Zac Brown Band's Jimmy de Martini on going from an airport shuttle to touring in eight buses
Jimmy De Martini's musical background is rooted more in Jimmy Page than Jimmy Dean, more in the work of rock acts like Guns N' Roses than contemporary country artists like Alan Jackson. But for nearly a decade, De Martini has played fiddle for the Zac Brown Band, one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed modern country acts.
De Martini studied classical violin and rock guitar before he joined Brown's ensemble in Georgia in 2004, but that background didn't keep him from fitting in with the band's unique approach to country music. That take on the genre took cues from rock as much as it drew from Brown's background as a singer/songwriter and fan of 1970s-era folk. With the addition of percussionist Daniel de los Reyes in 2012, the band even added some elements of traditional Latin music.
That ambitious mix of styles hasn't alienated the country establishment -- the band's picked up awards from the Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association and CMT. Their most recent album, Uncaged, picked up a Grammy last year for best country album. We caught up with De Martini, who's set to appear with the Zac Brown Band for a three-night stint at Red Rocks that kicks off on Wednesday, May 8, and talked about the band's genre-bending approach to country music, the group's comfort in a live setting and its fondness for Red Rocks.
Westword: Can you give me an idea of what the band's schedule has been like since the release of Uncaged last year?
Jimmy de Martini: Let me think. (Laughs). It seems like we're always touring. People always ask when does your tour end or when does your tour start, and we don't really ever stop touring. We take a little bit of time off for the holidays, but we never go longer than two or three weeks. We've always toured; we've toured this band. That's our favorite thing about being in a band. In between, we'll have a video shoot or an opportunity to record an album, we'll hit up some award shows. But mostly we're out there playing shows.
Fair enough. Can you talk a little bit about how Uncaged came together? I've read some quotes that this album felt like a more comprehensive process, that it was created as a whole rather than in a piecemeal fashion. Would you say that's accurate?
For the first album (2008's The Foundation), we had been playing out live for so long before we recorded it that Zac had actually recorded a couple of the songs on a solo album. We pretty much knew exactly what songs we were going to put on the album, we had them arranged because we had been playing them out loud. We basically just put the songs down and it was pretty simple that way.
The second album (2010's You Get What You Give), we had a different band. We had the band that we have now, minus the percussionist. That was kind of the first album that we put together as a band. We recorded it in about five days and put everything together. A lot of those songs we had been playing out live, so it was just a matter of tweaking them.
But this album, Uncaged, we had no idea what songs we were going to put on the album. A lot of the songs weren't even finished when we got together to do the album. Zac has a little property on a river up in Georgia, and we went out to his roadhouse and locked ourselves in there. We stayed up late every night writing the songs. We had a chalk board out, just trying to figure out what songs we were going to put on the album -- we went through 25, 30 songs.
It was one of the first times I was able to put in to the writing part of the album, which was great for me. Most of the songs were written by Zac and his songwriting partner Wyatt Durrette. For this album, a lot of the band had input on writing as well, not just arranging like it had been in the past. We got together and we just basically laid out what songs we wanted to do. We also added a new member of the band, Daniel de los Reyes, who is the world's best percussion player. We were lucky to get him.
I was going to ask about Reyes. How has the addition of percussion affected the sound, feel and mood of the band?
I think it's given the music kind of a breath and a heartbeat. It was there before, but it gives it a new freshness. We grew up listening to a lot of jam bands and Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic, stuff like that. In a lot of those bands, percussion is essential. I don't think I ever sat down and said, 'We need a percussion player.' But then when we met up with this guy and jammed with him a couple of times, we just had to get him in the band and we were able to.
Going back to what you said about your input on Uncaged, what songs did you have a hand in crafting?
The title song "Uncaged," I wrote the riff to the verses. It's in a weird timing, I think it's in a 7/8 timing. It's really hard to sing and get the band to do it, but I was playing the riff one day on Zac's bus and he just started singing this line over it, and it fit. I still can't myself sing over that because it's such an odd time. But he did it. It ended up just fitting into the song so well.
I was lucky to get that riff in there. It's pretty cool to have some of your song on the album. It's the first time for me. Then the song "Last But Not Least," there were three of us that wrote the bridge to that. Coy [Bowles], Wyatt [Durrette] and myself stayed up really late one night at the river house and we just came up with that part.
