The Zac Brown Band is notching 2012 as another good year in the Georgia group's 12-year history -- and it's not taking that for granted.
The septet's fifth studio album, "Uncaged," debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and the Top Country Albums charts in July, launching the hits "Goodbye in Her Eyes" and "The Wind." It's also up for a Grammy Award for Best Country Album in February.
The ZBB continued its popular boat cruise, Sailing Southern Ground, sold out a "bucket list" show at New York's Madison Square Garden and launched Southern Ground Music & Food Festivals in Nashville and Charleston, S.C., during October. Brown's Southern Ground Records label, meanwhile, had success with artists such as Sonia Leigh, Blackberry Smoke and Nic [cq] Cowan.
Nevertheless, multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook points out, "You don't assume that a lot of people are gonna buy your next record or come to your shows -- at least you shouldn't. I know there's a lot of artists out there who do assume that, and they wind up disappointed.
"So for us to have the No. 1 (album) and for it to sell as well as it has in this climate of artists, especially the way albums are -- or aren't -- selling these days, we feel pretty good about it."
Cook, 34, says the ZBB is also happy about its fortunes on the road, where the group established its rep and remains a popular draw. Ticket sales were up this year, he notes, predicting that a healthy live act is what will insure the group's future even more than album sales or hit singles.
"It's a good thing to be known for because I think we're all headed back that way," Cook explains. "Live performance can be the way artists can have a career the rest of their lives. If you're always putting on a good show and people come to see you for that, it's not as fly by night as if you had a No. 1 single amd then you don't have No. 1 singles anymore and nobody cares.
"So I guess we're doing something right and trying to put on the best shows we can for the fans."
That attitude certainly informed "Uncaged" and ZBB's other albums. "We do go into each record thinking that, 'Hey, we would like to have more songs that kick ass live," Cook says -- though he also acknowledges that "we also have to have songs that radio would think about playing. You can't make the whole album all seven-minute songs with kicking jam solos or something like that. You have the find a balance."
"Uncaged" also marks a first for Cook, giving him a co-lead vocal with Brown on the song "Last But Not Least." "There was a part Zac wanted to put in the song, but in that key it was just too high for him to sing, and if we lowered that part the rest of the song would sound strange," recalls Cook, who's also co-produced many of the Southern Ground releases. "So it was just a suggestion he had. He said, 'Hey, could you just sing this bridge?' and I said 'sure' and that was that. There wasn't much thought put into it.
"I think it's kind of weird hearing myself sing (lead) on a Zac Brown Band record, but it's fun. I'm glad it's on there."
Cook says he expects a third single will be released from "Uncaged" but isn't sure what it will be yet. Meanwhile, he says the band "hasn't even thought about" its next album, focusing instead on a 2013 that will be spent primarily on the road, including some stadium shows with Kenny Chesney, appearances at the Stagecoach festival and the Bayou Country Superfest, another set of Southern Ground festivals and other extensive headline touring.
And the ZBB hopes to set a good tone for all that with its New Year's Eve show at Joe Louis Arena.
"There's a little bit more of a celebratory spirit outside of just being, 'Oh, the Zac Brown Band's in town,' " Cook says. "There's an energy to it. It's a lot of fun. You can cut loose even more than you usually do. It's just a little bit more of a party, and we try to bring the double-A game to that one.
"I mean, we try to bring that every night, but New Year's Eve is just a step up for us, just a little more exciting and we really want to deliver for the folks."
The Zac Brown Band, Blackberry Smoke and Levi Lowery perform at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31, at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $39.50-$69.50. Call 313-471-6606 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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