When the Zac Brown Band kicks off the second helping of the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival this weekend, there will be plenty of “Chicken Fried” to go around, but no cold beer on a Friday night.
After last year’s inaugural three-day event, Brown and his team decided to refocus their energies on a two-day festival, offering full days of music on Saturday and Sunday. They also launched a second Southern Ground weekend in Nashville in September.
In addition to a full roster of performers, the Nashville event drew sit-in appearances with the Zac Brown Band from Gregg Allman and John Mayer, both of whom have committed to reprising their guest roles in Charleston.
“We don’t really have a formula for who plays,” said Zac Brown Band multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook. “We just say, ‘We’re big fans of these guys. Let’s see if they’re off that weekend and want to come play.’
“It’s basically just a big old party that we’re throwing, and everybody’s invited.”
Cook’s relationship with Mayer goes back to their teenage years, when the pair comprised the Atlanta duo Lo-Fi Masters before Mayer went on to solo fame and Cook joined the Marshall Tucker Band.
“I guess you could say that we learned how to write songs together,” said Cook, whose relationship with Mayer as a bandmate ended by the time they were 20. “It’s one of those things that never really got to see its distance.”
Fifteen years later, the relationship has come full circle, with Mayer now sharing a much larger stage with his successful former bandmate.
Over the course of the weekend, they’ll be joined at Blackbaud Stadium by The Avett Brothers, The Wailers, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Jerry Douglas, JJ Grey & Mofro, Los Lonely Boys and the Charlie Daniels Band.
Each night will culminate with a long set from the Zac Brown Band, calling upon many of their friends to punctuate the group’s blend of hits and varied covers.
“We’ve completely retooled and changed it since the last time we were there,” Cook said, emphasizing the band’s diverse influences in building the festival lineup.
Although it’s most often regarded as a country band, garnering dozens of award nominations from the various country music associations, as well as the 2010 Grammy for Best New Artist, the Zac Brown Band is just as likely to cover Pink Floyd or Widespread Panic as it is George Jones.
On the 2012 studio release “Uncaged,” Brown even shares songwriting credits with pop rocker Jason Mraz and Mac McAnally of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. Songwriter Amos Lee and New Orleans’ star Trombone Shorty make appearances on the disc.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, we get classified in the country genre, and in that realm, there’s a lot of acts with a stage show going on — some groups even have backup dancers,” Cook said. “We’re really not anything like that. We’re a real band, very much like The Allman Brothers Band, in that we write our own music and play with our own musicians and instruments on our records. There aren’t too many national acts who do that nowadays.
“We’re in this country music thing, but we’re nothing like anyone else in it, so if we have fans who happen to know us by listening to country music radio, we also want to turn them on to something else that’s cool, like bringing out legends like Gregg Allman or one of the greatest guitarists of our generation in John Mayer.”
Since its inception, the Zac Brown Band has maintained a do-it-yourself streak of self-sufficiency, beginning with the formation of its own record label, Home Grown, before the release of the 2004 debut, “Far From Einstyne.”
Brown’s band was recruited largely through friends and connections around the Atlanta area, growing organically from regular appearances at The Windjammer in the mid-2000s to the headlining act they are today.
Home Grown became Southern Ground Records in 2011, and many of the artists performing this weekend benefit from their spot on the roster, including The Wood Brothers and The Wheeler Boys. Other acts such as Nic Cowan, Sonia Leigh and Levi Lowrey are not only performers but share songwriting credits on many of the tracks on “Uncaged.”
Southern rock band Blackberry Smoke first encountered Brown seven years ago, when both groups landed a spot on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s annual cruise.
“There was a lot of mutual respect and admiration, sort of a, ‘We love you guys. Let’s hug,’ feeling right off the bat,” recalls Blackberry Smoke singer-guitarist Charlie Starr. “Zac is just a big-hearted guy who loves music and loves to do things to help people that he cares about.”