You guys have been making stops at a lot of awards ceremonies recently, picking up nominations at the CMA and American Country Awards awards and winning the Grammy Award for best country album for Uncaged. But the constant has been the country label. Considering all the influences in the music that you just mentioned, do you think that's a fair label for the band's work?
I don't think of our sound as country, although country radio is a great place for our songs to live. I think what people gravitate toward in country music is the songwriting. It's not as important the way it sounds as it is that it tells a story. That's what country music fans have grasped on to, and I think we've made some great strides in the country realm and that country music has been really good to us.
Having said that, I think we stretch the boundaries of it a little bit. We consider ourselves more of a live act than anything. At our live shows, there's such a mix of people in the crowd. We actually get to be ourselves, which is really cool. We don't have to think of a certain genre and say, 'That's not going to work because it's too heavy or too different.' We all come from different genres of music:
We have a jazz drummer, a Latin percussionist, a blues guitarist, a singer/songwriter as another guitarist, our bass player came from a rock band, I came from a background playing guitar in rock bands. Zac grew up on '70s songwriting. None of us really grew up in the country world, and country is kind of new to us, and it's a great place for us to be. But I think we definitely stretch the boundaries.
You mentioned you came from a background as a rock and roll guitarist. What are your roots as far as the fiddle goes?
I grew up mostly on rock music. As a young kid I started listening to the Beatles from my parents, and then started getting into the heavier stuff. I was basically learning to play classical violin and rock guitar at the same time. I would learn to play Guns N' Roses, Pearl Jam, Black Crowes and Led Zeppelin on the guitar.
At the same time, I was learning to play classical violin. I was mostly influenced by rock guitarists. When I learned to improv once I was out of high school, I started playing violin in some bands and basically took to the sound more like a guitarist.
So considering the fact that the band is so rooted in live performance, do the songs change and evolve? Are the tunes from Uncaged going to sound different when you hit Red Rocks?
We try to keep the songs pretty close to what the record does, but the songs evolve night after night. Some of the songs, we may take a big long solo in the middle that they didn't have. We might play a riff in a different way. But we stay true to the songs, we're not going to come out and play a completely different version of it.
A song like "Who Knows" is one we can jam out to with a big long guitar solo. We have some tricks up our sleeves for some of the songs. We're going to work some cool stuff into them. We haven't done it yet live; we've been in rehearsal, so we're going to revamp some of the songs. We're pretty excited.
You're playing three nights in a row at Red Rocks. Have you done that before?
That's the first time we've done that. Last time we did Red Rocks, we did two shows, and they were just so packed that we realized we needed three. We love playing that venue so much. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense for us financially just to play three nights at one venue that's smaller than we're used to. But we just love the crowd at Colorado and we love Red Rocks. It's an amazing place to play, and it's something that we look forward to every year. It's kind of magical.
Are you going to switch up the sets from night to night?
Oh yeah, we're going to mix it up. We want to please the people who can only come for one night, but we also want to please the person who's got tickets to three shows and who doesn't want to see the same sets. I don't think it will be a completely different set night-to-night. We have a way of mixing it up. There's a balance that we'll find, and it will be a fun set to put together.
As someone who's approaching his tenth year in the band, how has the evolution been from playing small clubs in Georgia to selling out massive arenas, hitting every awards show and becoming a national presence?
It's amazing the day that you realize that all you have to worry about is just being a musician. It's hard at first, for many, many years. You work and struggle night to night. You give up school, you give up weekends and a lot of stuff that your friends are doing, what might make more financial sense. But the day that you realize that your job is going to be a musician, it's an amazing thing. It's a dream come true.
When the Zac Brown Band realized we had to get out of Atlanta, we bought this little airport shuttle bus so we could travel. We put this home air conditioning unit in this thing and traveled around. It was pretty dangerous, but it got us where we needed to go.
We've definitely come a long way -- now we have something like eight buses and twelve tractor trailers on the road. So, it's come a long way from an airport shuttle bus and a trailer. It's been quite a ride, but we stick to the same thing we've always done. We write good songs and put on a good live show. That's what we've always done.