Zac Brown Band headlines Southern Ground Festival

Special to Lowcountry CurrentOctober 20, 2011 

Clay Cook would like to point out that though the Zac Brown Band is curating and headlining the inaugural Southern Ground Music and Food Festival in Charleston, the weekend will not be entirely chicken-fried.

"Most people think because it's the Zac Brown Band we're putting on a country festival," said Cook, a multi-instrumentalist who joined the band in 2009 and now plays guitar, keyboards, mandolin and steel guitar. "We don't like really think of it as genres. We just like to be behind good music."

The festival will take place at Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island near Charleston from Friday through Sunday. It's is a three-day celebration of all manner of Southern eats -- Georgia native Brown, you may know, is something of a BBQ aficionado. But musically, Cook's right: the diverse lineup includes acclaimed Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket (who headline Friday night), radio kings Train, Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers, buzz outfit Fitz and the Tantrums, longtime reggae band Steel Pulse, singer-songwriter Brett Dennen, and bluegrass godfather Del McCoury with New Orleans' legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, among others. The rest of the lineup includes acts from Brown's own Southern Ground label, including the Wood Brothers, Sonia Leigh, Blind Pilot and more. The Zac Brown Band performs all three nights, including an all-covers set on Friday before My Morning Jacket .

Brown's band has been steadily building a following for years, but Cook's route into the music industry was a bit different: While at the Berklee College of Music in Boston he met John Mayer; the two left school in 1988 to relocate to Atlanta and begin their music career as the Lo-Fi Masters. Cook ended up co-writing some of Mayer's earliest best-known tracks, including "No Such Thing," "Why Georgia" and "Neon." After some time the two parted ways, with Cook going on to release his own albums, join the Marshall Tucker Band and play with Sugarland and Shawn Mullins. These days, in addition to performing with Brown, he maintains a solo career that keeps him on the road much of the time.

Question. How do you juggle a solo career with the lively touring schedule of something like Zac's band?

Answer. One definitely takes a back seat to the other all the time, but when I do get a chance, it's fun. I've been doing the solo career/smaller venues thing for 11 years now, so it's like I get to do that normally and then get to put my Superman cape on and go play with Zac.

Q. Tell me a bit about Southern Ground, the label.

A. Well it's all Zac's thought process, really. He wanted to have his own little private modern-day Motown, to assemble all these people who move him, put him on his label and help them succeed. It comes down to what he wants, and it's been pretty cool.

Q. Did you have a hand in scheduling the bands for the fest?

A. I was on a couple of the phone calls, where we came up with My Morning Jacket, Train and some of the other acts people might not expect. but what we've done is made three separate days. The first is an alt-rock kind of day, with My Morning Jacket headlining, and Zac Brown Band before doing an all-covers set. The second day is more of a rock day with Train, Fitz and the Tantrums, the Wood Brothers. I'm on that day, doing a looping audio show, a pretty nutty little thing that I do. Sunday is more of a country day with Eric Church, Sonia Leigh and us headlining, though it's an earlier evening. Plus this sort of festival also allows for all kinds of collaboration.

Q. Any word on new material?

A. Well, it's going to be kind of a light fall/winter for us; we're ramping up for a new record. I would say the majority of it is written; we're already playing two songs from it. We always get together up at Zac's river property and just play; we'll try to do that before going into the studio in Asheville, N.C.

Q. Are you a cook as well?

A. (laughs) Oh no no, I burn toast. I don't try to fool myself. If I want a steak, I'll go pay for it, it's fine.

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