Zac Brown Band’s Clay Cook on Berklee, Boston accents, and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Zac Brown Band returns to Fenway Park after last playing there two years ago.
Zac Brown Band
Zac Brown Band returns to Fenway Park after last playing there two years ago.

When Zac Brown Band returns to Fenway Park for shows Friday and Saturday, two years after its last date here, the group will be making just the third stop on its new summer tour after an unusually long break from the road — about seven months. Clay Cook, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and former Berklee College of Music School who joined the band in 2009, says that amount of time off can be disorienting for a band that’s not accustomed to it, and he couldn’t wait to get back onstage. Hours before the band’s first show of their “Down the Rabbit Hole Live” tour in Lincoln, Neb., Cook spoke to the Globe by phone about Boston audiences, Boston accents, and texting with his old Berklee classmate, John Mayer.

Q. How are you feeling?

A. Getting ready to play a show tonight. We’ve been rehearsing all week for the tour, and I’m just super nervous energy. I just want to play right now. I don’t think anyone will be at the venue — it’s noon — but I’m just ready to jump in there and do it.


Q. Zac Brown Band has been on the road for how long now?

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A. I’ve been in the band since the beginning of ’09, and those guys have been pretty much on tour since ’05. We’ve been off of an official tour since November. We’ve played a couple shows here and there, and together sung some national anthems, stuff like that. But, man, this is the longest time we’ve ever taken off. None of us know what to do with ourselves outside of families. It’s been really refreshing to have that time off, but at the same time super disorienting. You lose your identity just a tiny bit because you’re a guy who plays music onstage. That’s who you are. And you’re not that for a few months. It’s weird.

Q. With so many shows, how do you make each one special?

A. We set out thinking every one is special. It’s not like we play one show, the same one, every night for the tour. We customize each setlist. After you’ve been to a city, played it seven times, you kind of know what’s going to work. You kind of know, “Hey, Boston’s gonna be pretty rowdy, it’s who they are.” You try to feed into that.

Q. You went to Berklee for two years. How was your experience in Boston?


A. I came to Boston as an 18-year-old college freshman. I’m from Atlanta. Outside of spending some summers in Southern California, I spent almost every waking minute of my life in an Atlanta suburb. Since coming to Boston, I’ve learned the different types of accents, from Fall River all the way up to Bangor, Maine, to northern New Hampshire. But I couldn’t understand half the people I talked to. And I’m sure they couldn’t understand some Southern people. There were so many differences, and it was like jumping on a moving train and making sure you can catch your balance and not fall off or anything.

I remember the night before I went home for my first Thanksgiving, it snowed. And that was the first time I had ever seen snow in a city. It resonated pretty strongly with me. What I learned in school there was the whole foundation for being a working musician. Berklee, even since then, has developed a great culture to send these students out on a path to where they can make money.

Q. Let’s talk about your Berklee collaborator, John Mayer. Do you still talk and work together?

A. When we were 19 or 20 years old, we had a falling out. That’s why we didn’t work together anymore. We were young, and didn’t know how to deal with people, or whether we needed more or less structure. We went a few years just having one or two conversations a year. Then, when I came into this band, about 10 years ago, we started really talking again and being friends. He sent me one of his signature guitars just yesterday. Maybe I’ll try it on this tour. We text each other every now and then. I’ll see him on social media and give him [expletive] or tell him he’s awesome.

Q. ZBB has covered Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Kings of Leon, and the Allman Brothers, among many others. How do you pick songs to cover in your shows?


A. Sometimes it’s as easy as Zac hearing a song in his daily life and just saying, “All right, we’re going to do this.” The last few years, we’ve been playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. That was a process. That was Zac saying, “It’d be really cool if we could do it.” It’s such a complicated song that I think it took us about a year and a half of hashing it out before we played it live.

‘It’s not like we play one show, the same one, every night for the tour. We customize each setlist.’

Q. By now you collectively must know hundreds of songs.

A. Yeah, we’re really only limited by whether or not everybody’s heard a song before. And now it’s quick with an iPhone to pull up anything with Apple Music and pop in your earbuds. A good musician can do it, as long as he knows what key it’s in. A drummer can definitely figure out all the changes. If it’s a simple song, he could listen to it one time.

This band is definitely that good. Not only are they that good individually, but they know how to rely on Zac, or the drummer, or the bass player. We just know how to play together. You can’t fake that. It’s time and chemistry.


At Fenway Park, June 15-16 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: From $44,

Interview was edited and condensed. Graham Ambrose can be reached at