “I love you. I wish you the best, but you’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell at any of this if you’d consider yourself lazy.” It’s just something that can’t be part of the scenario, you know? They have this…, “Whoa. I didn’t see that one coming” kind of thing. It’s kind of cool to be lazy. It’s kind of, “rock ‘n’ roll…I don’t care, man. Everything comes to me.” So put that in one hand, a pile of poop in the other and see which one gets you the farthest.
But, it’s interesting though because by the end of class, I’m so passionate about life, I have such a hard work ethic, and I don’t mind just grinding it out—actually, I have a problem just cutting it off—that’s the cool thing, that passion, creativity, and a solid work ethic is contagious. So, I can get in a room with these guys, and by the end of the semester one of those kids who was raising their hand that they were lazy will be like, “Man, I’ve really been getting after it, and I really appreciate you coming up and calling it like it is.”
I’m like, “Yeah, dude. Well, there’s no reason you can’t do anything you want to do.” That applies to everybody. If you’re four foot, there’s a good chance you’re not going to be an NBA player, but there’s nothing that says you can’t work in the NBA, you know? Spud Webb was like 5’4”, and he was in the NBA. So, it is possible (laughs). Almost anything is, really.
It’s great that they see you’ve applied it, and you’re a role model for them…
I just call it job security (laughs). I cut up with these guys, “In 10 years from now, if anything dries up with me, I’m going to be giving you guys a call. Remember when I inspired you to go and do what you did?…started the next Uber, made millions of dollars and all that stuff? Well…” I joke, you know? I cut up with them about it that they’re my job security.
Congratulations on the release of Tiger Pride with The Fellowship. It has an intimate tone, and the perspective is interesting. Did you intentionally use second-person in several songs for a theme?
Yeah…I don’t know. I tend to really suck at that kind of stuff…When I write songs with people—I have a buddy of mine who is really particular about what tense that you’re in, and I noticed that when I’m around him, he’s like, “Are you talking about you or are you talking about us or…What exactly are you talking about?” And I have a hard time trying to explain to him that “you” and “me” and “us” are all kind of the same being.
Some of those stories like on “Help Me If You Can”—one of my friends just this last year basically went overboard with drugs and alcohol. I love him to death—I grew up playing music with him and lived with him throughout college. We had kind of parted ways and hadn’t really hung out in the last seven or eight years. A lot of it had to do with I had been on the road, and he had lived in Savannah which is not an easy drive from anywhere that I lived. Anyway, it kind of got weird, and I ended up having to go pick him up and take him to his parents’ house. I was like, “Dude, you’ve got to start over.”
He ended up going to rehab and came out a totally different person. He was kind of back to the dude I had had so much admiration for. He’s been working out and focuses on his health a lot now, jogs and meditates, eats really well. It’s been really inspiring for me to be around him putting a lot of time and energy into finding himself. So, when I wrote that tune, originally, I just came up with the words “help me if you can”—just kind of blurted them out one day, and that was the name of the tune. There was no verse, so I went back and was going to write the song…and, for some reason, at the beginning, I was thinking out when I used to go to Georgia State there were old vets that were homeless who would be downtown asking for help. I wrote the tune one time through kind of like I was an old soldier that came back from war and had been forgotten about. But, then I realized I’m not that political of a person…I ended up writing the verse about my buddy and his struggle with alcohol and how the devil is always on your shoulder kind of thing. It meant a lot to me to write about him and his struggle and how he overcame it. It was pretty cool because he was going to end up going to jail or in a ditch.
With all of the different hats you wear: guitarist in ZBB, your band, The Fellowship, author, teacher…If you had to choose one role you could not live without, which would it be?
I don’t know. I think they’re all an integral part of my life at this point. I need The Fellowship for the Zac Brown Band to make sense, because I write songs that mean a lot to me, but they don’t get recorded by the Zac Brown Band. Some of them do. Some of them don’t. So, the ones that don’t, when I record them, it’s like a release. When I come back to play music or write with Zac Brown Band I feel refreshed and clean not muddled up, you know? And the Zac Brown Band is where I would consider my family and my home to be, not only musically, but as friends and my personal life. So, it’s a very integral part.
