Radio Bristol is proud to offer a platform to local and regional artists who are often underrepresented on a national level yet deserving of that audience. In expanding upon Radio Bristol’s core mission, we are pleased to bring you our latest series – Radio Bristol Spotlight – highlighting top emerging artists in our region. Through interviews and performances, we will learn more about the musicians who help to make Southern Appalachia one of the richest and most unique musical landscapes in the world.
For today’s installment of Radio Bristol Spotlight we caught up with 19-year-old Zach McNabb, a musician who can turn out classic country covers with astounding precision. He joined us in-studio accompanied by his 17-year-old brother Caleb and Radio Bristol DJ Bailey George on guitar. Zach’s stunning gift for recreating the musical past has been gaining him fans both regionally, where he plays festivals and performs regularly at Gatlinburg’s Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales, as well as internationally where he’s played on live streams for German Rock-a-Billy savant Randy Richter.
While at Radio Bristol, Zach and his band The Tennessee Esquires offered a handful of marvelous renditions of time-honored hits such as Johnny Cash’s popular tunes “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Get Rhythm,” and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me.” Zach also gave insight into his passion for playing early country music, a trait rare in the growing Gen Z age of “digital natives” who are generally more familiar with putting their fingers to screens than to steel strings.
Zach McNabb shot in the Big Tone Records studio. Photo courtesy Travis Stevenson
The talented teen grew up just outside of Johnson City in Carter County, Tennessee, and began showing an interest in music at an early age. Picking up the guitar at eight years old, McNabb was introduced to Johnny Cash by his guitar teacher who recognized that he had a natural inclination towards country-sounding rhythm. Homeschooled in rural Tennessee with his four siblings and raised by a supportive family whose history is steeped in Southern gospel, it begins to make sense why the young musician gravitated towards country music. McNabb later offered asides about his musical family – both parents play at Sunday worship services, and his Baptist preacher Paw-Paw is infamous for carting around cardboard boxes in the trunk of his car, all full of self-released gospel CDs to hand out after prayer meetings.
With extra time on their hands due to learning at home, both Zach and his younger brother Caleb dedicated themselves to focusing on their musical technique. Zach absorbed full songs to play and sing, and Caleb studied the classical violin from the age of five and transcribed that knowledge to the stand-up bass he now plays to accompany his brother. The two began “playing out” at music venues around the area at just 15 and 13 years old. They also attended the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s Pick Along Summer Camp, where Zach says the scope of his interest in early country music was greatly broadened. He also made connections with other musicians with similar interests, such as bandleader and performer on the Farm and Fun Time Noon Show Kody Norris, for whom Zach has manned merch tables at music festivals.
In 2019 McNabb released his first album from Big Tone Records, the Bristol-based, vintage-gear-focused studio. Complete with 1950s slapback echo, McNabb’s seamless vocal performance is remarkably unique, blending influences from classic country and bluegrass singers, reminiscent of singers like Jimmy Skinner and Hank Snow.
Zach McNabb and The Tennessee Esquires’ version of “Wreck of the Old 97,” recorded live to tape at Big Tone Records.
Looking towards the future, Zach currently attends college at Northeast State where he is studying entertainment technology with the hope of applying what he learns to live performances and expanding his breadth of recording techniques for future releases. McNabb shows a true dedication to his artistic vision and stated that one of the things that draws him most to country music is the “honesty and rawness of it.” He feels it’s a type of music that’s easy to connect to, with straightforward empathetic storytelling centered on real-life events. He also enjoys that performances connect families and friends, bringing people together to hear live music.
Before leaving the studio, we filmed Zach and his band’s rendition of “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” a tune that has become synonymous with American traditional music and has been recorded by countless artists. Zach revealed that his version is heavily influenced by Carl Perkin’s 1958 recording of the song, and we know you all will enjoy hearing it performed by this amazing artist on the rise!
Zach McNabb and The Tennessee Esquires performing “Sittin’ on Top of the World” at Radio Bristol.
Ella Patrick is a Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. She also hosts Folk Yeah! on Radio Bristol and is a performing musician as Momma Molasses.