Clay Cook and Zac Brown at Bonnaroo 2010
When the Zac Brown Band takes to the stage at the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival this weekend, the band will include an artist who, at the ripe old age of 34, is already a veteran of five major music groups. Clay Cook has been playing guitar since the age of seven, according to his cleverly-written bio on the official Zac Brown Band website. Though he switched to drums while attending high school in Georgia, he eventually returned to guitar and soon found himself enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. While at Berklee, Cook met another guitar player who lived down his dorm hallway. The two men started collaborating, and in 1998 they decided to leave Berklee to pursue playing music full time.
Oh, and I guess I should mention that the other guy's name was John Mayer. The duo moved to Atlanta, where they wrote and performed music together before parting ways about a year later. "It was an amicable split in most ways," says Cook, who spoke to me today by phone from Nashville, where he was getting ready to board a bus to head to Charleston. "We were two young kids, and you had to make concessions sometimes to continue a partnership. Had it been years later when we were 34 years old it might have been different." Cook co-wrote several songs on Mayer's first two studio albums, and wrote and recorded a couple of albums of his own.
Cook eventually found his way into the legendary South Carolina group The Marshall Tucker Band. Marshall Tucker Band lead singer and founding member Doug Gray is none other than Cook's uncle, and while some might think his inclusion in the band was simply rock and roll nepotism, in truth, Cook proved himself worthy of playing with the band's more seasoned members. Stints with Shawn Mullins and an early version of Sugarland followed, and then Zac Brown came calling. "From what I understand, Zac had my first solo record, and we kept putting out records and he kept buying them," says Cook. "He saw me play with the Marshall Tucker Band, and he realized I could actually play guitar. He thought I was just a singer-songwriter up until that point. Zac's bassist, John Hopkins, shared a studio with me, and Zac started talking to John about getting me into the band. Eventually, when he could afford to add a sixth band member, Zac called me."
Speaking about the appeal of Brown and his music, Cook says, "I think that there's nothing fake about it. It's genuine and real. You may not agree with him, but that's okay. He's not one of those guys who's going to try to convince you that he's great. He's just going to go out there and do his thing. He has some great beliefs in what music should sound like, and what he's trying to do with the festivals and his charity. I think all of that transcends into his celebrity persona."
In addition to performing with the Zac Brown Band on Saturday and Sunday, Cook will be performing a solo set of his own music on Sunday. "I'm going to be sitting in with a good deal of the other artists, as well," Cook says. "I have a lot of friends that are a part of [the festival], so it's a lot of fun for me musically."
One artist participating in this weekend's festivities is none other than Cook's old dorm mate and musical partner, John Mayer. So will the two be performing together at Blackbaud Stadium? "The first time we'd played together since back in Atlanta was about a year and a half ago," Cook says. "I was having a birthday party, and I got a bunch of friends together at a venue, and we performed Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers' album. John was there, and that's the first time we'd played together in a long time." Cook also mentions that Mayer showed up last month at the Southern Ground Fest's Nashville performances. "John sat in on a bunch of tunes with other artists," he says. "He was having a blast, but because he's not able to sing due to granulomas in his throat, it was just good for him to get out and play and remember that he's a musician, not a celebrity."
Since food is just as big a part of this weekend'd festival as the music, I asked Cook what it was like being able to travel with Chef Rusty, the chef that travels with the band, and who helps oversee the meal courses for the VIP boxes on the festival stage. Has he been spoiled by having a gourmet chef on the road? "Oh, for sure," laughs Cook. "When I'm home for a few days at a time I eat terrible. I eat whatever I can find in a short amount of time. It's definitely spoiled me." So does Cook have a favorite dish from Chef Rusty? "It surprises people when they ask me what my favorite thing he makes is," says Cook. "Most people would think that it's the chocolate peanut butter biscuit pudding that he makes, but my favorite thing that he does is, once a month he'll find some good Brussels sprouts. I know that sounds weird, but he makes the best Brussels sprouts, and I hate Brussels sprouts."
Cook says he's also looking forward to getting some food from local restaurant Home Team BBQ, which will be setting up shop at Blackbaud Stadium this weekend along with many other local and regional vendors. "Home Team is my favorite, and I haven't had it in two years, so I'm really stoked that they're going to be on site," he says. "I have a Home Team sticker on every one of my guitar cases."
Looking back at last year's Southern Ground Fest, Cook points to the Zac Brown Band's set of covers from the first night. "The cover set that we did, before My Morning Jacket, was great. We didn't rehearse any of that. Right before we went on the stage we wrote up a setlist so the lighting guys would have an idea, but it was all spontaneous." That cover set, which included covers of songs by Stephen Stills, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and The Band, had people talking for weeks after, especially when Warren Haynes joined the band onstage for Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."
"I'm cooking up a couple of things for us to attempt this weekend," says Cook, adding, "We could fall flat on our face, but we could pull it off. The intention is to pull it off. We're definitely going to take some chances. It's going to be really cool."
The Southern Ground Music and Food Festival will take place this Saturday and Sunday at Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island. I'll have daily wrap-ups on Saturday and Sunday nights, and I'll be tweeting at geekmusique throughout the weekend. Go to southerngroundfestival.com for more information.
(Photographs copyright 2010 Devin Grant)