Last Friday, the blues-folk trio The Wood Brothers hosted a listening party for their forthcoming album The Muse, in the same Midtown studio just off Music Row where they recorded it. The band was giving a private performance, in conjunction with the Americana Music Festival that had taken over the city's clubs for the weekend. But in the bowels of the building, the crowd was gravitating toward the warm-up acts — the goodies laid out downstairs in the fully stocked kitchen.
Hobnobbers tried to keep their Americana badges from raking plates of pickled figs with lardo and smoked salt. Others showed no such modesty as they reached for almond tuile cannoli filled with whiskey-soaked goat cheese — one of several dishes that sounded like a J. Peterman catalog of food.
The more people ate, though, the more the atmosphere loosened up. Catered by Rebecca "Studio Mama" Wood and Porter Road Butcher, the dishes tended to consist of down-home, unpretentious ingredients. Only they combined flavors and locally sourced goods in ways that made the familiar seem new and the unfamiliar seem inviting, like a vanilla-smoked pork tenderloin with beet puree.
As people gorged on the treats, the scene began to feel more like an after-work get-together than an industry shmoozefest. Only one thing was missing: the host. At that moment, the studio's owner, Zac Brown, was 2,071 miles away in Calgary, Alberta, where the Zac Brown Band was performing that night at the 19,000-plus-capacity Scotiabank Saddledome.
But Brown was presiding over yet another lavish buffet-table spread. Hours before he hit the stage, the singer and bandmates Clay Cook, Coy Bowles, John Driskell Hopkins, Jimmy De Martini, Chris Fryar and Daniel de los Reyes hosted 150 or so fans, family, friends and radio contest winners at one of their legendary backstage "Eat and Greets." The gatherings are significantly more ambitious than the usual green-room deli trays and cauliflower nibs. They're hearty spreads concocted to the food-savvy band's high standards. They allow fans to literally break bread with the group, over specialties such as pork tenderloin and barbecued beef cooked with Brown-approved spice rubs and marinades.
They've also helped to make the Zac Brown Band into the grail item of the contemporary music business: a lifestyle brand full of the "vertical" auxiliary items that can turn a successful performing act into a small economy. Through its food events, the band delivers the same populist appeal broadcast in its music: At least a few of the finer things in life are open to all.
This weekend, back in Nashville, Brown will deliver that gospel to a sizable congregation: the 30,000 festivalgoers expected to attend his Southern Ground Food and Music Festival. A two-day omnivore's dilemma of wide-ranging musical and culinary options, the fest returns to The Lawn at Riverfront Park downtown, where it made its Music City debut last year. And Brown, an avid music lover and avowed foodie, isn't exaggerating when he describes it as part of an overall package he calls "his life's work."
When Brown looks at the brand he's building, he sees a record label, a rock 'n' roll pleasure cruise, food opportunities and more. But to him, the festival isn't a marketing exercise. It's an extension of his musical identity, his obsessive quality control and his concern with his fans, as well as an effort to make his mark on Nashville's robust cultural renaissance.
"We're working on building our culture in Nashville," Brown says in a phone conversation from the road, explaining why he and his band opened a studio in Music City and relocated all its various business personnel here. "[The festival] is a tip of our hats to the community there to let them know that Southern Ground is making a presence here and that we're bringing a strong identity [along with] the things that the great parts of the city stand for. ...
"We don't just want to do [Nashville] justice. Anything we do at Southern Ground, we want it to be excellent. That's why we want it there."
Brown's ambition is as sweeping as his musical tastes. In Calgary, along with the band's own chart-toppers such as "Whatever It Is" and "Keep Me in Mind," the bearded, beanie-capped singer went on to cover a broad range of pop hits and rock and country classics, ranging from Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" to TLC's "Waterfalls." Even Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" and The Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" made appearances along the way.
His approach to building the group's fan base is just as eclectic. By offering exclusive menus to an inclusive guest list, the 11-year-old band has found a way to make its fans feel like part of a community that shares similar values and expansive tastes.
