Grammy-winning songwriter Zac Brown may be known best for his heartfelt songs, country-rock style, and rapid-fire acoustic guitar solos, but he's making his mark this year as a proponent of traditional Southern cooking and culture.
"Both sides of my family cooked a lot," says Brown, who grew up in the northeast Georgia town of Dahlonega. "My grandparents on both sides were canners, and they canned peach preserves, fig preserves, candied sweet potatoes, and apple butter. They'd make homemade fried pies and salted hides and meats. It was the old-time putting-your-food-up thing."
Brown has been a dedicated foodie for quite a while. In 2004, he opened a music club and restaurant called Zac's Place with his father near Lake Oconee (northeast of Atlanta). He also released his own cookbook titled Southern Ground. So it's natural for authentic country victuals and Southern cuisine to play a major role in Brown's new concert venture, the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival. The name refers to Brown's record label, Southern Ground Artists, which he launched in 2009.
"When I was growing up, you worked with what you got, whether it was salting it, dehydrating it, or whatever — even if was just shucking corn and putting the kernels in freezer bags for later," says Brown. "Some of that plays into this event as well."
This weekend, he brings his cleverly arranged multimedia festival to Daniel Island. It's three full evenings of live rock, country, and alternative pop with a massive menu of award-winning fare. "This is something that's still evolving, and we're always figuring out new things," Brown says of the festival. "We want to be able to roll in deep enough to be in a field and provide all the food, beverages, staging, and music for everyone."
The Zac Brown Band will be the headlining act for all three nights of the festival. The group's 2009 smash album The Foundation featured the foot-stomping, chart-topping single "Chicken Fried." The disc sold more than a million copies. Their latest album, 2010's You Get What You Give, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold millions as well. The album earned rave reviews and snagged the 2010 Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
In his typical, non-showbiz, down-to-earth manner, Brown respectfully shrugs off the Grammy and the accolades. Instead, he prefers to express his gratitude to his listeners and supporters.
"This is the flagship rollout of hospitality for our fans," says Brown. "This festival is really all about super-serving the fans," he says. "It's providing three days of music and three days of food with the full sensory experience. We're doing our front-porch stage boxes where 200 people who sit on the stage with us for the nighttime sets have their own tables and servers. We've figured out new ways to present the food in a way where people and servers aren't walking by with plates and everything. I've tried to be as crafty as possible in putting this festival together."
For a ticket price of $275 per seat, the Porch Stage boxes feature elevated, stage-level seating, private restrooms, free booze, and a four-course gourmet meal.
Those servers he mentions will carefully handle a wild variety of traditional and contemporary cuisine. Some specialty dishes and sides will come from Southern Ground Executive Chef Rusty Hamlin. Three James Beard Award winners — RJ Cooper of Rogue 24 in Washington, D.C., Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's, and Mike Lata of FIG — will also be on hand to prepare their specialties.
"Those chefs have figured out how to bring their own flavor and flair to the food at this event," says Brown. "The sounds, aromas, and setting at this will be like a perfect storm."
Additional food and drinks will be available from Cookie, Brown's customized tractor trailer mobile kitchen. Look for Brown's famous Southern Ground Grub, Georgia Clay Spice Rub, and his own Brown Sauce.
"One thing about the South is that people do gather around food," says Brown. "Sometimes, people forget how powerful a thing that food is. We're musicians, and we've dedicated our lives to writing songs and playing, but we want to dedicate ourselves to the food as well."
This big festival isn't a new thing. The Zac Brown Band has already curated Southern Ground Music & Food Festival in a few other cities over the last two years.
"This is the full presentation of it, not the test running," Brown says. "The duct tape is off of it."
The bandleader is certainly more concerned about the audience's overall experience at the festival than his own band's performance. He emphasizes their intentions to create a welcoming, easy-going, great-sounding atmosphere.
There's a keen sense of inclusion and camaraderie to the music side of the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival. The impressive roster doesn't necessarily resemble the twangy country/Americana style the Zac Brown Band has championed. It's a cool variety of acts, including My Morning Jacket, Train, Eric Church, Fitz and the Tantrums, and the Warren Haynes Band.
Unlike some of the self-important celebrities from the country music world, Brown's not too full of himself. He vows he won't be dodging fans or well-wishers by hiding out like a rock star in his big tour bus for three evenings. He and his bandmates plan to mingle, eat, drink, and get down with everyone on the field and in the stands.
"We'll be hangin', watching the other bands, eating the food, and being in it with them," Brown says.
Among the more innovative aspects of the festival are the custom-designed video projection screen and the band's new P.A. system. Brown claims a listener at the back of the field will be able to hear the music at the same tone and volume levels as one standing 50 feet from the stage.
Such planning, designing, and production is an awful lot of extra work for a popular musical artist on a national tour. For Brown, it's like working three full-time jobs simultaneously. But he was inspired by some of his favorite major music festivals and was determined to put his spin on it all.
"I've tried to learn from every concert and festival I've been to," he says. "I've tried to look at the presentation and go from that. Going to MerleFest [in N.C.] when I was younger with my brother, I noticed they always had great food tents with local vendors. The way the stage worked at MerleFest gave me a lot of insight in how to occupy an audience while you're having a changeover."
Outside of the South, Brown took cues from another popular festival in the Rocky Mountains.
"The Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado was great in the way the front-of-house stage was on one side, and all the recycling was right next to that, and all the food wrapped around in a circle," he says. "You could watch the show, take a break and grab some food, and then get right back into the music."
Brown's main goal with the Southern Ground Festival is to create an overall experience that gives his fans more than they expected.
"We want to be known for blowing people away," he says. "I want our audience to enjoy food and music that exceeds their expectations."