Back in 2011 Pollstar interviewed Zac Brown about his new fest, Southern Ground Music & Food Festival. Five years later, the event is continuing to serve up tasty musical and culinary treats. We checked in with Zac Brown Band’s manager, ROAR’s Will Ward, to chat about the festival’s first springtime edition.
Southern Ground Music & Food Festival returns to MUSC Health Stadium in Charleston, S.C., April 16-17.
Ward talked up the charming city of Charleston so much that we were ready to book a plane ticket. He also discussed putting together 2016’s awesome lineup, which boasts Tedeschi Trucks Band, Thomas Rhett, The Marshall Tucker Band, Hunter Hayes, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Kacey Musgraves, and more. Zac Brown Band headlines both nights. The group will continue its tradition of closing each evening with “Super Sets” featuring special sit-in performances from other acts on the bill.
As if the music lineup wasn’t enough to convince you to buy a ticket, Southern Ground has lined up delicious eats from vendors such as Bohemian Bull, Mex 1 Coastal Cantina, Bees Knees, Home Team BBQ, Kickin’ Chicken, and Island Noodles. Of course, Chef Rusty Hamlin – the co-creator of Zac Brown Band’s Eat & Greets – will be there. He’s curated the culinary lineup of award-winning chefs creating the meals for the Stage Box seats, which give fans the chance to enjoy a gourmet dinner just feet away from the performances.
Ward is a founding partner of ROAR, along with Bernie Cahill and Greg Suess. Partner Matt Maher runs the Nashville office.
Festivalgoers get up close with Zac Brown.
How many years have you overseen Zac Brown Band’s career?
It’s been eight years. Time flies so much. It was right before their first record came out.
This year marks the fifth edition of Southern Ground Music & Food Festival in Charleston. Can you talk a little bit about launching the event? What role do you play with the festival?
First of all, we’ve got an incredible team that really helps make this happen. I’ve just sort of been overseeing it but we’ve got a team from ROAR to our digital marketing team, Girlilla, to some of the good folks on Zac’s side who really are the real heroes in helping this thing come together. Where I’m really involved is helping put the bands together and really looking at how we can continue to grow this thing.
We’ve actually looked at moving to bigger venues if we outgrow this one. This year we could. This started out as a dream of Zac’s because he was always a fan of music festivals that had great music and he’s also a foodie. So he had this dream of creating a festival where it was his festival and he headlined both nights but he got to wake up each day and roam around and listen to great bands play live and try some of the great [food]. In this case, Charleston, which is such a food city – some of the great indigenous food that we serve. So, it’s not hot dog and hamburgers. It’s gourmet food served by vendors from local restaurants.
The festival took a break in 2015 so I’m sure you’re really excited to bring it back in just a couple weeks.
I wouldn’t say we took a break as much as we pushed it back six months. … In the South, college football is such a big deal. We found a lot of people who made comments about, “You know, I really wanted to come down there, I loved the lineup, but it was college football Saturday.” And so we thought, why don’t we get out of college football season and be one of the first big events kicking off before summer comes around, when everyone is anxious to get out of the house and enjoy the great spring weather. Let’s see how we do in that timeslot. So it was more about a move than taking a year off.
How are ticket sales going so far?
Really good. We’ve come out of the gate really strong. We’re very excited with how it’s coming along. I think it’s going to be our most successful [event] to date, for sure.
It's a beautiful day in Charleston for a music festival!
Besides not competing with college football season, do you see any other benefits to hosting the festival in the spring rather than the fall?
To be honest, I’ll probably be able to answer that question better April 17 (laughs), after we’ve experienced what it is. I mean, it’s a really similar time of year weather-wise. It can be cool or you can have nice warm weather right around that time of year. ... There’s kind of a vibrancy that comes with the trees and flowers blossoming. Rather than the leaves changing, the flowers [will be] blooming. I think it will be kind of a different vibe. Having lived in Charleston in college, the winters are relatively mild but when spring comes there’s [still] that feeling, like most places, that summer is around the corner. There’s a different energy. Hopefully that energy will find its way and bleed into the festival itself.
Why was Charleston chosen as the first location? I know you’ve held the event at other locations but you’ve returned to Charleston year after year. You went to college in Charleston so you’re familiar with the city.