His musical diversity is reflected in the hand-picked lineup at this weekend's festival. The roster includes stars of all stripes: honky-tonk hero Willie Nelson and Family, blues-rockers Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, indie troubadours Dawes, jam favorites Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, New Orleans funkmaster Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, and one of the most defiantly nontraditional country acts of recent years, CMA scene-stealer Kacey Musgraves. (Update: Regrettably, Willie Nelson has canceled his Southern Ground appearance due to a shoulder injury.)
The Head and the Heart and the Eli Young Band round out the bill, but the featured attraction is of course the Zac Brown Band, which headlines both Friday and Saturday nights. Adopting something of the model of a Bonnaroo late-night sesh, the band's own shows will consist of "super sets" featuring superstar "sit-in" performances. Kenny Chesney, John Fogerty and Jason Mraz are among the artists tapped to jam with Brown & Co.
Just as much thought went into the festival's food component. In true Eat and Greet style, Brown and Southern Ground executive chef Rusty Hamlin will prepare some meals themselves. But the festival boasts visiting chefs such as Chicago luminary Giuseppe Tentori and 2013 James Beard Award winner Stephanie Izard, along with local vendors the likes of Margot and Marché, F. Scott's, Watermark, Peg Leg Porker, Riffs Fine Street Foods, Hoss' Loaded Burgers, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams (which is whipping up an exclusive flavor for the festival) and Amerigo. To boot, renowned beer sommelier Gary Valentine will suggest craft beer pairings.
"These are all people that I'm a really big fan of and people that I think our fans [would enjoy]," Brown says. "If you really sit out there and just come open-minded as a music fan and a food fan, you're going to get your mind blown by all of it — that's the goal."
The band launched Southern Ground two years ago in Charleston, S.C., where it will again take place three weeks from now. When the fest made its Riverfront Park debut last year, it offered essentially a rough draft for the kind of event Brown envisioned, featuring appearances by Gregg Allman, John Mayer, Amos Lee and The Lumineers.
"Nashville was a great choice for us for a number of reasons," Zac Brown Band manager Matt Maher tells the Scene. "We just thought it would be a really cool place to stick a flag, knowing especially that it has had a little bit of a spotty history for festivals" — referencing bygone bashes he opts not to name.
Southern Ground had no such problems. It drew 15,000 attendees over two days, enough that Brown & Co. started planning their Music City return the day after it wrapped. This year, they hope to double that number. At press time, the festival — which the singer hopes will add another city every year — is well on its way to selling out.
"I wouldn't just throw a country music festival in Nashville," Brown says. "I think there are a lot of different kinds of people in Nashville. There's a lot of different kinds of culture there." He sees a great overlap between music lovers and food lovers, he explains, and he feels they're as interested in sampling different things as he is.
"Nashville is becoming one of those food cities that you talk about," he says. "I think it's fast becoming an amazing culture for food. And then the music, hopefully; there are niches of what you would expect in Nashville for music, but also a world of things that you wouldn't expect. Hopefully, you'll get a taste of all that stuff. I'm more excited about the stuff you wouldn't expect to come from Nashville."
Southern Ground's executive chef concurs. "[Nashville is] the new food mecca of the Southeast," says Hamlin, aka Chef Rusty, who enjoys rock-star status among Brown fans as a result of the Eat and Greets. "We're coming in and we want to be part of the city and a part of the growth with the restaurant scene, with these guys Bob Waggoner [at Watermark], Tandy [Wilson] over at City House, Matt Lackey over at Flyte, the guys at Catbird Seat — all of these restaurants that are popping up that are doing the right type of menu and the right type of food and [are] respectful of ingredients being local — it's very inspiring."
For Brown, it all started with a fantasy of reaching stardom and then "super serving" his fans the world over — a dream the pair capitalized on in 2007, soon after the band began taking off.
