Already in its third year, the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival on Daniel Island offers more than just a couple of days of live music. It’s a celebration of traditional and modern Southern culture, food, song craft and camaraderie.
Hosted by Grammy Award-winning songwriter, singer/guitarist and band leader Zac Brown and his Georgia-based group the Zac Brown Band, the twangy country/rock ensemble responsible for the foot-stompin’ single “Chicken Fried,” Southern Ground refers to his indie record label, Southern Ground Artists, which launched in 2009. The name also refers to his wide-open attitude of cultural inclusivity.
The inaugural festival at Blackbaud Stadium in 2011 featured three full days of events with headlining sets by the Zac Brown Band and various guests along with performances by My Morning Jacket, Steel Pulse, Fitz and the Tantrums, Vintage Trouble and others. Barbecue, fried seafood, upscale Southern fare and craft beer were available from concession stands throughout the stadium.
Last year, festival organizers paired things down a bit and presented Southern Ground as a two-day event featuring the Zac Brown Band with sit-in performances from legendary singer-organist Gregg Allman and singer-guitarist John Mayer. The lineup included The Avett Brothers, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Michael Franti, the Wailers, the Charlie Daniels Band and JJ Grey & Mofro, among other acts.
Presented by LandShark Lager, this year’s Southern Ground Music & Food Festival’s roster looks more diverse than ever, with a mix of classic country, modern alt-rock, Americana, pop, soul and bluegrass all on the bill between Saturday and Sunday.
Zac Brown Band bass guitarist and string player John Driskell Hopkins (friends call him “Hop” for short), a member of the Zac Brown Band since 2005, has seen all of the action at every Southern Ground Festival from the beginning.
“We’re always fine-tuning things like the stage set-up and the overall presentation,” Hopkins says in an interview with Charleston Scene. “We want each performance at every stage to be individual experiences that don’t interfere with setting up the next acts on the opposite stages. The festival experience is great at these shows because our production team is second to none. We have great guys on the ground working. We improve every show with their expertise, new ideas and the implementation of their experience.”
Like Brown, Hopkins is a native of northeast Georgia who grew up playing music with friends, writing songs, and performing at clubs and festivals. Hopkins played in various garage-rock bands in north Florida and Atlanta before hooking up with Brown as a permanent bandmate.
“I grew up to listening to everything,” Hopkins says. “Growing up in the Northeast Georgia mountains and being close to the Carolinas, I could hear bluegrass music and catch bluegrass bands in the quaint, little towns. Country and bluegrass music permeated through my listening experience as a kid. When the Zac Brown Band started playing MerleFest, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and other places that are primarily bluegrass-oriented, I had an awakened interest in that music.”
Brown initially formed the Zac Brown Band in 2002 as an acoustic-based folk-rock combo, but by 2005, he’d expanded it into a full, amplified Americana-rock ensemble with Hopkins on bass, Jimmy De Martini on fiddle, and Coy Bowles on guitar and keyboards.
They made a huge splash in the country and pop scenes in 2008 with the release of the 11-song collection “The Foundation,” which included the chart-topping hits “Chicken Fried” and “Toes,” two of several melodic, catchy, guitar-driven countrified originals on the album, many of which Hopkins helped write and arrange.
“The Foundation” sold more than a million copies, and the band’s 2010 follow-up, “You Get What You Give,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earned the band a 2010 Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
Drummer Chris Fryar, percussionist Daniel de los Reyes and multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook (guitar, keys, mandolin, steel guitar) came aboard in recent years to round out the current lineup. The full team has stayed busy on the road over the past year and a half touring behind the Zac Brown Band’s latest album, 2012’s “Uncaged.”
“We’re enjoying a lot of really good touring right now, and that’s given us the opportunity to do other cool things, both at home and on the road,” Hopkins says. “We haven’t been doing too many radio things, but we have been keeping things steady. We have an athletic regimen that we do, and we have a practice schedule that we keep to. We all stay busy.”
Hopkins says that he and his bandmates have had an ongoing love affair with the Lowcountry for years.
“Some of our songwriting team lives out on the Isle of Palms, and I have family on Daniel Island, so we feel very connected to Charleston,” Hopkins says. “It’s really one of the first places we broke when we started out. I remember when we did three nights at The Windjammer in 2008, and that was a really big deal for us. We’d been seeing bands in the Lowcountry and at The Windjammer for years, so it was like reaching one of those touring landmarks as an up-and-comer when we did that.”
