If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, can the same rule apply to a fan’s heart?
It worked for the Zac Brown Band.
ZBB scored a recipe for success in 2008 with its hit single “Chicken Fried,” an ode to pecan pie, patriotism and all things Southern. But while acclaim may have seemed to come quickly, this story’s not about some flash in the pan.
Georgia-born and raised, guitarist/singer Zac Brown spent years behind the stove cooking soul-infused specialties at a restaurant he owned with his father, all the while hitting the stage for club gigs night after night.
Like any good chef, Brown searched for the perfect ingredients to give his group the right Southern flavor – he claims as many as 40 players have been through the band over the years – eventually settling on a lineup that includes Jimmy De Martini (fiddle, vocals), John Driskell Hopkins (bass guitar, vocals), Coy Bowles (guitar, organ), Chris Fryar (drums) and Clay Cook (guitar, organ, mandolin, steel guitar, vocals).
“I’m a lifetime musician,” Brown told Pollstar. “I dedicate my life to the music and everybody in my band does. We have a lot of respect for other musicians that I grew up listening to – the people like Willie Nelson and Ray Charles and Dolly Parton and James Taylor.”
The band became a staple in clubs around the South with its unremitting touring schedule and raucous renditions of some of those respected musicians’ hits, eventually catching the attention of Creative Artists Agency’s John Huie. When a friend kept hounding him to see the show, Huie said he finally agreed to hear Brown play one night at the Dixie Tavern in Marietta, Ga.
“I thought I’d go see a song and turn around and leave, and I ended up staying the whole set,” he told Pollstar. “I was absolutely blown away. I walk in this club on a Thursday night, and the place was packed. There was 400 kids in there and they were singing the lyrics to every song.”
Huie got on board getting the word out about Zac Brown in Nashville but, despite the band’s awesome stage presence, its sound just wasn’t easily categorized for radio.
“When I took his demo around to country guys, they’d say, ‘He’s too rock ’n’ roll,’” Huie said. “And I’d give it to rock guys and they’d say, ‘He’s too country.’ Everybody wants to format and make it fit a certain thing, and Zac says, ‘I am who I am, and this is the music I make.’”
Because the group was already building up a considerable fan base in the Atlanta area playing Zac’s music, Huie decided to keep the focus on touring, branching out to other cities in the region that were accessible by van.
ZBB also branched out by boat, signing up for stints on the annual Rock Boat cruises, which Brown credits as a way the band caught the attention of fans around the U.S.
“People from all over would come on these boats,” he said. “I’d stay up all night playing acoustic even when the band wasn’t playing. … It’s a great community of people and they’ve gotten behind us and helped us out a lot.”
The Rock Boat shows helped put Brown on the radar of ROAR’s Bernard Cahill and William Ward, who signed to manage the band after seeing the way audiences reacted at ZBB shows.
“I grew up in college seeing Dave Matthews coming up in clubs and touring bands that were building these fan bases and you saw a lot of similarities in the way the fans respond to [Brown’s] music,” Ward told Pollstar.
Besides the music, Cahill and Ward said they saw a multidimensional artist in Brown – a workhorse who’d spent years touring, yet put just as much effort into his other life pursuits.
“He’s an incredible artist, incredible songwriter and incredible performer,” Cahill told Pollstar, “But we also recognized that Zac had other skills and abilities. In particular, he owned a restaurant. He’s an amazing chef and it’s not just a hobby for him. It’s a passion; it’s part of who he is.”
In fact, Brown recently blended those passions during an appearance on Paula Deen’s Food Network television program, where he cooked a meal and performed for the Southern celebu-chef.
There’s plenty more where that came from. Zac Brown Band just scored an Academy of Country Music award win for top new vocal group and the band hits the road this summer for festivals and support slots around North America.
But don’t expect all that fame to go to Brown’s head. After all, he’s got friends to feed.
“Zac will pull up the tour bus and instead of taking a nap or chilling out, he goes and cooks food for the entire band and crew,” Cahill said. “When was the last time you heard that?”