My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’

I confess that I hadn’t paid much attention to the Zac Brown Band all through the chart run of their three big hits to date, culminating in ‘Toes’ this past summer. I didn’t really pay them any attention at all until I saw their fiddle-heavy live cover of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ on the otherwise largely disastrous CMA Awards show last month. That got me interested enough to check out their platinum-selling album The Foundation, and I enjoyed it much more then I was expecting. Although they’re not traditional country by any means, this is a band which realizes (rare for a major label act with chart action) that less is sometimes more and doesn’t feel the need to ramp everything up to 11. My favorite track from the album, the slightly atypical ‘Highway 20 Ride’, has now been announced as the fourth single.

It is very different in tone from their previous laid-back and light-hearted hits, and it remains to be seen how country radio will respond to a serious, mature song from the band. Written by the band’s lead singer Zac Brown with his usual songwriting partner Wyatt Durrette, and sensitively produced by Keith Stegall, the subdued lyric consists of a divorced father’s pondering on his situation on his long fortnightly drive to see his young son. The playing is low-key but nicely supports Zac’s sincere vocals as he explains in his mind to the child how:

“There’s things I haven’t told you,
Your mom and me couldn’t get along…
There was no other way to work it out”.

Refreshingly no blame is cast in the direction of his ex-wife, with the focus firmly on the protagonist’s wistful longing to spend time with the boy. Poignantly, he seems to have little faith in the future of their relationship, gloomily anticipating,

A part of you might hate me
But son please don’t mistake me
For a man that didn’t care at all

No one listening to this song could make such a mistake.

It would be fair to say that Zac is not one of the great male vocalists, as his pleasant voice is really what I would call more of a songwriter’s voice, but that works perfectly on subtly understated material like this, because it feels emotionally real, whereas a “bigger” singer might over-emote. In the last few lines, the vocals do start to sound a little overwrought as Zac repeats the title, and this works less well for me than the introspective mood of the greater part of the song. This is a minor criticism, however, of a single which, if it is a hit, will go some way to partially restoring my faith in radio.

Grade: A

Hear the song on the band’s myspace.

7 responses to “Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’

  1. Bob December 4, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Great song & great review. First of all I agree that that the CMA show was a disaster. Sugarland and Lady A were great (although I wish JN had sung “Very Last Country Song” rather than the “gotta do” song) but the highlight for me was the performance of the ZBB. I did not expect to like them and they were outstanding.
    Regarding Highway 20 Ride, I think it’s great and a nice change of pace although I agree that Zac overdoes it a bit at the end. Your comment that it’s fair to say that Zac is not one of the great male vocalists, that he has what you would call a “songwriter’s voice”, I think is a little harsh. Since we moved to Nashville, my wife and I listen to songwriters sing on a fairly regular basis at the Bluebird Cafe. While we love the shows, we don’t go there to hear great vocalists. Hal Ketchum, who has written over 200 songs, would be one of the exceptions. Zac is far better than almost all of the songwriters we’ve seen and I think he’s a better live singer, as he demonstrated at the CMA show, than many of today’s big country stars like KC, Dierks, Darius, TK, AJ, the King and quite a few others. I am very curious to know who you think are the great male voices in country music today. The ones that come to mind immediately for me besides Hal Ketchum include Collin Raye, Ty Herndon, John Berry, Ronnie Dunn, Richie McDonald, Chris Young and Lee Roy Parnell. I like Joe Nichols and Josh Turner but have never heard them sing live.

    • Occasional Hope December 4, 2009 at 2:20 pm

      It wasn’t intended to be harsh, just a comment that he’s not a really big singer. I like songwriters singing their own material 😉

      In terms of great voices currently active, I’d put Trace Adkins at the top of the list when he’s not singing rubbish. I would then include Josh Turner, Chris Young and Joe Nichols on major labels, with Ronnie Dunn a little further behind. Randy Travis should still be up there, but his most recent recordings seem to show some deterioration in his voice. I would also still count Gene Watson as he’s still actively recording and sounding great.

      • Bob December 4, 2009 at 3:12 pm

        thanks for the prompt response. I really liked Trace’s early material but Honkytonk badonka donk (the rubbish you refer to?) was a real turnoff. The new Gene Watson cd is on my Amazon wish list.

        • Occasional Hope December 4, 2009 at 5:50 pm

          Yes. His latest album, X, is worth getting hold of if you can. Apart from one awful track (the opening one, Sweet’, the rest is solid with some very good songs, especially Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink and Til The Last Shot’s Fired.

          And Gene Watson’s latest is excellent. Persuade someone to give it to you for Christmas.

  2. Razor X December 4, 2009 at 10:19 am

    This is a good song. I think he sounds a bit like James Taylor, though he’s a better vocalist than JT.

  3. Leeann Ward December 5, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Yes, I agree that he threatens to negate his tastefully restrained performance with those closing dramatics at the end. Luckily, it wasn’t so bad to ruin the song for me though.

    I like his voice, but I agree that it’s not one of the prettiest voices out there, which is probably one of the things that draws me to it (which is ironic since my favorite artist has arguably one of the prettiest male voices in the biz).

    This is a great song that I hope will be a ray of hope for radio’s currently dim climate.

  4. Pingback: Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2010 « My Kind Of Country

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