A talented dogpile of good-time country jammers, the Zac Brown Band has reached the point where making hit songs doesn't matter anymore. That's a compliment — sort of. Much like Dave Matthews and Jimmy Buffett, ZBB has gone from indie to industry, an overnight touring monster that sells clothes, cookbooks and "Southern Ground Grub Brown Sauce" next to its albums. They are more lifestyle than ensemble, a synonym for tailgates and chugging contests.
Appropriately enough, new album Uncaged, released this week, is the sound of the Atlanta-based crew realizing that artistic, and to some extent, commercial freedom. In some respect, the 2010 Grammy winners for best new artist can do whatever they want, sound however they like. As a result, there's nothing here with the catch of the band's debut smash Chicken Fried. If there's a hit to be found (the ballad Goodbye in Her Eyes perhaps), it's not because the boys are trying to chart-top; on frenetic first single The Wind (which doesn't sound like a first, second, or third single to be honest), they're just trying to have some pickin'-party fun.
ZBB could release an album every few years, if that, and they'd keep getting bigger based solely on their rep as the band that throws a killer show, homemade food included. But give Brown & Co. credit: They're not sell-outs. They love to play, here mixing Allman Brothers grit (the rumbling Natural Disaster, the sprawling title song) with the mellow of James Taylor (Sweet Annie) and splashes of Marley lite (Island Song). They're too good, too proud to phone it in; but they're not going to kill themselves for a record exec, either.
It's all perfectly pleasant and positive — Zac's comfort-food mid-range croon was built to chill — if not particularly earth-shattering. There are a couple cool guest turns, and unlike country's penchant for megawatt cameos, these seemed based more on mutual respect than making money. New Orleans' Trombone Shorty contributes brassy funk to the '70s-stuck urban slow jam Overnight, which sounds lifted from Marvin Gaye's Midnight Love: "We gonna get this bed a-rockin' and it ain't gonna stop."
Soul-folker Amos Lee shows up for the anthemic Day That I Die, which makes up for somewhat clunky lyrics ("It's funny how time makes you realize we're running out of it") with a larger-than-life chorus, gorgeous harmonizing and organ washes. For a bunch of beardos, these guys can sure make a pretty noise.
Uncaged closes, not coincidentally, with the album's strongest, sweetest song, Last But Not Least, which revolves around ZBB's existential crisis: "Spread thin and broken down / Everybody wants a piece." Zac promises someone special that he realizes life was getting too crazy, and that the important parts were being ignored. But the chase is over. From here on in, things will be different. Now, who's up for a second helping of gumbo?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.