Zac Brown has been getting his hands dirty in a little bit of everything these days, from Grammy nominations with his band to his own barbeque sauce, partnerships with Landshark, Jack Daniels and Honest Tea, not to mention publishing a cookbook, he’s quickly becoming the Southern-fried James Franco. Walking into the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival felt a little like stepping into Zac Brown’s version of a summer camp (actually, he has one of those, too)—and everyone was ready to play.
What makes Southern Ground stand out from the growing list of music festivals is its dedication to local food. Lining the entrance just inside the gates were fronts from Lowcountry favorites Roti Rolls, Bon Banh Mi, Sesame, and Fiery Ron’s Home Team Barbeque (who also catered the VIP tent).
Arriving hungry was a strategic move on my part, and Jeremy Spencer—co-owner of Bon Banh Mi—was quick to remedy that with their hallmark Banh Mi pork sandwich. The blend of seasoned pork, pickled carrots and radishes, cilantro, and basil was topped with the crunch of crispy shallots and of course, Sriracha from one of the three large bottles on hand.
Not but an hour and a half later I found myself ordering up at the Sesame stand, where the singing staff rang out a mocking “Bada, bada, bah! We promise we’re better than McDonald’s!”—which, of course, it was. I went for the house-ground, hormone-free burger topped with bacon jam and a healthy squirt of spicy mustard, made in-house with beer (what else?).
My two lunches were split by a hidden jewel of a desert vendor just past the enormous, inflated Jack Daniel’s bottle and across from the kettle corn stand: the out-of-towner Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams from Columbus, Ohio.
The passion project from the Midwest has started to sprout up in scoop shops as far south as Georgia, gaining popularity via their highly concentrated ingredients—using one bucket of all-natural goodness in just four batches of ice cream, compared to more commercial brands who spread the same amount over 90 to 100 batches. A coupling of their Salty Caramel and Dark Chocolate was a perfect catalyst to get my endorphins buzzing.
To feed the soul, I caught the mid-afternoon set from The Head and the Heart, and while female vocalist/violinist Charity Rose Thielen belted out the bridge to “Rivers and Roads” with Aretha Franklin-esque fervor, the sous chefs backstage were prepping top-notch eats with just as much gusto.
Zac Brown recruited some of the nation’s most elite chefs for the concert’s ultimate “Stage Box” V.I.P. package, including locals Craig Deihl (Cypress) and Claire Chapman (Peninsula Grill). However, Zac’s go-to partner in culinary endeavors is the Louisiana-born turned Georgia resident, Rusty Hamlin.
“Charleston was our first choice,” Hamlin was quick to mention as we enjoyed the brief moments of air conditioning inside his bus. “Nashville was a perfect place, too, because both have become total food towns. I always joke that it’s the Southern Ground Food and Music Festival, not the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival.”
Chef Hamlin knows that representing the local community shouldn’t get lost in a large-scale event like Southern Ground, especially when it comes to including local venders.
“We do a lot of picking and choosing, everyone out there is boutique-style, bringing in new flavors. That's how we set ourselves apart from other festivals, the food is really important to us."
He tells a quick story about a woman who came up to him earlier in the day, amazed by the simple freshness of a cucumber—that it didn’t taste like the waxy ones she would buy at the grocery store.
"That's because that's exactly what it is!” Hamlin explained. “They wax your vegetables so they can ship it on a truck from God knows where. They don't pick it when it's ripe. It's riping in a truck. As a chef, you've got to be passionate about that."
He also likens food to music: how both can take you back to a time and place, really affect a person’s day. Being from the South, Hamlin also taps into the sentimentality we Southerners have for our food.
"When I think of Southern food: from Texas down to Florida, up to Carolina and Virginia, what I know best about food from the South is that it has meaning and history. Southern food reminds me of comfort and flavor and family and music. It's simple things done great."
Hamlin is ardent about getting people to the farmers market, speculating about how if consumers made the conscious choice of going to the market just twice a month, farmers could grow more, buy more land and we would all eat healthier. Following in that same philosophy is Vail, Colorado, import, Chef Kelly Liken who became fast friends with Chef Hamlin when introduced at a Zac Brown “Eat and Greet” after a show at Red Rocks. She and her husband used to tuck themselves into their Subaru early on Sunday mornings, driving up to an hour away to pick up produce from farmers in order to bring food from the farm to the table.
"It was challenging,” Liken admitted. “We didn't have any distribution because there wasn't enough demand for the farmers to afford it. The challenge was linking the farmer with the chef. I have to say 10 years later, there's a lot of demand for it now. Those farmers are thriving because now they can afford that distribution."
Liken’s pursuit of quality, her heart for farmers, and her fandom of Zac Brown’s music quickly got her digging deeper into the bonds that Southerns have for homegrown menus.
"I love the South,” she said, shortly after mentioning her trip to the Charleston Wine & Food Festival this past February. “My husband and I travel to the South as often as we can. We just love the culture, the people, the food and the hospitality… Here I'm cooking South Carolina food, at home it's Colorado food, but in reality it's all the same."
To help us guzzle down the delicious fare, Zac Brown and company brought down Hendersonville, North Carolina native Gary Valentine from the Siebel Institute in Chicago. Valentine works primarily as a consultant: hired by restaurants to pair beers with their food menu, and was incorporated into Southern Ground to do the same.
“I've got the easiest gig here. I'm so fortunate and blessed,” Gary conceded as we talked brewing on the back of a backstage golf cart. “I get to listen to the music and eat the food and then say this beer goes with this food."
Gary’s philosophy on beer is simple: it should be fun.
“Beer is for everybody. It's meant to be enjoyed."
For him, beer is the perfect cap for a festival that creates a genuine experience.
“It's a match made in heaven. You got music—and it's awesome music—then we have amazing food from local folks. Music and food? Okay, yeah, we want to beer with this!”
And at the Southern Ground Music Festival, with all those ingredients mixed just right, how could you not taste a little bit of heaven?