The writing of the children’s books is a way for me to feel like I’m part of the universe in a giving back way. I realized somewhere along the way that you’re part of the problem or part of the solution. You either put in extra energy to make the world a better place, or you suck off of it, and you’re part of the problem. So, in just doing your job, coming home and feeding your kids, it’s not enough. You have to coach your kids’ baseball team and give back to the kids that are around you, or you have to do some part to make everything not just equal but better. I believe that’s just how the world works. My writing children’s books is a way for me to give back to the universe and to inspire kids that it’s okay to be unique. It’s a trait to be blessed with. You can work at having a stronger work ethic or how not to be selfish or feel self-entitled. And having hope and humor and being silly is an amazing part of life. So, that’s a part of it.
I can’t really answer the question, “If there was anything I had to lose,” but I will say that as time goes on, I find the thing that differentiates me from anybody else that I meet is that I enjoy telling stories, and that’s part of my personality. It’s like more of a gift. Guitar playing I really have to work at. There are some parts of it I’m gifted in, but I’m not the next Jimmy Herring, Jimi Hendrix or Derek Trucks. I feel like I’m a competent guitar player, but I don’t think I’m going to be in the “Top 100 Guitar Players of All Time”. But, telling a story is something I feel like I have that natural-born gift to do. I’m just now coming into my own with that in the last couple years through writing books, writing songs, short stories and whatever. So, if anything, I would really like to write more adult stories, movies, screenplays.
I’ve recently, over the last five years, been documenting what happens on the road, the stories of the crazy stuff we get ourselves into, how songs are written and like meeting somebody for the first time…working with Dave Grohl. I mean, that in itself will be a chapter in a book.
Anyway, I hope to try and continue to develop myself as a writer. I’m always pushing myself. I think I enjoy being uncomfortable. The minute you get flat-footed as a creator, you’re pretty much as good as gone, in my opinion. Being uncomfortable, whether it feels good or not is what keeps you leaning forward and moving in the right direction. Before this year is over, I’m going to try and do five minutes of standup. I would rather climb up on a three-story building and jump off (laughs) than to get up on a stage for five minutes and try to be funny. But that’s something that I want to do. Maybe it will suck. Maybe it will be awesome. I don’t know. You won’t know until you get up there, so…
Well, at least mom will be in the audience, right?
My mom and dad would come to anything I do. That’s why I’m here, actually. Growing up, it was crazy how supportive they were. It’s interesting because I go through this cycle—we go on the road for four days—the first show I’m like, “Oh, man, that was amazing!” I feel so good. The second show I’m wondering if we could do better, if we could’ve done that a little better. But, it felt really good. The third show…I feel like I need to talk to somebody about whether or not we’re doing good, because I felt good about it, but I’m not sure. By the fourth show I’m just like, “I really wish somebody would just come up to me and say, ‘Man, you sounded good.'” Then I go home. I recharge. I go back out on the road. The first show is amazing, the fourth show is like, “Would someone just tell me that I was okay? It would be great.”
So, I figured this out about two years into touring. I realized that I have to tell myself that it’s going to be okay because nobody’s going to come up to me. But, still, before I get off the phone with my dad, every single time, he says, “I’m really proud of you.” I’m an only child, and I had overly supportive parents almost to a fault (laughs)…I’m so used to positive reinforcement that when I don’t get it it’s like weird to me. But it’s a good thing. I just have to give myself a hug every once in a while (laughs).
See the Zac Brown Band at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ on July 7 & 8 and the BB&T Pavilion in Camden, NJ on July 14 & 15. Welcome Home and full details are available at zacbrownband.com. Coy Bowles’ Tiger Pride, books and info are available at coybowles.com.