"The concept behind the music and food festival has been a dream of mine for a long time," Brown says, explaining his vision of a richer, more personalized concert experience that goes beyond frozen Sysco hot dogs, preservative-laden nachos and overpriced, bland light beer.
"Being a foodie and full of Southern hospitality, I felt like the events you go to are lacking those things," Brown says. "So this is my way to kind of prove the concept of filling the void of the level of service and the level of quality of all the amenities at a show. ... It's our model for touring."
Hamlin remembers when Brown first started fantasizing about the ultimate fan-to-artist culinary concert experience, years before he found fame outside of Georgia. Then a young Atlanta-area chef and restaurateur, Hamlin met Brown in 2001 through the singer's best friend and longtime songwriting partner, Wyatt Durrette, whom Hamlin hired to work as a bartender at his Atkins Park restaurant in Smyrna, Ga.
One night after work, Durrette took his new boss to a watering hole in nearby Marietta, Ga., the Dixie Tavern. It was a small turnout, but Hamlin remembers watching Brown perform for a crowd of 50 like it was a crowd of 50,000. Both were hustling hard in their respective scenes, Hamlin recalls, and after the show they bonded over their mutual passions for Southern cuisine and Southern rock.
"Believe it or not, and I know this is said [all the time], as soon as I met Zac that night ... I knew he was going to be successful," Hamlin says. "It was that little niche that he had of caring, loving music; you could see the passion that he had; the way that he commanded a stage, especially when he got other musicians up there with him, and how his drive was, it was exactly the same as mine."
One day in 2003 — Hamlin remembers it so clearly he can tell you it was at Lake Oconee, Ga. — Brown told him that if he ever made it, he wanted to take care of his faithful in ways that no other musician ever had, starting with food. Four years later, with fame no longer a fantasy, he reminded Hamlin of the idea — bonding with fans over farm-fresh gourmet meals Brown would help design and Hamlin would prepare before each gig.
"Watching your buddy work his ass off and really, really go around and try to make a name for himself locally, and then get the opportunity to do it on a larger level [worldwide] and make people happy ... it's been amazing," Hamlin says. Brown's manager Maher says that's just who he is.
"Where most people say, 'I wish,' Zac says, 'Let's do,' " Maher says. "It was Zac and the band's vision to replace the stale meet-and-greet step and repeat, where you never actually get to talk to anybody, you just take a picture, and that really wasn't their vibe. [With] Zac, it's all about community for him."
"He doesn't want to go on this ride alone," Hamlin says.
With the Eat and Greets now a major part of the Zac Brown Band touring machine, Hamlin has a wandering cuisinier's dream job. But in many ways it's as unprecedented as it is challenging. His flagship, amid the fleet of tour buses and semis, is an epic mobile kitchen known as Cookie.
Outfitted to look like a rolling World War II bomber, down to the USO pinup painted on its side, Cookie is a 54-foot-long, double-decker commissary riding on 18 wheels of delicious. It's equipped with deep fryers, skillets, burners, ovens (four of them), flat-tops, storage space and prep areas — "anything you need to cook in there," Hamlin says with a confident chuckle.
On tour, Hamlin's days start roughly at 6 a.m. when he rolls up to a venue, and they end when he pulls out at 1 a.m. In the intervening hours, he sets up his backstage rolling restaurant, then treks out to local farms and farmers markets to grocery-shop so he cook for the 150 to 200 people (mostly fan-club members, radio contest winners and friends and family) that Brown and his band members will serve soup-kitchen-style a few hours before show time.
A consistent trio of recipes belongs to Brown, himself an accomplished cook and restaurateur. But the rest of the menu Hamlin conjures once he makes his local culinary connections on the fly, never knowing exactly what ingredients will be available. Through that process, Hamlin cultivates relationships with a nationwide network of farmers and food providers, while broadening his culinary repertoire and off-the-cuff cooking skills.
"I've always been a huge, avid supporter of local businesses," Hamlin explains. "Going out on the road and being able to do that around the country has been so rewarding."
