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Zac Brown Band defies labels as its fan base grows 

He's written with John Mayer and been a part of the Marshall Tucker Band and Shawn Mullins' group, but it wasn't until Clay Cook joined the Zac Brown Band that he truly found a comfortable spot in a band. The multi-instrumentalist enjoyed working with those other artists, but the diversity within the ZBB's style and his own ability to bring something new to the table every night has helped Cook and fans stay interested.

While he's most comfortable with a guitar, Cook isn't afraid to pick up a mandolin or sit behind a Hammond organ during a show. It was his days with the Marshall Tucker Band that threw him to the improvisation wolves, a place he finally feels comfortable. He enjoys it so much that he tries to play something different every night, even if it means working himself "out of a hole."

Though Cook joined the Zac Brown Band in January 2009, it was a group he had his eye on for years before that. "It's funny because I was ready before then, but they couldn't afford a sixth member," Cook says from his home before leaving for a tour in England earlier this month. "I was always on the outside looking in as something I knew I wanted to be a part of. For a while, I was playing with guys that were at least 10 years older than me and as much as 25 years older than me. The initial draw besides musicianship was the fact we were the same age and we have a lot in common. You'd be surprised how important 'the hang' is."

When Cook first joined up with ZBB, the touring entourage was 12 people and one dog. These days, it's up to 70, and Cook is still learning everyone's name. The success didn't happen overnight though, and it was the success of the band's single, "Chicken Fried," that enabled Cook to sign on with the group.

It's through radio that ZBB has grown its fan base — that and relentless touring. They used to play 250 to 300 shows per year, but can now ease back with roughly 100. The band is focused on its live show and looks at its studio work as an "advertisement" for the concerts as much as a simple way for fans to learn the words to their songs. Cook also notes that radio stations don't like to play live versions of songs.

"We realize that country radio is how we've connected with so many fans," Cook says. "It has nothing to do with us being a hard-core country band. We have some honky-tonk tunes, some bluegrass tunes and even some rock 'n' roll tunes. If you write a bridge that needs driving guitar and drums, then that's what you do. A genre shouldn't dictate how you play a song. We have a song on our new record called 'No Hurry' that starts out as a traditional country song and in the middle it turns into a Kings of Leon kind of song."

It's diversity like that which enables to the band to open for Kings of Leon in Europe and then Kenny Chesney in the U.S. In the meantime, Cook doesn't rest on his laurels when he's not on the road.

Cook has released two solo albums over the years, The Year I Grew Up and On Mountain Time, and has plans to release a third later this year. He performed a solo show at The Evening Muse last year and plans on doing more shows like that when time allows.

He also finds time to answer fan questions through his Tumblr page, "It's become part of my habit every day," Cook says. "I answer questions and some questions I don't care to answer, but it's an outlet for me to be funny sometimes, too. It started out as questions for the band, but people don't ask as many as they used to. It's gotten more personal."

As for working with any of his earlier bands again, Cook hasn't written it off, though he'd also like to work with some new people as well.

"I've left no one with a burnt bridge," he says. "I would imagine that in the future I'll get to do some touring with Shawn Mullins again, or maybe write a song with Mayer. I've been talking to Amos Lee a little bit, but even working with someone like Sheryl Crow would be really cool. That's what's exciting is that I leave it open to see what will happen."

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