Nashville Pros

Fateful Meetings, Second Chances
Zac Brown Band bassist Matt Mangano ’00
Zac Brown Band bassist Matt Mangano ’00
Southern Reel

In Boston for three concerts at Fenway Park with the Zac Brown Band (ZBB) in August, Nashville resident Matt Mangano ’00 stopped by Berklee’s Bass Department to meet with students. Bass Professor Danny Morris moderated a clinic in which Mangano told the kids, “I loved my time here,” as he described his path from music student to bassist and latest addition to the platinum-selling, multi-award winning ZBB.

“I’ve been making a list of the people I met here,” Mangano says. “It incudes Clay Cook ’98 [of the ZBB], John Mayer ’98, Casey Driessen ’00 [fiddler], Mark Kelley ’03 [bassist for the Roots], and others.”

Fateful introductions to future stars began right away. “During my first semester, a girl in our dorm told me, ‘I don’t know why, but think you need to meet these two guys,’” Mangano recalls. She took him to her room to meet fellow students Mayer and Cook. They were already writing songs together and playing under the moniker Lo-Fi Masters. Soon, Mangano was supplying bass lines for the Lo-Fi Masters, and later engineered demos for Mayer in an unsanctioned closet studio hidden in their 150 Mass. Ave. dorm room. When Mayer and Cook decided to leave school and head to Atlanta, they asked Mangano to go with them. “I struggled with the decision because I loved the music they were making, ” Mangano says. “But I felt a duty to finish my studies and decided to stay at Berklee.”

After graduating in 2000 with a degree in Professional Music, Mangano joined Mayer and Cook in Atlanta. He began interning at a studio and playing clubs with various acts when he met a young Zac Brown. “One night while the band was on a break,” says Mangano, “a guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey man, I like your playing. My name is Zac. Would you like to come out and play with us?’ So I started driving out to Carrollton, GA, to play some bar gigs with him.”

Meanwhile, Mayer had signed a contract with Columbia Records, and was struggling to find the right guitarist for his band’s first North American tour. “We were sitting around John’s apartment playing his songs [with two guitars], when he said, ‘Why don’t you be the guitar player in my band? You know these songs.’ I’m a bassist, but I said I’d do it because it seemed like something I couldn’t turn down. I had an electric guitar, but I had to go and buy an amp and pedals. It was a huge learning experience.”

After the tour, Mangano decided to leave the band. “The scene wasn’t for me,” he says. “We were on a tour bus and there was a lot of excitement every night. I wasn’t taking care of myself physically and wasn’t getting enough sleep.” Later, in a chance encounter, Mangano’s former Berklee roommate, Mark Kelley, chastised Mangano for neglecting his bass playing. Duly noted.

Mangano made his mind up to move to Nashville. At that time, Zac Brown—who was based in Atlanta— was beginning to gain traction with his career and asked Mangano to go on the road with him. “I respectfully declined, I told him I felt I needed to go to Nashville,” Mangano says. “He told me, ‘One day I’ll get you to come work for me.’” In Nashville, Mangano dusted off his bass and also worked as a recording engineer.

Fast forward to 2009, and Zac Brown’s Band and Southern Ground record label are in full flight, Brown has signed three artists and plans to record their albums in Nashville. He hadn’t forgotten Mangano and called him to play on the sessions. In 2011, Mangano helped Brown establish the new Southern Ground studio in Nashville and began spending 16-hour days working on a range of projects.

When ZBB bassist John Driskell Hopkins switched from bassist to multi-instrumentalist, Oteil Burnbridge was to fill the bass chair. “But it didn’t work out,” says Mangano. “Zac called and asked if I wanted to join the band. I said, ‘Let me talk it over with my wife.’ I almost said no again, and then someone slapped some sense into me.” A ZBB member since April 2014, Mangano played on every track of 2015’s Jekyll + Hyde album and was the record’s production coordinator. He’s loving every aspect of the gig—even the touring.

“The band is on a great trajectory,” says Mangano. “Stylistically, the music is more diverse than it’s ever been.” True. The new album features country, bluegrass, pop, hard rock, and even a swing tune. Guest artists with the band at Fenway included Berklee’s Gospel Choir and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. Top artists frequently show up at ZBB shows. “You don’t get many second chances,” Mangano says with a grin. Indeed. For most, chances like this come less than once in a lifetime.