Zac Brown & the Art of the Ballad

Country music is a genre with such a rich tradition in storytelling it is basically a trope. But the lonely troubadour singing sans his wife and dog is a caricature not because it’s true, but because it represents a very small portion of highly visible country music which has been infected with the same plug-and-play formulas endemic to every sub-genre of pop music. The same goes for the lazy whiskey-drenched summer fling and the scorned lover whose strong personality is underscored by a particular style of boot.

Zac Brown, my favorite modern day country artist, said it best in a 2013 interview:

“To me, country music has always been the home for a great song. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”

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by Jason Bullinger, heyreverb.com

I originally became interested in Zac Brown because his sound was everything I admired in country music without any of the negative baggage. His gruff baritone voice is not overly twangy. He plays a nylon-string acoustic guitar on most songs that opens up the instrumentation to more folksy tonal qualities.

But most importantly, his lyrics are connected to this great storytelling tradition in country music. This is the tradition of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard whose songs are Shakespearean in scope. There are almost no tropes and no sentimentality.

A great entree into this kind of country song is Zac Brown’s Colder Weather.

Colder Weather is a deceptively complex song. It’s the story of an estranged couple parting ways, though it isn’t clear why:

She’d trade Colorado if he’d take her with him
Closes the door before the winter lets the cold in,
And wonders if her love is strong enough to make him stay,
She’s answered by the tail lights
Shining through the window pane

He said I wanna see you again
But I’m stuck in colder weather
Maybe tomorrow will be better
Can I call you then
She said you’re ramblin’ man
You ain’t ever gonna change
You gotta gypsy soul to blame
And you were born for leavin’

The piano starts as the driving force through the first verse and chorus, like a typical ballad. But the song slowly builds into the second verse by introducing slight percussion and slide guitar as reinforcement, and then additional strings and bass in the second chorus.

As the song reaches it’s peak at the bridge, the lyrics change tense from the third to the first person. This has the effect of changing the song from a story to a confessional. This is no longer a song about an unnamed guy and his girlfriend. It’s a song about Zac Brown. Vocally, he jumps octaves at almost the same time the tense changes, easing the transition:

Well it’s a winding road
When your in the lost and found
You’re a lover I’m a runner
We go ’round ‘n ’round
And I love you but I leave you
I don’t want you but I need you
You know it’s you who calls me back here

But what I think makes this a great song is the metaphor it’s based on. I am a sucker for a good metaphor. It’s never clear whether the cold weather is actual weather preventing them from being together or whether it’s really emotional distance that cannot be bridged, you were born for leavin’. Their meeting is always deferred, maybe tomorrow will be better, which, for me, makes the story more poignant. Far from a sentimental love story, it’s a tragedy. The cold indifference of the weather is likened to that mysterious urge to either stay or leave, which cannot be controlled or understood. Things will never change for them but on the other hand, there’s always tomorrow.

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