In effect, the practice also gives the Zac Brown Band touring company an opportunity to give something to the cities it plays, as every day Hamlin and Brown hook up local farmers and merchants with tickets and passes for that night's show and Eat and Greet. There the pair introduce the farmers and merchants to local fans so they can gain new customers.
"It's just all about giving back," Hamlin says. "I couldn't do what I do without these guys."
For many of the fans, the introduction is also educational. "People don't realize that it's cheaper to [shop at] these markets," Hamlin notes, reflecting the festival's singularity as a food celebration with a populist bent. "There's the high-minded foodie," manager Maher adds, "and this is not the same thing."
"These days, to distinguish yourself you've got to do something pretty special," Brown explains. "It's competitive; [people] can choose to buy a ticket to go see anybody's show. Hopefully what we do on the stage speaks for itself, but that's kind of where it begins. Then how do we treat them while they're there? What happens for the people while they're walking around? To us, that's where we really think we can set ourselves apart."
One artist who can relate is fair-haired rocker Grace Potter, who will appear with her band The Nocturnals at Southern Ground this weekend. A fellow foodie, Potter has her own vegan chocolate bar, Grace Under Fire. It's made in the singer's home state of Vermont, where earlier this month she curated and headlined her own music and food festival called Grand Point North.
That event is now in its third year. In 2006, Potter and the Nocturnals also issued their own wine, Nocturnal Noir. She says integrating a real-deal cult of personality into a brand broader than simple musical output is an increasing necessity for singers like Brown and herself.
"More and more nowadays, musicians are required to brand themselves beyond music, because music is not a commodity the way it used to be," Potter tells the Scene. "Everyone can go sit in their fuckin' room and sing into a computer speaker and post it on YouTube and become an overnight sensation.
"So in order to create that gravity that makes people come back to you over and over again, you need to present yourself as a whole human being now — it's not just about music, it's about you and everything you care about coming out in a way that's going to resonate with people. ... You have to create a mini-empire for yourself, because just making music isn't cutting it any more."
In some ways, the rock star of today is the polar opposite of the KISS empire, once the model for successful music-industry merchandizing. The self-proclaimed "hottest band in the world" branded itself — along with action figures, pinball machines, Platinum Visa Cards and even colorful caskets (or rather, "Kaskets") that double as beer coolers — as characters behind masks of makeup.
By contrast, look at the parrothead empire of Brown's acknowledged hero Jimmy Buffett, who's parlayed the coconut-scented slackerdom of his early hits into best-selling books, products and a restaurant chain — not to mention concerts that resemble a cross between luaus and tailgating parties. The persona being sold is the singer's own; the valuable commodity he offers is getting to drink, eat and share the life in the songs.
Country legend Kenny Rogers will join the band in Charleston, where he's set to reprise the crowd-winning version of "The Gambler" he and Brown did at the CMA Music Festival back in June. He considers himself a pioneer in the arena of musicians branding themselves with edible products. Though the singer's health-conscious rotisserie chicken chain Kenny Rogers Roasters ultimately went belly up in the United States, the chain — which Rogers sold to a Malaysian food conglomerate in 2008 — remains a hit in Asia, where it had more than 80 locations in operation as of last year.
"I think people have learned from my mistakes," Rogers tells the Scene. "What happens is, when you do a brand like that, you have to pick one city and put 10 or 15 [franchises] in it, then you go to another city and put 10 or 15 in it. ... We didn't have enough franchises in each town to justify the cost [of advertising]. ... I think it would be tremendously successful now, more so than it was then, because it was kind of ahead of its time."
Though Rogers' corporatized business model, like that of Buffett (whose LandShark Lager is Southern Ground's official beer), vastly differs from Brown's or Potter's, his takeaway isn't far from the mark: "I think [branding] is what you do with your success — you use it for other successes."
