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Levi Lowrey’s two-disc Roots and Branches is a majestic record. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be heard in an acoustically perfect concert hall by an audiencethat sits undistracted in the dark listening intently to itsexquisitely sculpted lyrics, transcendent melodies and intricately woven instrumentation. But it’ll work just fine in your car stereo, too.
Lowrey is a former member of and opening act for the Zac Brown Band and co-writer of the ZBB hits, “Colder Weather” and “The Wind.”
The Roots of the album’s title refers to 11 songs made famous in the late 1920s and early ‘30s by Lowrey’s great-great grandfather, fiddler Gid Tanner and members his celebrated band, the Skillet Lickers. During that era, Tanner eclipsed or stood shoulder-to-shoulder in popularity with the now legendary Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. In reviving these classics, Lowrey—a commanding fiddler and guitarist in his own right—is backed by the current edition of the Skillet Lickers, a self-regenerating assemblage of virtuosi that includes Phil Tanner, Russ Tanner, Fleet Stanley, Larry Nash and Joel Aderhold.
The Branches disc spotlights Lowrey’s astounding skillsas a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, bandleader and producer. Of the 10 songs here, the Dacula, Georgia nativewrote or co-wrote eight, each a cinematically luminous glimpse of adult life. “I try to make my lyrics as relatable as possible,” he says. “Obviously, I’m one man going through my own set of failures and successes, my own story. But the core of these emotions are experienced by everyone. I’m not afraid of being human.”
That humanity is forged and tempered in what one song calls “the side effects of living.” And, thus, we hear in Lowrey’s lyrics meditations on fate, regrets, guilt (both personal and cosmic), self-effacement, world-weariness, immortality, restlessness and the magnetic lure of home. If that sounds like too heavy an agenda for mere music, fear not—Lowrey leads us through these emotional rough spots with a savior’s touch.
Wyatt Durrette’s big songwriting career began in a small way, when he was a kid riding in the back of his dad’s car. “I played a lot of sports and when my dad drove me to games, country music was always on the radio,” he says. “He practiced law, but he always wrote poetry and he loved words. He would point out the words of the songs and teach me to hear what the singer was saying. In country, there’s always a story being told—love, loss, happy, sad or sometimes just something silly, but sweet. At a very young age, I fell in love with the idea of storytelling.”
Though he wrote his first song at 11, and kept it up through high school, it wasn’t a path he thought he could pursue. “Writing was my release and my love. But being a professional songwriter seemed like a faraway star, this thing that would be really cool but didn’t seem real.”
After high school, Durrette bounced around a couple of colleges playing basketball, including at his father’s alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, before dropping out and relocating to Atlanta with a girl. In what proved to be a brilliant career move, he promptly put his elite education to use working in restaurants and bars.
“I was managing the bar and booking bands at a place called Dixie Tavern; it’s still there today,” Durrette says. “A guy named Zac Brown was already playing there Tuesday nights. It was just him, a guitar, a stool and about six people, including me. But he had such a voice and such a presence, it made people listen. The second time he played there, I got up and sang with him, and when I told him I wrote songs, he said, ‘Cool, let’s get together and write.’”
Their first writing date produced four or five songs and a friendship as close as brotherhood; their collaborative catalogue grew over the years and account for six of the 12 songs on Zac Brown Band’s first album, The Foundation.
The first single from that 2008 album, a Durrette and Brown co-write, was the song that changed everything.
“Chicken Fried,” the upbeat song extolling simple Southern pleasures introduced the Zac Brown Band to country audiences, became their first No. 1 and was nominated for the CMA Single and Song of the Year, not a bad way to kick off the hit parade that includes more than a dozen now and still marching along.
For the last six years, Durrette has traveled with the band on the ZBB bus, where he and Brown do a lot of writing. The band is scheduled to go into the studio this Fall for an early 2015 release that will no doubt be filled with more Durrette-Brown collaborations. “I’m very blessed to be in this unique position. I enjoy being part of the band without the pressures of having to be in the spotlight, which suits me perfectly.”
-excerpt from SESAC, by Kay West