On Saturday, the Zac Brown Band will headline the Southern Ground fest with guest vocalists Clare Bowen from the TV show “Nashville” and John “JB” Bell, frontman of Georgia jam band Widespread Panic.
The bill for Saturday also includes veteran Texas singer/songwriter Natalie Maines.
After massive commercial and artistic success with the Dixie Chicks in the early 2000s, Maines took some time off to attend to family affairs before recording her recently released solo album debut, “Mother,” a collection of rock, gospel and pop tunes co-produced by Ben Harper. The unusual mix of musical styles on her new collection fits well with the colorful assortment of acts on this year’s Southern Ground roster.
“I had not known Zac Brown personally until this year, but the Dixie Chicks are pairing up with his band in Europe in the spring, so I’ll get to know him really well by the end of that,” Maines says. “We both played at a MusiCares Foundation event back in the winter, and was impressed by his music and his voice.
“I’m always drawn to soulful, powerful voices, and Zac has one for sure,” she adds. “I’m inspired by anyone like Zac who goes against the mainstream and finds a level of success.”
Pop-rock act Fitz and the Tantrums return to the festival Saturday for a main stage set. Also on the schedule are New Orleans-based funk ensemble Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, rock quartet Dawes and string trio The Wood Brothers, featuring Chris Wood of Medeski Martin & Wood fame.
Folk duo Dugas, bluegrass group Balsam Range (with Hopkins on banjo and guitar), Bowles and his band the Fellowship, songwriter Holly Williams, the twangy A.J. Ghent Band, Brothers Road and Frank Olivier are slated to perform Saturday, as well.
“Through the year, we all do kind of a bucket list of artists we’d love to have on the bill,” Hopkins says. “Whenever we hear something cool or hear a great new band or songwriter, we share it immediately. Acts like Gregory Porter and Aoife O’Donovan and other really cool singer-songwriter types who really blow our minds. They may or may not be perfect for the show we’re doing, or available, but when it comes down to it, it’s always a bunch of bands that we really love and that fit in somehow. They’re always bands we love.”
The Zac Brown Band will welcome veteran country artist Kenny Rogers and pop-rock songsmith Jason Mraz to the main stage Sunday.
Also on top of the bill is 80-year-old country legend Willie Nelson, who’ll hit the main stage at 4 p.m.
“Whenever the Zac Brown Band gets these musicians to come and sit in with us, I’m kind of blown away,” Hopkins says. “Last month at the Southern Ground festival in Nashville, we had Jason Mraz, Kacey Musgraves and others on stage with us, and it was terrific. This year, the one special guest that really knocks me out is Kenny Rogers.
“Growing up, my dad had a Kenny Rogers 8-track in his Cadillac, and I remember all of those songs from driving to school,” he says. “I know all of his B-sides and hits. Kenny is such a cool guy. I first saw him perform 15 years ago at Music Midtown in Atlanta, and he was amazing. He did a lot of his original songs in a medley, and seemed like the list of hits didn’t stop. To get to hang out with someone like that will blow your mind.”
The Sunday schedule also features performances from Columbia-based indie-rock group Band of Horses, Seattle-based folk-pop band the Head and the Heart, country singer Musgraves, Atlanta songwriter Niko Moon, bluegrass combo Little Feather, and singer/songwriters Levi Lowrey and Freddy Clarke.
“This event is very song-oriented,” Hopkins says. “It’s definitely not a jam band thing. We’d rather have an acoustic act than someone really flashy who didn’t have good songs. We’ve had Warren Haynes up there with us, but that’s about as jammy as it gets.”
As always, there’ll be plenty of top-notch Southern-style cuisine for attendees to enjoy on both days of the fest.
Southern Ground executive chef Rusty Hamlin will welcome chefs Craig Deihl, RJ Cooper, Kelly Liken and Claire Chapman alongside beer sommelier Gary Valentine at the food stations and VIP lounge areas.
Hopkins and the Zac Brown Band will close both nights of Southern Ground at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and at 7:40 p.m. Sunday.
What might dedicated Zac Brown Band fans expect from the fellows at Blackbaud Stadium this weekend?
Hopkins assures that it’ll be a very lively mix of hits and surprises.
“Aside from the opening and closing numbers, the middle has a lot of leeway,” he says. “We move things around a lot to accommodate those people who plan to show up for both nights. We don’t want fans to see the same show. If you haven’t seen us in a year, you might be a little bit shocked by some of the things we have planned.
“We have a lot of interesting stuff going on, so I would ask people to be prepared to be enlightened in some new musical ways.”