A Chat With Mandolinist Zach Wooten

Today I have the pleasure of getting to chat with mandolinist for the Mississippi-based bluegrass band Breaking Grass. Zach, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

My name is Zach Wooten. My wife and I make our home in Belmont, MS. By trade, I am a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant and work at a local hospital rehab department.  I also play mandolin for Breaking Grass and have held the position for the past 12 years along side of Cody Farrar, Tyler White, Britt Sheffield and Jody Elmore. We are based out of Booneville, MS. A town about 20 miles from where I live in Belmont. 

JED: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path?

My musical beginnings began when I was a small child growing up in church and watching my mother play piano for our services.  I have always been drawn to music and began taking piano lessons from a local music teacher, Georgia Lee, around age 7. She’s the pianist at a local Baptist church. A few years later I picked up guitar and slowly transitioned over to mandolin around age 11 and began playing with a local band composed of kids around my age.  Music was always one of those things that came easily to me. I was always harmonizing with other artists on the radio in the car and quickly found myself attempting to learn the mandolin breaks from the legends such as Doyle Lawson, Adam Steffey and even some of the newer artists such as Sierra Hull. While in Junior High, I briefly tried the school sports thing and quickly found out that music was definitely my gift and decided to focus solely on that. It must have been the right choice being that I’m still doing it 12 years later. 

JED: What are your favorite 5 albums, and do they influence your work? If so, in what ways?

My top 5 favorite albums are;

  • Sierra Hull – Secrets
  • Alison Kraus & Union Station – So Long So Wrong 
  • Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain – CHHR2
  • Cadillac Sky – Blind Man Walking
  • Jason Davis – Second Time Around 

All of these albums have affected my playing in one way or another for different reasons, but I’ll reference Sierra’s.  She and I are relatively the same age and her breakthrough album was released just a couple years after I had decided to take things seriously music wise.  It was so incredibly motivating to see someone my age be so good and so edgy with their instrumentation and it really drove me to play more, cleaner, and to be the absolute best I could be at my craft. To this day I still play that album when I’m driving and could probably repeat the order of the songs on the cover from listening to it so much. 

JED: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?

I really enjoy the live performing side of the music business. I love the interactions with fans and getting to meet and visit with the people that are out driving the distance, paying for tickets, and taking the time to stand in line at the CD table following the show just to say hi and get you to sign something for them to take home and keep. They are the dedicated one’s that we do this for.  Music is a personal thing that you are connected with and being able to share that love with others and see the enjoyment on their faces as they sing the lyrics word for word makes the long hours and miles traveled worth it.

JED: What are three musicians today do you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?

Aaron Ramsey – Aaron is a well known musician within our industry. His work with Mountain Heart over the years has been phenomenal and inspiring to watch/listen to. It wasn’t until working with him through Mountain Fever that I truly began to notice and appreciate his abilities. His take on music amazes me every time I get the pleasure of sitting in on a tracking session with him.

Tyler White and Cody Farrar have been bandmasters of mine for many years now. We have all grown up together in this industry and have each influenced one another in one way or another. Cody, in my opinion, is one of the best story tellers in the songwriting business. His ability to paint a picture in the listeners mind through song lyrics is a true gift from above. A lot of times, I feel like the songwriter gets forgotten and that is so disappointing because without the writer, there would be no song to put music too. They are just as important as the musicians who play the music.  Tyler has been like a brother to me for over half of my life. A lot of times people refer to us as “tick and tock” because our mandolin and fiddle chops are essentially identical. We feed off of each other and he has really helped me become a better musician. He plays with so much feeling and purpose. It really shows through in his playing, especially on those slower, more intimate songs.

JED: Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.?

Each of us in Breaking Grass use wireless instrumentation with some using Fishman EQ’s. We believe that the freedom to move around and interact with each other during the performance adds another degree of showmanship to the set along with playing and singing. It allows for the crowd to interact with us and vice versa. We spend a lot of time working on stage performance to make sure we give the audience what they buy tickets for; to be entertained.

JED: If you were given a $100,000 budget to record your “dream album,” what would it look like?

A portion of the funds would be placed toward media and pre, intra, and post release advertising to ensure that the album reached all of the music lovers ears in some form.  Graphics and photography would be addressed to be more fitting and appropriate for the release. I would like to do some more collaborative work with other artists such as Krauss or Stapleton. It would be so cool to be able to share a mic with those guys! They are staples in our industry. 

JED: What is your favorite album or recording that you’ve made to date?

My favorite album to be a part of would be Breaking Grass’ latest release “Cold.” I believe that it is our best project to date and really shows how we have each grown as musicians and singers alike.  There are some cool effects added to this album that make it unique to our previous releases. We had a great time recording this at the “Friendly Forrest” in Nashville and I love seeing how all of the different opinions and ideas during the tracking process came together to make this release happen!

JED: What are you currently working on?

We are currently writing and working on new material for our next release along with continued work on our stage presence, performance, and instrumentation. We are always working to make sure our next touring year is better than the previous. 

JED: Where can folks keep up with you online?

At the Breaking Grass website and Instagram page.

JED: Zach thank you for taking the time to join us and tell us a little bit about yourself. Best of luck to you and the Breaking Grass crew!