EXCLUSIVE: Meet Zac Brown Band’s Matt Mangano, Saratoga Springs Superfan

It must’ve been some time in 2008 when I first came across the music of Zac Brown Band (ZBB). Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to write about music for a number of reputable publications—at the time, those included American Songwriter and The Hartford Courant, among others—and as anyone in the music journalism business knows, as soon as you publish a few pieces, the publicity houses and record labels open up their coffers to you in the hopes that you’ll listen to one (or more) of their clients’ records and write a review or feature on them in one of said publications. One day, I got this advance in the mail marked The Foundation and threw it on my ever-growing heap of sample CDs I’d received, assuming that I’d have a minute to listen to it and maybe pitch it around to one of my freelance clients. I never did.

The following year, I happened to be watching the Grammy Awards, and what do you know? ZBB’s The Foundation was up for Best Country Album, and that night, the group walked away with the golden gramophone for Best New Artist. Soon after, I dug up that advance and popped it in my five-CD changer (#RIP) and heard what the Recording Academy—and millions of other rock and country fans—had heard. Just to give you an idea: The lead track, “Toes,” is this wonderful amalgam of the type of countrified rock you might hear in bars in Austin, TX, or Nashville, TN; that hungover, morning-after, island-y rock of Jimmy Buffett; and a hefty helping of nontraditional-to-straight-laced-country lyrical flourishes (part of the song’s sung in Spanish, Spanglish, and Brown drops the word “ass” within a few seconds of the tune). Plus, the musicianship was clearly top notch. By the time I got to track 6, “Chicken Fried,” the big hit that year, I was feeling sorry for myself, having missed the banana boat on this one completely. That was a true “dammit” moment in my career.

I never make the same mistake twice.

You could say that Matt Mangano, who’s been playing bass in Zac Brown Band since 2013—and has known the band’s titular leader, Zac Brown, since their shared early days playing the bars and club scene of Georgia—is helping me make up for my past sins. Mangano grew up in Visalia, CA, and excelled at music from an early age, learning how to play the guitar, piano, saxophone and bass by the time he hit high school. That led him to enroll at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he’d meet fellow guitarist Clay Cook (who’d end being a bandmate in ZBB) and soon-to-be pop megastar John Mayer. (He was interested in music production, and it came in handy; he put one of Mayer’s earliest fan favorites, “Comfortable,” to tape.) After college, Mangano ventured down to Atlanta, GA, where he began playing at a bar called the Tin Roof, originally located in the trendy, artsy Buckhead district, with a guy named Francisco Vidal, “who’s known as the cover [song] king of Atlanta,” says Mangano. “He hustles and works his butt off five days a week, playing three or four hours at a time—without a bathroom break—playing every cover song you could ever think of.” That’s where Mangano first met Brown, one night, while Vidal’s band was taking a rare breather. (Through Vidal’s band, Mangano would also meet future ZBB bassist—and now multi-instrumentalist—John Driskell Hopkins.) Mangano soon found himself playing shows with Brown in Carrollton, GA (about 50 minutes southwest of Atlanta), and he knew he could sense that his buddy was on the road to stardom. “He had a really great way of getting people engaged and keeping people interested in the songs,” says Mangano. “He’d always have his own spin on a cover song; it would be ‘Brown Eyed Girl,’ but there’d be another little section that Zac would add to make it his own.” Brown was also writing his own material at the time, too, craftily slipping one of his own songs in between five or six covers.

But Zac’s time wouldn’t come until a bit later. In fact, technically, Mangano hit the big time several years before his future bandleader did. In 2001, he joined up with his former college buddy, Mayer, who was out supporting the platinum-selling Room For Squares. At that point, Mangano was playing guitar, and you can see him at stage right in the video for hit song, “No Such Thing.” (See above.) The following year, Mangano left Mayer’s band and relocated to Nashville, where he got deeper into the world of music production and returned to the bass, playing sessions with a number of local songwriters. It was in 2008—the year The Foundation struck Grammy gold—that Mangano finally linked back up with Brown, who was searching for someone to help out with his new record label, Southern Ground Artists (later shortened to Southern Ground), which was in the process of developing acts such as Blackberry Smoke and The Wood Brothers. Southern Ground has since morphed into nothing short of a ZBB empire, bringing together music production services in a sprawling space in Nashville, a music venue, charity foundation, hub for artisanal crafts that it sells (example: handmade knives) and a Southern food bazaar, headed up by Brown’s personal touring chef, Rusty Hamlin. ZBB’s tour experience is a confluence of all of these things; Mangano describes the backstage scene as such: “You never know when you’re going to find: axe-throwing, archery or a rack of elk smoking on the smoker.” Hamlin cooks up delicious Southern food for the band and its VIP customers. (If you’re wondering, Mangano’s favorite dish is Hamlin’s “OMG Burger,” made with lamb, beef, Italian sausage, colby jack cheese and chipotle aioli.) Each ZBB tour is like its own little traveling city. And Mangano’s been in the middle of it for nearly a decade.

