Nashville's unlikeliest new star is a stocking-capped, reggae-loving guitar picker who celebrates fried chicken, blue jeans and Mason jars.
With his bushy beard and stocking cap, Zac Brown looks like he stepped out of rock's jam-band circuit. Although the Georgia farmer has scored two Top 10 country hits in the past year, his Zac Brown Band is versatile enough to play the Bonnaroo neo-hippie fest one day and the Country Music Association's Fan Fair the next.
Bonnaroo "was my favorite show that we've done in a long time," said Brown, 30, who will headline Monday at Mystic Lake Casino. "I love the challenge of being in front of people that haven't heard us before. Good music is good music, period."
Whether he's opening for B.B. King, ZZ Top or Keith Urban, Brown is right at home. That's because he's about entertaining whomever shows up, not about playing the Nashville game -- although he's pretty good at that, too. Last week, the Zac Brown Band won the fan-voted breakthrough prize at the CMT Music Awards, for "Chicken Fried," their homemade first hit.
The song celebrates life's simple pleasures -- cold beer, comfy jeans and fried chicken. Brown thinks the song is "a good pacifier" in tough times.
Piercings instead of polo shirts
Last month Brown opened for Urban at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. He was running late for an interview because he'd lingered too long at Willie's American Guitars, a shop in St. Paul.
"I'm obsessed with cooking, knives and guitars," said Brown, who owned a gourmet soul-food restaurant, Zac's Place, for a couple of years with his father.
A serious acoustic picker, Brown has splurged on 15 vintage guitars since "Chicken Fried" went No. 1. At Willie's, he wound up buying a dobro for a band member, but he had his eye on three other vintage guitars, including one for $13,000.
"He was very unassuming, a nice, down-to-earth, courteous guy -- and a good judge of guitars," said Willie's owner, Nate Westgor. "He's still in touch with one of our guys."
A brawny guy in blue jeans, black T-shirt and shiny brown leather vest, Brown comes across as thoughtful, humble and ambitious.
Growing up the 11th of 12 kids in Dahlonega, Ga., about an hour north of Atlanta, he played football and absorbed the music of his older siblings and parents.
"When everybody [his age] was listening to Nirvana, I was listening to James Taylor, Jim Croce, Dan Fogelberg, Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens," he said. "James Taylor is the single biggest influence I have, period. The James Taylor 'Greatest Hits' tape, I stretched three of those till they just snapped."
Brown ended up as the artistic child in the family. As a high-schooler he started performing solo in coffeehouses, then studied voice at the University of West Georgia and formed a rock band, Far From Einstyne.
"I was the only one coming home with dreadlocks and tattoos and piercings," he said. "Everyone else is pretty conservative. Most of them are in the business world -- khaki pants and polo shirts."
Don't let his looks fool you. Brown is a serious dude. Take his involvement with the Brain Balance centers that use physical therapy and nutrition to treat children with autism and ADHD. Brown is helping to build a camp in Georgia for children with severe disorders.
"I grew up working at camps similar to this," said Brown, who's married with two daughters and another on the way. "You can see in one week the difference you can make in a child's life. When you integrate these mentally challenged kids with regular kids, they'll have a compassion for those people for the rest of their lives."
Started in 2002, the Zac Brown Band soon was playing 200 gigs a year. It released a couple albums on its own, including a 2004 disc that included "Chicken Fried." Its breakthrough album, "The Foundation," was recorded in 2006 with Nashville producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Billy Ray Cyrus, Terri Clark), but released nationally by Atlantic Records just last November.
This spring, Brown hit the Top 10 again with "Whatever It Is," a sweet, breezy ballad inspired by his co-writer, Wyatt Durrette, a bartender friend from Marietta, Ga.
"We wrote it about his ex-wife," the singer said. "That word 'it' is a substitute for a lot of emotions for things that you really can't put into words."
That ol' bartender also came up with the key line for Brown's new single, "Toes," a Jimmy Buffett-evoking beach ditty. "I got a phone call about 6 in the morning from Wyatt in Virginia Beach and he said, 'I'm sitting here with my toes in the water and my ass in the sand and we've got to write a song about it.'"
The New York Times described Brown's stuff as "country-rock comfort music." In concert, the Zac Brown Band isn't afraid to go where other country bands won't.
"It's about breaking down doors," he said. "We have songs that go reggae, funk, bluegrass. The world is ready for that diversity, as long as the quality of it is there. There is so much exposure to so many things because of the Internet. I am Southern and I am country, but I love great music of all kinds."
For their second Nashville release, the band plans to offer a live album with new tunes, possibly later this year. Brown has signed three acts to his Home Grown label; they will tour with him in the fall.
The band also is looking into mass-producing what has become its trademark -- a Mason jar embossed with the band's name.
"We can stuff in them, and my family uses them for drinking out of at home," said Brown.
And that stocking cap?
"My granny always said that you get the croup from cold wind blowing in your ears," he explained. "So I grew up always covering up my ears when it was cold outside. It's comfortable to me. I don't wear it to try to be different. It's what I wear. It's important to be authentic and be who you are.
"But if it's warm outside," Brown added, "I wear a ball cap."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719