As much as I’d love to say that’s the reason, it’s not. (laughs) … Zac’s based outside of Atlanta so we wanted to do it somewhere not too far from home. And you don’t want to do it in one of your A markets because you’re kind of blowing one of your headline shows there if you’re coming in with a festival. And there’s some other places where there’s other sort of competing festivals. Charleston was a smaller market that we had kind of outgrown in terms of headlining. There wasn’t a venue big enough to hold us. There’s the Coliseum out in North Charleston but even that’s a little small for what Zac’s doing. The other thing about it is it’s a destination city and you’ve got all these other markets, smaller markets that are short drives. You’ve got Columbia right up the street and you’ve got Savannah right up the road and Augusta not too far away and then you’ve got Charlotte, a bigger market that’s only a few hours away. And because Charleston is such a destination place it attracts tourists; it’s set up to support the influx of tourists with all the many hotel rooms in that city. … Charleston is known as sort of one of the better culinary cities in this country. And it’s one of the prettiest cities in this country. So there were so many things about it that made it such a great place to plant our flag.
It sounds like a fantastic location.
It truly is one of the most magical cities in the U.S. It’s got that architectural charm of, say, a New Orleans but it’s a much cleaner city. And there was a culinary institute that was based there called Johnson and Wales [University]. There had their headquarters in Rhode Island but one of their main schools was based in Charleston. They had a couple locations around the country where basically chefs go to college. … Charleston had a pretty big tourism industry, so these incredibly talented chefs would fall in love with the city while they were there, essentially in college, and would go to work in the local restaurants. It just started raising the food game in a major way and Charleston quickly started becoming known as one of the great culinary spots. If you google it and look up Charleston and food and whatnot you’ll see that it’s widely recognized as one of the better cities for restaurants and that’s why. That culinary school moved to Charlotte, but nonetheless it had already kind of created this reputation for [Charleston] being known for such great food. It’s just a special place and I highly recommend checking it out if you ever get a chance. It’s a beautiful city.
How is the lineup for Southern Ground curated?
First of all, despite all the success that Zac has had in country radio, he didn’t want it to be a country festival. He wanted it to be a music festival. So it first and foremost began with people who he believed in and respected as artists. We do have some country on there – Hunter Hayes and Kacey Musgraves and Drake White – but we’ve also got some stuff like the Tedeschi Trucks Band. We’ve got Bruce Hornsby, Michael Franti, there’s Sam Bush. It’s all sorts of genres but it’s meant to musically sort of appease every type of listener. Zac is a huge fan of talented artists. He gets very involved with us as we’re putting the lineup together and feels strongly that he wants it to be this smorgasbord of talent – and I think that’s what we’ve pulled off every year.
Is it something where you and Zac each have a dream list of acts you’d like to book and then compare lists? What’s the beginning stage of the process of putting the lineup together?
Well, usually we’ll kind of get avails and pare down acts that we think make sense and then sit down and talk to Zac about it. But funny enough, this year, before we even really started getting into it, I told him we were going to start looking for the acts and the first thing he said was, “Get me Tedeschi Trucks.” (laughs) He goes, “I’ve asked about them every year, they’re never available. I don’t care what it takes. I want them on the bill.” Fortunately, we were able to pull it off.
Are there any other acts you’re especially looking forward to seeing this year?
I think we’ve got a great lineup. Hunter Hayes is so talented. There’s a band that we took on tour with us for a lot of shows last year named the Muddy Magnolias. They’re so fun live. You know, classic acts like Sam Bush and the Marshall Tucker Band, they’re fun. Michael Franti, you have to not have a heartbeat to not stand up and dance to the live show that he puts on. There’s a little bit of everything. We’ve got this one band on there opening on an earlier bill called The Archetypes, who are a band that played in Charleston 28 years ago or something when I first started in college. And so it’s kind of fun to have a band like that on the bill too, a local band that’s kind of been around all this time … one of the first [to] come out of Charleston back in the college music scene.
You’ve talked about Charleston’s culinary history. Was there anything else you’d like to tell readers about the food at the festival?
There’s a BBQ place that we’ve used since the first festival called Home Team BBQ, that’s a local favorite, and there’s a handful of others restaurants like Cru Cafe and Bohemian Bull and Kickin Chicken, all local restaurants that make really great, fresh, unique dishes. So as a festivalgoers you can walk around and get sort of a taste of anything. And then we have the Sky Boxes, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with what those are.
That’s your VIP option, right?