After a few “indie label disasters” of its own, Blackberry Smoke found itself dealing with crumbling label representation in the wake of 2009’s “Little Piece of Dixie.”
“Long story short, it ended sadly with the label’s part owner going to prison. Sometimes the business of music can make it so much more complicated than it should be,” Starr said.
“We were dusting ourselves off from the last label implosion and Zac said, ‘Hey, man, you guys are free. If you want a home, I’ve got one for you.’ We said, ‘Thank you very much, friend.’ And that was it.”
Since joining Southern Ground, Blackberry Smoke has built its reputation as a new beacon of the Georgia rock sound led by groups like The Black Crowes, releasing its latest studio album, “The Whippoorwill,” in August.
After 12 years of touring, Starr lauds Brown’s willingness to let them make music their own way.
“He said, ‘I love what you guys do and I don’t want to change it. We want to grow it, and don’t let me stand in your way,’ ” Starr recalls, adding, “It’s not like we’re going to him asking for a billion dollars to buy a jet.”
Brown contributed to the production of “The Whippoorwill” although his reactions were so positive to the 17 songs the group recorded that it remained Starr’s task to whittle them down to a dozen.
Although many of the Southern Ground artists hail from Georgia, Starr laments that the scene doesn’t possess the solidarity that the Macon/Atlanta-based heyday of Southern rock in the ’70s did.
“At some point, the music went in all different directions, so that now there’s a lot of hip-hop, R&B and punk,” Starr explains, adding that Blackberry Smoke did recently collaborate with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes, a friendship that dates back over a decade.
“When we were first forming, there were still a couple of after-hours spots in Atlanta bars where you could ... stay up all night and form every dream band that you could think of by daylight.”
As a Southern rock musician, Starr laments Hollywood portrayals of the region where “it’s all pickup trucks, people spitting tobacco and Nicolas Cage with a horrible Southern accent.”
Starr sees the Lowcountry as a perfect spot to showcase the best in Southern music, saying, “It’s cities like Charleston that make the South so amazing.”
Brown’s plans for the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival include moving into multiple markets, but Charleston will always have the distinction of hosting the first. That’s thanks in part to the enduring draw of the College of Charleston.
Will Ward, a 1993 C of C graduate, went on to represent country singers and Hollywood stars, including Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffman, before forming his company, ROAR Entertainment.
Ward signed Brown when he was still playing small clubs, helping launch the inaugural Southern Ground Festival last year.
Brown’s popularity at The Windjammer also helped, as did Charleston’s growing reputation as a food destination.
Billed as a festival of music and food, ticketing options for Southern Ground include the opportunity to sit at stage level and enjoy all-you-can-eat-and-drink skybox catering by Brown’s executive chef, Rusty Hamlin. Offerings from local restaurants The Grocery and Charleston Grill are also on the menu. Everyone else can choose between a full menu of Southern fare from Brown’s mobile kitchen and caterers including Home Team BBQ and Taco Boy.
Organizer Ward admits that last year’s ticket sales didn’t meet their goals, but he’s optimistic through presales that they’ll exceed expectations in Year Two.
“We’re focusing more on hitting musically in the lineup, and ironically, less on finding acts that we think would help sell tickets,” Ward said. “A band like Train, last year, was well-received, but I’m not sure that it was the same fit as some of the acts we have on this year. The goal is to build this and make Charleston a home for Southern Ground for many, many years to come.”
The challenge, Ward said, is to successfully convey to fans that it’s both a festival and a Zac Brown concert. To expand the festival element, the event’s footprint has doubled this year, with the second stage moving from Blackbaud Stadium’s soccer field out into the parking lot. Performances will alternate between stages, allowing for continuous but never overlapping music throughout the day.
From The Avett Brothers to Charlie Daniels, the lineup is designed to please every palate, said Cook.
“It’s not just throwing a block of cheese and a hunk of meat in the pot. It’s carefully crafted,” he said. “It’s like the idea of a melting pot, but we handpick all the right ingredients.”