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Zac Brown Stands His ‘Ground’ on Putting Fans First

Debra L. Rothenberg, FilmMagic

Zac Brown Band concerts have always been about more than just great live music. Frontman Zac is as talented behind a stove as he is behind a microphone and combines his two loves with ‘Eat and Greets,’ serving lucky fans with huge buffets of scrumptious southern fare, most of which are his own recipes, before every show.

Making their famous Eat and Greets even meatier, the reigning CMA New Artist of the Year has teamed up with Landshark and Jack Daniel’s to take their pre-concert tradition to a whole new level. This weekend, Oct. 21 – 23, they’re hosting the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival in Charleston, S.C., boasting a diverse lineup of talent both on the stage and in the kitchen. In addition to performances by more than 30 acts from the country, rock, pop and bluegrass worlds, the three-day event also features cuisine by James Beard Foundation award-winning chefs. (For you non-foodies, that’s like winning a Grammy for your cooking.)

The Boot talked to Zac about how he personally designed the entire event. We also got the sweet story behind the band’s latest single and video, along with some inside scoop on the next ZBB album. And turning to his other job as a music mogul, we pick the Georgia native’s brain on the must-have criteria for those joining him on his latest musical venture, a new record label.

How did you come up with the concept for the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival?

As a fan, my dream would be to be right up there on stage with an act … Someone would bring me a four-course meal with some really good Napa wine and beer, and I’d be able to watch the show from right there. We created that with these front-porch stage boxes; it’s been an idea I’ve had for a number of years. We had them all fabricated and specially made — it’s really the first major unveiling of these things. Aside from that, we’ve got some James Beard award-winning chefs cooking with Chef Rusty to provide concessions. It’s a full-sensory experience, not just the amazing bands and music. It’s a foodie festival, as well. Gourmet food. I have a chance to show our fans the level of hospitality that we want to give them, to show them we pay attention to those kind of details.

Buy Southern Ground Music & Food Festival tickets here.

Any recipe on the menu that you’re particularly excited about?

We have a rub that I created back when I had my restaurant. It’s a really thin, fresh-sliced filet. We got whole-beef tenderloins. We don’t cut corners with our food, we trim those up daily and grill them in a special grill that has a fan in it that helps get [the meat] up to 700 or 800 degrees. Little things like that. You have to caramelize the outside of the food to get it to the next level. But the beef filet, pork tenderloin — the brown sauce on the top of it — I’ve been working on it for a long time. There’s going to be all kinds of creations between all the chefs who are coming. It’s like a big ‘Iron Chef’ festival.

You’re performing with Zac Brown Band all three nights, headlining a bill that’s really eclectic — everyone from My Morning Jacket to Del McCoury. How’d you decide who to invite to the Southern Ground stage?

We wanted it to be diverse. If you are a music lover and you come with open ears, you’re gonna hear a bunch of stuff you’ve never heard before and hopefully you’ll leave a fan.

How did Charleston get so lucky?

Charleston is a beautiful city in the fall. It’s just a great place to be. It’s a destination city, so hopefully people can come and stay all weekend. People are gonna have to take a chance on it the first time, people who don’t know about it. We put so much love and care into putting it together, we really feel like it’s well worth your money and people will leave inspired with your bellies full.

Another beautiful setting to which you guys are partial is Colorado’s Red Rocks Ampitheatre. It’s where you filmed a live show for The Boot last year and where you recently filmed your ‘Keep Me in Mind’ video. How’d you come up with the idea to show the ins and outs of a live show for that song’s official video?

It’s important that people come see our show, because we are performers. We wanted people to see that. We filmed last year at Red Rocks and got a helicopter and actually flew over and got some amazing footage and put all that beautiful stuff together. We had two days of time-lapse [photography]. The majesty of that place and the energy of our live show and the crowd is amazing. It’s my favorite video we’ve made so far.

What’s the story behind the song’s lyrics? Melodically, it’s such a happy song, yet you kinda feel bad for the guy!

My songwriting partner, Wyatt Durrette — the girl he is in love with and dating right now wasn’t available when he first met her, but he knew there was something special there. So that was how it got started. Wyatt and I started working on the song for awhile, and then Nic Cowan had written part of a song and played it for me and I was like, “That’s the bridge for ‘Keep Me in Mind.’” So there’s three of us on that song. It just fit. We didn’t rush anything. It felt good.

Nic is one of the artists on your own record label, Southern Ground Artists, along with Levi Lowrey, Sonia Leigh, the Wood Brothers and Blackberry Smoke. Besides the Georgia connection that all of you have, what was the “it” factor you looked for when signing musicians?

I’ve seen all of them many times, and they’re not just good, they are great. They write their own music, play and perform well and know the road. To be a Southern Ground artist, you have to be a lifer. It’s not about winning a karaoke contest or a television show to become famous. It’s about really paying your dues. It’s people I’m fans of and want to help in the business. It’s our music family, our own musical movement. I love to be part of something way bigger than the Zac Brown Band — to be a part of a movement of music like Stax Records back in the day, or like Motown. Whenever I find someone who is supremely talented and have all the other stuff that goes with it, that’s the only way to be a Southern Ground artist.

Congrats on your eight ACA nominations, announced just last week. Where were you when you heard the news?

I was in the car. Somebody said, “Really? You woke up to that?” No, I didn’t even know. It’s an honor.

The ACAs are fan-voted, while the CMAs — at which you’re up for five trophies this year — are industry-voted. Is it a different feeling, getting an award from the fans versus one from industry peers?

They both mean a lot to us. It’s nice to get one from our peers and from all the people in country music, but also from the fans. They’re both great. We’re equally grateful.

Your latest album, ‘You Get What You Give,’ has a lot of life left in it. But knowing how often you write, you’re probably already done with your next one. Can you let us in on where you are in the process of making a new album?

We’re working on songs and finishing up this next record. We’re going into arrangements in November. In our sets, we’ve been playing a song called ‘Sweet Annie’ that’s going to be on the record. There will be some cool collaborations on this record, as well. We’re excited about this album … to get back out there and do it all over again.

Most of the time, an artist has to get to a certain point before a record label will let them decide on their own what should be the radio singles from an album. How does it work with you and Atlantic Records?

I choose the singles. They believe in me enough that I know my fans and know what’s next. I’ve chosen all the singles we’ve put out so far. There is an art to it. Working with Atlantic, they try to tell me to do my thing … we do our thing. We’re really blessed that we’ve been as well received as we have been. We thank The Boot and everybody for being the support system for us and keeping us connected to the fans. It’s very much appreciated.

Watch Zac Brown Band Live in Our Studio
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