by Caitlin Carey
Meet Clay Cook, the best artist you didn’t know you already knew. As the extremely talented multi-instrumentalist of the Zac Brown Band, Clay has been in the music business for quite some time. Hailing from Tucker, GA, he began his music career writing and performing with John Mayer, then becoming part of the Marshall Tucker Band, and touring with Sugarland and Shawn Mullins. Since joining Zac Brown Band in 2009, it’s clear that he has found a home with these musicians. However, while supporting various bands throughout his career, he’s found ways to express his individuality by recording his own music. Aside from his proficiency with a variety of instruments, he has incredible range, top-notch guitar skills, and a quirky personality. On his most recent album, North Star, he uses all of these qualities and techniques to make each one of the 11 new songs on the album stand out from one another, a difficult feat to say the least for any musician. It’s evident that Clay’s passion is driven not by fame, but by the sheer love of music. In my opinion, Clay has flown largely under the radar for far too long.
Clay’s latest solo album, North Star, released in 2013, showcases his unique sound as an independent artist. Although it is quite difficult to pin this work into a single genre, one could call it southern rock—it is largely rock with country and, at times, folk or blues undertones. His previous album, On Mountain Time (2011), felt much more intimate and soft-spoken, with a more acoustic, folk rock style. Conversely, North Star has a much fuller and more produced sound—rather than picturing him sitting by himself with an acoustic guitar, you instead can imagine him jamming out in the studio with others playing by his side. Furthermore, North Star finds Clay in a more rock oriented soundscape, as one might notice by his increased use of the electrical guitar throughout the album.
Lyrically, North Star is highly self-aware, exposing some of Clay’s vulnerability during pivotal moments of his life. He puts everything on display as he takes listeners on a tour down the road of his life, spanning from his college days to the present, each song telling a unique personal story. This album masterfully delivers a raw, earnest sound, while showcasing Clay’s incredibly soulful voice. His ability to make such personal experiences so relatable is impressive; while listening, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ways he would express feelings that I too have often felt, but could never quite find the right words to describe them.
In North Star, Clay takes you on an emotional rollercoaster as you experience love, pain, happiness, and regret along with him. The album’s title track, which Clay wrote with John Mayer, kicks the album off to a rocking start, as he expresses the pains of feeling lost and directionless as a young adult. As he explained in an interview with Rolling Stone, “I started to write this song as I was moving off to college. As a sheltered Southerner, I’d never really left home. Traveling 1,000 miles away to Boston unearthed a bunch of feelings that I really wasn’t prepared for.” While “Man on the Side” and “Lead Me On” convey varying degrees of bitterness, “Head First” and “Falling Over You” express his more vulnerable, lovestruck side and “If There’s a Chance” and “Terrible Timing” demonstrate hope, regret, and desperation as he yearns for another opportunity to prove himself.
Just as the album takes you through a wide variety of emotions, it also successfully keeps listeners interested, traveling across musical styles without sounding disjointed. No two songs sound alike; they play with the conventions of rock, country, slow blues, acoustic folk rock, and even a little bit of funk. While the electric guitar at the beginning of “North Star” might incline you to label this simply as a rock album, “Terrible Timing” quickly dispels that assumption as it shifts more toward southern country-rock while also introducing you to Clay’s impressive falsetto. While “Head First” picks up the pace with seventies-style electric guitar riffs, “Falling Over You” calms things down with a soft, acoustic folk rock sound reminiscent of James Taylor. “Compared to What” then goes a step further than “Head First” by bringing the album up to a headbanging tempo with heavy drums, electric keyboard, and impressive electric guitar solos, combining rock music with an upbeat funky blues style.
“Man on the Side” and “Lead Me On” unleash the soulful quality of his voice and his impressive vocal range. They also expertly convey a feeling of bitterness, but on different levels—while “Man on the Side’ expresses more sadness as he quickly loses hope, “Lead Me On” is fraught with frustration and unanswered questions. “This Kind of War” is arguably the most unique track on the album, describing the aftermath of a devastating metaphorical war. His duet with Clare Bowen in this song is beautiful yet haunting as the slow blues tune perfectly captures his dejection and melancholy. Interestingly, although the song does not use any drums, the guitar pattern manages to maintain the song’s rhythm through and through. In this song, Clay masterfully draws you into his story, as emotion seeps through his voice in a way that makes you understand the poignancy of experiences.
Because North Star maintains a healthy balance between rock and country, this album is a must-have for rock and/or country music fans looking to diversify their music libraries. It’s also a great find for all who appreciate genuine lyrics that resonate on a personal level. These songs listen like stories; while listening, you can practically see the scenes unfold and his soulful voice leaves you hanging onto each word. North Star marks Clay’s successful demonstration of his unique sound and individual identity as an artist. Needless to say, I can’t wait to hear what he releases next.
If you’ve seen Zac Brown Band perform live or if you’ve seen any of his past solo performances on YouTube then you know that Clay Cook is an incredible live performer. Fortunately, you can soon see for yourself: he will be playing two shows at Eddie’s Attic on October 30, one at 7:30pm and another at 9:30pm. Clay is a world-class musician, so you can expect it to be one hell of a show! You can purchase tickets here for the 7:30pm show, and here for the 9:30pm show.