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Zac Brown Band’s Music & Food Festival Christens Nashville’s Riverfront as ‘Southern Ground’

Erika Goldring, Getty Images

Zac Brown hit the perfect notes both aurally and orally Saturday night during the second night of his Southern Ground Music and Food Festival down on the newly-renovated Great Lawn at Nashville’s Riverfront Park. Southern hospitality was in as much abundance as the Jack Daniels during the two-day festival for foodies and music fans that drew 12,000 people to the stages to hear Zac, John Mayer, Dwight Yoakam, Sheryl Crow, Gregg Allman, and plenty more during the all-star jam-style show.

Saturday’s events kicked off in the early afternoon with Holly Williams, Los Lonely Boys, the Lumineers, and several other artists performing as 250 seat holders in the special stage boxes began to take their places at the side of the stage. Food was as key to this event as guitars, so Zac, a former restaurant owner and chef himself, ensured that the meal was every bit as special as the musical experience. Lucky attendants were served a delectable gourmet meal that included smoked hog belly with barbequed green peanuts and cornbread pudding, Georgia coast rock shrimp cakes with peach relish, Bear Creek farm ribeye with pastrami braised cabbage, butterball potatoes, pan-seared Baramundi filet with buttered young beets, and melt-in-your-mouth chocolate peanut butter biscuit pudding. Mechanical dumb waiters installed under the seat risers ensured the food reached its recipients onstage piping hot, and those not lucky enough to score the box spots could find plenty to satisfy at the local food trucks that lined the sides of the festival along with the shop vendors selling incense, T-shirts and all other sorts of wares.

At dusk, British hitmaker David Gray took the stage to perform his huge, genre-defying hits including “Fugitive,” “One I Love” and “Babylon,” followed by Southern Ground’s own Blackberry Smoke, who heated up the alternate stage with their southern fried, amped-up rock. The celeb-fest also included actor/Tennessee native Anson Mount, the star of AMC’s new show “Hell On Wheels,” who took the stage to greet the crowd and recalled his memories of the area and how much the Riverfront has changed since he grew up nearby.

By the time Zac and co. hit the stage, the crowd was primed and ready for the unbelievable jam that lay ahead. Kicking off the party with the title track of their latest CD, “Uncaged,” they rolled through hits like “Toes” and the island-vibed “Jump Right In,” before Zac acknowledged Jack Daniels, whose presence was everywhere, (including at the foot of the stage.) “We’d like to say thank you to Jack Daniels, the biggest, baddest whiskey in the world,” said Zac, acknowledging the Tennessee sponsor. In a touching moment before launching into the sweet, poignant “Highway 20 Ride,” Zac wished his father a happy birthday from the stage, and his dad came out at song’s end to give him a proud shoulder shake. The family love continued throughout the night, with John Mayer stepping out to perform with his old buddy Clay Cook and the rest of the guys on his hit “Neon” (which he and Clay wrote together), as well as tons of ZBB hits throughout the course of the evening. On strict vocal rest as he recovers from vocal cord surgery, John may not have had a voice but his guitar work did the talking for him throughout the night, shimmering brightly and adding another brilliant layer to the band’s seamlessly woven fabric.

The festival’s cool factor continued to rise with each successive guest, from Sheryl Crow’s vibey, acoustic jam on “Every Day Is A Winding Road,” and “Love the One You’re With,” to the straight-up rockabilly cool of Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast As You.” A wildly fun run through that tune with John, Zac and the boys prompted a delighted Dwight to comment, “That got a little psychedelic,” laughing. Sarah Dugas of the duo Dugas smoldered through a sultry Cajun-tinged version of “Bring It on Home” with Amos Lee, another of the festival performers, and things just cranked higher and higher from there as Gregg Allman finally took the stage to run through a bevy of smoking hits in the final hour of the music-packed event.

Erika Goldring, Getty Images

“Thanks for making this dream a reality for us by the river in Nashville,” Zac commented to the packed crowd at one point. “It’s a gorgeous night! We hope you all have enjoyed it as much as we have!”

The band was clearly in their wheelhouse on stage mashing up their own hits with songs like “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Feeling Alright,” and dozens more in the cool night air for the adoring crowd of fans, and they feel like the festival is a perfect amalgamation of all that is the Zac Brown Band. “It’s kind of like everything we do all balled up into one big, amazing kind of two-day show,” ZBB’s Coy Bowles explains to The Boot. “We have eat-and-greets when we’re on the road, so it’s kind of like an overblown eat-and-greet, and we have people coming in and sitting in with us and opening bands that are part of our record label Southern Ground records, and this is kind of taking the friends the we have sitting in with us and like David Gray and Amos Lee and these guys having their own performances too, and a lot of the guys from the record label can play with us as well. So it’s kind of like everything we do balled up into one big, huge thing!”

Though this is only the second year of the festival, and the first for Nashville, the band definitely hopes to expand it into other areas in years to come. “That’s the goal is to get to about ten a year,” says ZBB’s Jimmy De Martini. “We’re adding one a year right now, and it seems like maybe we could try an extra two next year and that would make four. But you want to do it when the weather’s nice, you know, like it is right now. It’s perfect!”

“It’d be great if we could do this all the time,” John Driskell Hopkins adds. “If this could be our main touring rig and then do some special event stuff on the side and just have one of these every time we go out, it’d be awesome!”

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