After years grinding out a living on Georgia’s music circuit, Cumming native Zac Brown has enjoyed seemingly overnight success. Since 2009’s chart-topping “Chicken Fried,” there have been two Grammys, two major-label albums, sold-out shows, and a number one duet with Jimmy Buffett. And like the sailor from Margaritaville, thirty-three-year-old Brown is parlaying the spoils into an empire: Southern Ground.
Photograph by C. Taylor Crothers
Headquartered in Westside, Southern Ground employs thirty people and houses Brown’s disparate interests and ventures: clothing and culinary line Lucy Justice Goods (named after his first two kids); spice rub and sauce line Baby Goo; indie label Southern Ground Artists; custom leather shop Southern Hide; and metal shop Southern Grind. Perhaps those early years of struggling motivated him to build this foundation for a lasting business, but “for me, Southern Ground represents a sampling of the things I love most—family, friends, food, and music,” says Brown.
One of those friends is Rusty Hamlin, a business partner at Smyrna’s Atkins Park and now Southern Ground’s executive chef. With Hamlin’s help, Brown—a longtime foodie—concocted his own spice rub and marinade and wrote the Southern Ground cookbook. The duo also transformed the traditional concert meet and greet into an “Eat and Greet,” a preconcert dinner prepared by Hamlin and three sous chefs for the band and 150 to 250 fan club members known as the Zamily. Hamlin creates an original menu at each stop and uses local ingredients when he can, but “Cookie,” the fifty-four-foot, two-story food truck, stays stocked with Southern staples like Duke’s Mayonnaise—a necessary element in Zac’s pocketknife coleslaw recipe.
Brown is also obsessed with knives. It’s how he met metal artist Rodney Shelton fifteen years ago. Shelton cuts, grinds, and sharpens reclaimed carbon steel into sixteen-inch-plus Bowie knives at Southern Grind. Next door, leather artist Kyle Landas, a former bricklayer from Iowa, imprints intricate images and designs on cowhide to make items like cuffs and guitar straps. Band member Clay Cook introduced Landas and Brown after the latter designed a Zac Brown Band–inspired guitar strap. Serendipitously, Brown had purchased the soon-to-be Southern Hide leather shop just two days earlier. “He said, ‘You showed up on my bus for a reason,’” says Landas.
Brown’s generous spirit also brought Blackberry Smoke to Southern Ground Artists. Brown had already made good on a promise to support Georgia musicians by giving recording contracts to Sonia Leigh, Nic Cowan, and Levi Lowrey. When Blackberry Smoke’s former label crumbled, “He got wind of it and pretty much made an offer: If you guys need a home, you’ve got one,” says the Atlanta-based band’s lead singer and guitarist, Charlie Starr.
The universe building around Brown continues to expand. He and Hamlin are cooking up a special dumbwaiter system to deliver gourmet concert concessions. Brown’s Southern Reel produces Fear No Evil, a hunting reality show cohosted by Brown on the Outdoor Channel. And Camp Southern Ground, a retreat for kids with learning disabilities, is under construction in Fayette County.