Only one thing stands between the Zac Brown Band and spontaneously covering just about any song ever recorded: remembering the words. "Every now and then, we'll have a gig where we can have a teleprompter on stage, and if that's the case, we can do anything we want, really," says Clay Cook, who plays guitar, keyboards, mandolin, pedal steel and other instruments. "I don't think we could've done it when I came in the band 10 years ago, but over time, everybody has this format of [vocal] harmony hard-wired in the brain."
When the 16-year-old Southern-rock band opened its "Down the Rabbit Hole Live!" tour last month, Brown rolled out 10 new covers, including Billy Joel's "The Longest Time," Imagine Dragons' "Next to Me" and Hozier's "Take Me to Church." The band had rehearsed them, but it wasn't exactly laborious. "Zac can sing a line, and the second time we sing it, we can sing harmony back to him," says Cook, by phone from Toronto, before a show at Rogers Centre. "It's almost like a plug-and-play type of thing. He says, 'I want harmony on this section' and we say OK, and sometimes we have an extra five minutes to figure out the notes. It's just in our DNA now."
When Cook joined the band, Brown had just graduated from hard-touring unknown to the bearded, velvet-voiced superstar with the platinum-selling smash called "Chicken Fried.” Slowly, thanks to a gentle mix of country, Southern rock and the occasional touch of Caribbean music by way of Jimmy Buffett, Brown evolved from a Dahlonega, Georgia-based journeyman who'd been in several different bands since college into a stadium act, selling 8 million albums and 25 million singles and scoring more than a dozen No. 1 radio hits. Cook, a Berklee School of Music graduate who'd performed with future pop star John Mayer during college, was friendly with Brown and his band on the Atlanta music scene. After "Chicken Fried," Brown could afford to hire him as a sixth member.
Cook joined the band when it was transferring its songs from the stage to the studio — 2010's "You Get What You Give" contained what he says were "songs we'd been playing for four years." The band began to evolve and experiment, making an EP with Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl as producer, expanding into New Orleans funk and other styles on 2012's "Uncaged," then going all over the place for 2015's "Jekyll + Hyde."
"That was Zac learning how to play the studio like an instrument and learning what is feasible and doable and how to get a sound from what is in his head," Cook says. "We spent a long time on that record — a lot longer than previous records."
Cook, a solo artist who has put out two low-key albums, including last year's "Unobstructed View," has written exactly one cut for a Brown album — "Wildfire," a rocker toward the end of "Jekyll + Hyde." Cook had written the song with Brown's longtime collaborator Wyatt Durrette and veteran country writer Liz Rose; Brown combined it with a bridge he'd created with country star Eric Church. "It was almost like the snowball rolling from the top of the hill, and when it finally got to the bottom, it was what it was," says Cook, who recorded a stripped-down version of it for his own album.
Cook says Brown's latest album, 2017's "Welcome Home," was easier and more comfortable to record than "Jekyll + Hyde" — and it reminded him of Lo-Fi Masters, the band he formed 20 years ago with Mayer, today the pop star behind "Your Body Is a Wonderland" and other hits. "Welcome Home" is folkie and acoustic, with Brown doing his best James Taylor on the nostalgic "My Old Man" and covering John Prine's wistful "All the Best."
"It wasn't nearly as exhausting as 'Jekyll + Hyde,'" Cook says. "For us, that was a dream. We made an entire LP in six days. Zac brought these songs in, played them for Dave [Cobb, producer], and within three or four hours, we'd have a take."
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Cook, a bearded, long-haired regular guy from Atlanta who makes a point of mentioning his newborn son at the end of a 20-minute interview, has a family musical lineage that inspired him when he was a little kid. His uncle, Doug Gray, is the founding frontman for the Southern-rock Marshall Tucker Band (of which Cook was a member before he hooked up with Brown). "Making a living in music was attainable," he says. "That was an option — where a lot of people grew up thinking insurance salesman was an option for them."
His stepfather also ran a music store, and Cook started taking lessons at age 8. By high school, he realized he was too short for sports, so he joined a band and studied orchestra and music theory at school. "I was like a sponge you could never fill up," he says. "I felt like I was never getting tired of learning those things."
Cook has also played with stars such as Shawn Mullins and Sugarland, but he calls Brown "easily the best boss I've ever worked for." He toes the company line and won't divulge any details about upcoming songs the band is reported to be working on — the band recently took a 10-day break from touring, so its focus is on family and concerts. "You know almost as much as I do," Cook says. "We have songs, but they're not close to being finished, and we don't have time right now to work on it. Every other day, someone brings up another idea for a song, and it would probably drastically shift that song into another direction. All I can say is we plan to have a batch of songs ready in the future."
WHO Zac Brown Band
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Saturday, July 28, and Sunday, July 29, Citi Field, Flushing
INFO $66.50-$126.50; 718-507-6387, mets.com/zbb