On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, Zac Brown was uncertain about the direction he wanted to take with his life. At the time, he was attending the University of West Georgia, and although he had been given a vocal scholarship, his major had changed several times. Up until that day, you might even say that he was lost. But that night as he played on stage as the images of the burning towers flickered on the screen, Brown made a fateful decision.
“I realized life was short. It made me feel like never spending any time doing stuff you don’t love or enjoy because you never know when your time is going to come,” he says. “I already had been touring forever and playing music while I was trying to go to school and finish my degree. I just decided that I didn’t love being in school and school was suffering from the music and vice-versa.”
And so he dropped out of the University of West Georgia. We don’t have to tell you it was the right decision. Since then, the Zac Brown Band has become a musical juggernaut, uniting jam banders, beach bums, and country fans thanks to their bright hook-laden blend of country twang, island rhythms, roots, and good ole rock ‘n’ roll. And as a result of that success, Brown has been able to embark on an ambitious project, The Southern Ground Music and Food Festival, a two-day celebration of music and down South cuisine.
The Southern Ground fest got its start thanks to another one of Brown’s projects, the so-called Eat and Greets that he sets up at tour stops, putting him face to face with his fans as they happily nosh on food prepared by Chef Rusty Hamlin. A long-time friend of Brown’s, Hamlin still recalls the moment the idea for the first Eat and Greet was hatched.
“We were sitting at Zac’s house on the back porch around the fire, and he was talking about if ever it was available where things took off, he wanted to try to bring a bigger experience to his fans, and you know we went through the checklist. That’s where the Eat and Greet fell in,” Hamlin says. “It’s five years later and suddenly he comes up to me and he’s like ‘Rusty you ready to go?’ Ready to go where? ‘This Eat and Greet thing.’ And I said hell yeah.”
Hamlin adds, “I’ve been in the restaurant business almost 18 years now being a chef, and 15 years of that was spent in a kitchen with no windows,” he adds. “For the last three and a half, I’ve had no walls.”
At this weekend’s Southern Ground concert, Hamlin will also oversee all the food served at the festival such as his signature beef tenderloin sliders with Brown’s own dry-clay rub. Served on a cornbread roll and dripping with Gruyere cheese, it’s a gooey delight. Indeed, they were so popular at the last month’s Southern Ground fest in Nashville, Hamlin had a custom skillet made for the Charleston show just so the chef and his cooks can keep up with demand.
Whenever Brown, Hamlin, and company are on the road, Hamlin makes it a point to patronize local farms. “We do our part to take care of these guys and let them know how much we appreciate them, whether that’s supporting them financially and getting product from them, all the way to sliding tickets to the family on the farm and getting them back to the Eat and Greet and calling them out in front of 200 people,” says Hamlin. “If anyone can get out there and experience what I’ve experienced meeting these people, it will change your life.”
Brown plans to expand the festival, and he says he’ll probably reveal next year’s new addition soon. Meanwhile work continues on an overnight camp for kids that Brown is building. During his time working as a counselor at a summer camp for children with developmental disabilities, he vowed to open his own camp one day.
“I really found the bug for helping kids and seeing how that changes their lives,” Brown says. “I’m not the one coming up with a lot of this cutting-edge therapy and stuff that’s working on these kids to rehabilitate a lot of them. But I can help bring these people together and help to get the place built. It’s a big project. We’re building a small university basically. It’s not just cabins in the woods.”
Located outside Atlanta, Camp Southern Ground is scheduled to open in 2014, and it’ll have its own organic farm where kids will be able to work. The camp, which Brown says is his “life’s work,” will serve mainstream, disabled, and underprivileged kids.
“Zac’s a great person, and he’s built a family around him,” says Grace Potter, who’s playing Southern Ground with her band the Nocturnals. “He’s got loyal fans and he’s got people and songwriters and a whole community of people that really believe in the whole culture of living life on the road and finding happiness in your own way.”
Though Potter initially had other plans for this weekend, a text from Brown prompted her to call her people to move things around because she wanted to be a part of the Southern Ground fest, where she’ll join dozens of other big name acts like the Avett Brothers, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Gregg Allman, and John Mayer. “I made it happen because when there’s a synergy musically, creatively and personally. It’s a very fun thing for fans to see that,” she says.
For Brown, it all goes back to what he learned as a counselor: You get what you give. Those words are not only the title of the Zac Brown Band’s last album, they’re tattooed on his arm. “I believe in love that’s shared between friends and indigenously. It’s a hard concept for some people to get their heads around but it’s all based on wanting to take care of each other,” Brown says. “Life should be about relationships, and if you have a good life and it’s filled with love, good karma, and good deeds, then we’re going to be rewarded for that.”
It seems to be working. The Zac Brown Band has won a Grammy and several dozen other accolades the past three years, while their latest album, Uncaged, debuted at No. 1. And if everything goes well with a new restaurant they’re opening outside Atlanta, they’ll be looking to franchise it. By one estimate, Brown owns as many as a dozen businesses. Beyond the obvious virtue of sharing your good fortune among friends, it appears to be a self-reinforcing loop.
“The secret is having great help and great people, and delegating responsibility to our kind of people, people that work hard and really care about it,” Brown says. “We’re fortunate and very blessed and we’re still rock ‘n’ rolling, you know? We’re just getting started. We just have to get to the point where we control all of our own destinies. Zac Brown is our business, and it’s growing.”