Zac Brown | There’s More than Meets the Eye
There’s more than meets the eye with this bearded bandleader.
Zac Brown spends a typical summer on a tour bus, rolling across the country with his rather large extended family – the other seven members of his band. But whenever he’s out there on the road, a part of his heart will be back at home in Georgia, where he has several other ventures that keep him busy.
For the 41-year-old music maker, this on-the-road routine has pretty much been the norm for most of his adult life. When he was growing up, though, summertime meant endless days and nights under the sun and stars enjoying the incredible natural beauty of the scenic hills, lakes, and streams along the southern foothills of the Appalachians. He famously had his “toes in the water” in the warm-weather sing-along classic he released 11 years ago, but he’s actually much more at home farther inland.
“I’m a river rat,” says Brown. “That’s where I grew up, and any time that I can get away, I’m straight up in the river, even in the spring when your feet go numb from the cold.”
Brown started strumming on his mom’s guitar at the age of 8, not long after he’d discovered a unique sense of community at the summer camps he attended. The experiences stuck with him big time, and he wants to affect other young people in a similar way.
“Zac has said many times that he wouldn’t be doing what’s he’s doing today if it weren’t for summer camp,” says Mike Dobbs, president and CEO of Brown’s Camp Southern Ground, which is situated on 411 acres in Fayetteville, just south of Atlanta. “He started going to camp at the age of 7 and went all the way through and then became a camp counselor, and after college he became a camp staff member.”
‘WHERE GOODNESS GROWS’
It was on one of those early outings that young Zac first heard someone playing a guitar and singing, so that in itself is hugely significant. But he says camp was also the place where he first remembers seeing people of vastly different backgrounds getting along with one another while being treated completely as equals. And that’s why his Camp Southern Ground is designed to be as “inclusive” as possible. It is open to children ages 7-17 from all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, and religions, and it welcomes children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), learning and attention issues, social or emotional challenges, and those with family members serving in the military. In June and July, nearly 600 youngsters take part in traditional activities like hiking, biking, and archery, and they also learn about nutrition and cooking by helping to harvest fruits and vegetables for their own meals from 12-acre organic garden. During the rest of the year, the camp also hosts programs for veterans, including those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I like to build things, and I like to build things knowing there’s a higher purpose for them,” says Brown, who was the 11th of 12 children and is now the father of five. “In one week you can completely change a kid’s perspective on the world.”
The Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling bandleader is a highly successful musician by any measure, but he’s always been one that’s hard to categorize. Though his commercial success has largely been on the country charts, he’s always enjoyed coloring outside the lines, so to speak. His songwriting and performing styles can trace their roots to folk-pop solo artists like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg while his now-classic “Toes,” which celebrates the considerable charms of a lazy day at the beach, clearly follows in Jimmy Buffet’s sandy footsteps. In concert, his namesake group is a shape-shifting powerhouse that can channel the energy of the classic Allman Brothers Band one moment before changing gears with cascading bluegrass chops or a lurching reggae groove. They stretch out enough to appeal to jam-band fans, too, and their ambitious musical adventures (including Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”) have fans guessing where they’ll go next. “We like to highlight music that has influenced and inspired us,” says Brown about the musical surprises. “We want to push ourselves musically.”
Brown’s recorded body of work – which includes seven studio releases, two live albums, a greatest hits package, and two EPs – shows off an impressive artistic range, too. He has increasingly flirted with rock and pop and even dance-music sounds. He makes it clear that fans should expect more experimentation, not less. “Keeping cohesive or staying with one genre of music is not a consideration for me,” he says. “I don’t understand why people get outraged over creativity. It’s like I have a gallery in my mind, and there are many different styles there.”
Brown has long been an avid hunter, with wild hogs being his favorite prey. A longtime culinary enthusiast, too, Brown says the feast after the hunt is a big part of the overall experience. Here’s a memory that stands the test of time: “We were pig hunting with crossbows in Merritt Island, Florida. We caught a boar, field-dressed it, quartered it, packed it in a cooler, and drove it all the way back to Georgia and fed 30 people on the lake.”
Hunting, Brown says, “is about nature, it’s about being connected. It’s a magic thing.” He continues: “You know, I grew up hunting with my dad, and the best quality time I ever had with him – even now – is going hunting. It’s about that campfire, what happens around the fire, and it’s about the respect for the animals and the conservation of that, of course.”
Brown has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Besides the camp, his enterprises have included restaurants, a distillery, and a company that makes high-end knives. Dobbs, the top man at the camp, says he’s been continually impressed with the passion that Brown brings to whichever project he is taking on. “Anything he’s interested in, he does a lot of research on it and learns as much as possible. He can go deep and long on any subject and any topic. He’s very driven and very passionate about what he wants to achieve.”
Southern Grind knives
A cut above in quality.
Zac Brown is a man of many interests, and one of them is knives. His company, Southern Grind, located just outside Atlanta, produces a variety of functional and decorative knives in many styles.
“Zac is a longtime knife enthusiast, both as a collector and a maker,” says Mike Trull, lead engineer for the company. “One of our long-term goals is to help fund Zac’s passion project – 10 percent of every knife sold benefits Camp Southern Ground.”
The company prides itself on its attention to detail and uses premium materials for what it calls “heirloom quality” folding and fixed-blade knives that are rugged enough for regular use and meant to last a lifetime. The popular Spider Monkey model, for instance, has a titanium lock and liner and a lightweight carbon fiber handle with a unique weave pattern. A limited-edition version is a showpiece with its distinctive forced copper patina.
The company also has a line of accessories, and discounts are available for members of the military and first responders.
For more info and details on the knife selection, go to southerngrind.com