In 2009, Mangano once again found himself sharing a stage with Brown, who invited him onto his Breaking Southern Ground tour, one of the band’s first headlining tours. At the time, Brown’s newly launched label had three artists signed to it, and Brown had put together a sort of all-star backing band, who played with each of the artists. Mangano was part of that band, so he opened for ZBB every night. His bass work would then appear on “Island Song,” from ZBB’s 2012 album, Uncaged. And a year later, he took that job as ZBB’s full-time bassist. By that point, he was practically a ZBB pro. “I had been hearing those songs every night,” says Mangano. “I knew them just from hearing them, and in fact, the first time that I went out and played [with ZBB], I realized that I didn’t have to sit down and learn most of the songs, because I had already internalized them.” But playing with ZBB has always kept him on his toes, says Mangano. For example, he’d always assumed that the band’s walk-on song—a medley of a bunch of different tunes—was pre-recorded. So when he was getting ready to go on for first show as ZBB’s new bassist, he assumed he’d hear the track and then the show would just kick off. “What I didn’t know is that [the intro song] was actually performed,” says Mangano. “So we’re there in Memphis in December 2013, my first show, the curtain’s down, and this music starts playing on the playback, and all of a sudden, I hear a count-off, and I look over at Clay Cook with the biggest panic look on my face I’ve ever had, and he saw that I didn’t know that I actually had to play. So he’s calling out chords to me real quick. I was able to fake my way through it, but I thought, ‘What a terrible way to start a new job.'” It didn’t take him long to catch on.

“I didn’t have to sit down and learn most of the songs, because I had already internalized them,” says Zac Brown Band bassist Matt Mangano of joining the band in 2013.

From what Mangano tells me, it doesn’t like much of a job at all—at least in the traditional sense of the word. It’s more like a never-ending party. In 2015, Mangano made his official full-album debut on Jekyll + Hyde, which promptly hit No.1 on the Billboard charts. Mangano describes the album as one that brought the band “pretty far into the electronic world.” In other words, as opposed to say, The Foundation, it’s much more slickly produced and featured actual, bonafide, hard-driving rock songs on it, including “Heavy Is the Head,” recorded with the late Chris Cornell on co-lead vocals. What followed two years later was Welcome Home, which Mangano says was an effort by the band to strip things back down again. “We didn’t do any pre-production for that album,” says Mangano. “[Producer Dave Cobb] wanted us to save it for the studio, so he could capture that initial spark.” Clearly, they hit the nail on the head, as the album peaked at No.2 on the Billboard 200 and scored a No.1 record on the country charts.

The band is still touring in support of Welcome Home, and well, it just so happens that the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) will be welcoming ZBB on Saturday, September 29 (unfortunately, I have a conflict that night; I’ll be at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall catching The Weepies, whom I profiled in the “Best Of Everything” issue of saratoga living). For those of you who’ll be at SPAC, know that at least one of the members of ZBB—you guessed it, Mangano—is a Saratoga Springs superfan. “What’s your favorite part of visiting Saratoga?” I ask him. “All of it,” says Mangano. (Good man.) He loves the running trails in the Saratoga Spa State Park, but especially, the mineral water springs, where you can enjoy a good long pull all day, every day. Then he gets a little bit serious. It’s story time. “In 2014, we were in Toronto, and I used to ride a bicycle on the road, and I had a bike wreck in which I dislocated my left ring finger,” he says. “As a bass player, you need that one,” he deadpans. He got rushed to the emergency room and soon found himself in a world of hurt. “So, the next night, we had to go to Saratoga Springs,* and I was determined to get out ahead of this thing,” he says, going out for a run before the show to get some exercise in, possible-second-injury-be-damned. He got to the top of the running trail and found himself in front of one of the park’s springs. He read the literature on the sign next to it. And then this: “I took my injured hand and ran it under this ice-cold water for about ten minutes, and I swear to you, that if it was not for that water, I would not have been able to play that show that night,” says Mangano. “For me, it was a pretty magical experience, so every time I go back now, I try to find the magic again.”

I’ve got to say, I’ve been waiting my entire life to hear a first-person account like that one. In fact, that’s the first time someone has ever told this native Saratogian that Saratoga’s water actually healed him. And now I’m truly convinced. But something I certainly did believe this entire time? That Saratoga’s a magical place. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing an open mic night at Caffè Lena or in a cover band at Gaffney’s or headlining SPAC, trust me, you’ll feel it.

*According to the band’s publicity house’s website at the time, ZBB went from Toronto to Darien Center, NY, and then to Saratoga.

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