"[Zac's] built an unbelievable empire for himself, the most humble empire I've ever seen," Potter says in praise of Southern Ground. "[It's] one that is truly to be admired, and I think he knows just what he's doing and he nurtures people into his world in a way that's pretty singular."
For Brown, Southern Ground is a labor of love that just so happens to work successfully as a robust brand.
"I am a music fan first, and I am a food fan first," he explains. "So I work backwards from that, going, 'If I could have everything that I wanted at a concert, what would it be?' ... Every bit of our personality and our hospitality extends out and is reflected in these festivals."
Though Potter hasn't gone so far as to ape Brown on the Eat and Greet tip, she understands the role of food as a much-needed equalizer on the road. She routinely cooks for her band and crew on an industrial-strength hot plate she keeps on her tour bus.
"For me it makes sense," she says, "but a lot of people don't get it because they think of rock stars as these skinny, gawky people who drink their meals. But I really do believe in feeding music. ... It creates a nurturing environment on the bus."
That's one reason she says she's stoked to be on the Southern Ground bill — "not just because it's so food-centric, but because it's Southern food, which is one of my favorite parts of Americana; it's my favorite thing about being from America, is the Southern food. It's singular in that, when you get down there, it's completely different techniques for making it. It's not just cultural, it's spiritual." Any other reasons?
"I get to perform everyday," she adds. "I don't get Chef Rusty everyday."
If the festival remains the keystone of Brown's ambitions, it's hardly the only piece. Over the past year-and-a-half, he has centralized his Southern Ground business empire in Nashville. In much the same way Jack White and Dan Auerbach have built Music City homebases that serve as extensions of their interests and personalities, Brown now houses his operations in the studio off Music Row that hosted The Wood Brothers' party.
The building prominently situated at 114 17th Ave. S., not far from the business-casual power-lunch hangout Sub Stop, once housed Young 'Un Sound, Studio One and Monument Studios. In March 2012, Brown bought the landmark building along with its myriad musical contents — a decades-old Neve console and musical artifacts and equipment dating back to the early '60s — from Al Jolson Jr., whose Masterlink Studios called it home most recently.
Brown spent the better part of 2012 renovating the 7,000-square-foot structure, whose size is masked by its home-like exterior. It was reborn as his state-of-the-art Southern Ground Studio — a labyrinthine maze of hand-crafted rustic woodwork and trapdoors with guitar necks for handles. It's part recording studio, part high-class hunting lodge.
The space is packed tight with road cases, mic cables and musical bibelots. Across a small skywalk, in a loft space overlooking the main tracking room and isolation booths, is a bookshelf containing a trove of unearthed vintage master tapes. Visible are names like Dottie West, Kris Kristofferson, Lee Clayton and Lynn Anderson.
"Instead of tearing that building down and setting it up for somebody to put in a hotel or something, we're preserving the music that was made there, so a lot more music can be made [there] in the future," Brown says. Ken Robold, the head of Brown's boutique label Southern Ground, says jokingly that the singer wants to create via word of mouth a "place where everybody wants to record but no one can."
Though it's a physical impossibility for Zac Brown to bro and chow down with all 30,000 festivalgoers in downtown Nashville this weekend, his ambition is to connect with fans by giving them his fantasy concert experience. It's the dream he had before striking Southern-rock country gold, and one he's held close since achieving fame.
"Zac is a bit of an everyman," Matt Maher says. "You'll find him hanging out with his construction crew that's building the studio. These are the guys he loves to go camping with, and those are certainly not the guys you're going to find at a high-end food and wine festival, but [they] love great food. And he really enjoys the company of his fans and talking to his fans."
"It's really, really cool for us, to be able to make an impact on these fans," Hamlin says. "If you watch, whenever somebody lines up for an Eat and Greet, they're usually shaking, they don't know what to say, 'Oh my God, I get 20 seconds with the artist, God forbid I say, "The weather's nice." ' That doesn't happen with the Eat and Greet, bro. It's like this big, huge picnic backstage, and Zac and the band are sitting down, getting to know their fans."