Yes. So we’ve got some guest chefs from some of the local restaurants. We’ve got the executive chef of Cypress, which is one of the well-known restaurants. We’ve got a chef named RJ Cooper, who’s based in D.C. He has a restaurant in D.C. called Rogue 24 and another one called Gypsy Soul. He’s now based out of Charlotte. A pastry chef named Nicole Crane, who’s from D.C. She’s brilliant at what she does. And then a couple other interesting chefs from the Charleston area. And then we’ve got our chef, Rusty Hamlin, who’s been Zac’s partner in all of his food endeavors. I don’t know if you're familiar with our Eat & Greets that we do. Where some fans would do a meet & greet, we’d do an eat & greet. We would serve 200 people before a show, whether it be contest winners through radio sponsors or fan club members. … The band would serve them this meal that chef Rusty would spearhead. He would always go to some of the local farmers markets and buy his ingredients in each city that he was in and try to do side dishes that were indigenous to the region that we were in. Rusty sort of spearheads all of the food and cooking that goes on at the festival. He’s kind of our hero in that space.
It seems like you can’t have this event without Rusty.
No. And he’s a lot of fun.
Another big thing for the festival is the “Super Set” performances. Do you have a favorite set that Southern Ground has put on?
One that I thought was a real highlight was when John Bell from Widespread Panic came out and played with the band. That was really special. We’ve had John Mayer and … Oh gosh, I get confused about who was in Nashville and who was Charleston, because we had a festival in Nashville as well. But we’ve had some amazing special guests over the years. It’s been a lot of fun. I particularly remember when John Bell came out in Charleston. His wife has a huge following in Nashville too. That made a lot of noise.
Is there a possibility Southern Ground would return to Nashville? It was also held in Hershey, Pa., one year. Or are you just concentrating on Charleston right now?
We’re focusing on Charleston to keep the festival going. In Nashville we lost our site. We did it at this site downtown right beside the bridge, right on the edge of the river. And I think someone liked what we were doing so much that they actually were able to build an amphitheatre there. (laughs) I think we gave them a great idea and we lost our site in the process. And it’s not an amphitheatre big enough to support what we’re doing. I think it’s 8,000-capcaity or something like that. We looked around at some places in Nashville and just logistically we couldn’t’ find a spot that made senses. But listen, I think now [for] Zac’s it’s really about finding the time. Because these things take a lot out of [everybody], including Zac because it’s a whole weekend when he could be doing headlining dates. He’s got five kids now and I think he’s thinking about not spending as much time on the road as he has in the past when he was doing sometimes 80 or more dates a year. And this year we cut down to 30 headline dates so he could focus on writing and recording and his family, most importantly. So I think … if we grow the festival, it’s going to be about finding the time in Zac’s schedule, but it’s certainly in the cards.
What’s one thing you’ve learned since Southern Ground first launched in 2011?
We’ve learned a lot over the years. You know, festivals are very, very hard to launch. One of the big problems is, particularly when you’re known in a particular genre, [when] you announce this festival and it’s got this very diverse mix of acts, it sends a mixed message. People go, “Wait a minute. Is this really a Zac show? Who are the other bands? Is Zac just playing a little bit on the festival?” So you have to be patient in building the brand for the festival so people know what to expect and know what they’re signing up for. Kind of the way Coachella now can put their tickets on sale before they announce their lineup because people kind of know what they're going to get, a version of it. And I think in the past we’ve tried a few out-of-the-box acts that maybe pushed it a little too far that didn’t really work. We’ve tried a couple different experiences with the food that didn’t fully make sense. We’ve learned to work on making our VIP experiences better, so yeah, we’re constantly fine-tuning it. I gotta say, we certainly didn’t do the ticket sales the first year nearly what we’re doing now, but I think we all walked away after the first year feeling like we’d really done something special and first-class, and that’s the way Charlestonians received it because that first year we got voted [by the Charleston City Paper] as the best concert of the year.
Was there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks so much for writing about the festival because it’s something that’s really near and dear to Zac’s heart. He’s so passionate about it. It’s something that goes very deep with him. We love all the exposure we can get.
Zac Brown's Southern Ground Music & Food Festival, MUSC Health Stadium, Charleston, S.C.
October 12, 2014
The daily lineup for Southern Ground features:
Saturday, April 16
Zac Brown Band, Thomas Rhett, Marshall Tucker Band, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Sam Bush, Old Dominion, Coy Bowles & The Fellowship, Cam, Drake White And The Big Fire, John Driskell Hopkins, Jamestown Revival
Sunday, April 17
Zac Brown Band, Tedeshi Trucks Band, Hunter Hayes, Kacey Musgraves, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, A Thousand Horses, Clay Cook, Muddy Magnolias, Packway Handle Band, The Archetypes
Single-day and two-day tickets are on sale now. VIP upgrades are available for Sunday. Visit Charleston.SouthernGroundFestival.com for more information.